© Illustration by Vanda Kovács

© Illustration by Vanda Kovács

Digital tools, spaces and places

- mediators of youth work practice

 by Jane Melvin 


Whilst working with youth work staff from Premier League community football foundations in the UK recently, I asked them to build collages that reflected six issues that they felt were important for young people in 2017. Without fail, their depictions showed aspects of the digital world and social media as an issue that not only presented challenges for youth workers, but also opportunities for learning. They saw this as something that was really important, but also something that they felt ill-equipped to deal with. They described not having the hardware, being bound by strict policies which often ban social media usage as a tool for youth work completely, and working on programmes that did not allow them the time to have in-depth conversations about young people’s digital needs or to give the support that they felt necessary.

 Researching history

© Jane Melvin

I’ve been researching the impact of digital technologies on the work of UK youth workers since 2011, and in the early days, UK youth workers were telling me that they didn’t want to engage with young people using digital tools, spaces and places for a variety of reasons. They said things like “I’m not techy”, “I’m not on Facebook”, “I leave that to my colleagues who know more than me” or “young people know more than me”. I don’t believe youth workers have a choice, and in common with my community football foundation staff, I believe that the issues associated with digital tools, spaces and places are as important as working with young people on issues of sexual health, employment or substance misuse.

My early work looked at the digital tools that 50 UK youth workers were using and in 2012, I was able to place youth workers’ usage of digital technologies into the model shown here.

© Jane Melvin

At the bottom of the triangle, most work was simply about enabling access to free Wi-Fi and the internet, and after this came safety and digital literacy. Using digital tools to increase young people’s agency, voice and community engagement were areas that were not so visible, although there were a few powerful examples, for example, where young people were using platforms like Facebook to campaign locally about cuts to youth services.

As my research into digital tools continued, I realised that when youth workers talked about their digital interventions with young people, they were using metaphors to describe digital environments that seemed as real as physical ones. They used metaphors to describe tools such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, blogging and vlogging sites, identifying them as landscapes, terrain, playgrounds, localities, communities, utopia, fertile ground, footprints, social microcosms, neutral space, meeting places, worlds, affinity spaces, learning spaces, geography, milieux and pathways.

 Digital Spaces

Digital spaces can be defined as the digital “locales” where young people gather, with digital places giving meaning, memories and feelings. Spaces provide the arena or setting, whilst places represent attachment, belonging and significance. Belongingness for young people is usually associated with a physical sense of place created by meeting up with friends in spaces such as home, school, youth provision, shopping centres and parks, but also increasingly through digital places such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram or gaming environments. Young people, as part of their identity development, describe belonging as “fitting in” and “feeling accepted” and this is associated with connections to specific spaces and places through friendship, “mates” that can be counted on, support, and intimacy (not necessarily of a sexual kind); for many young people, digital places provide a constant connection to their peers, a way of validating who they are becoming, and receiving emotional reassurance that they belong.

One of the advantages of youth work practice is that it can take place in the spaces where young people choose to gather (detached youth work, streetwork or outreach work), and dedicated youth provision (youth clubs, projects and building-based work) can work with young people to create a sense of place to keep them gathering there. However, digital spaces and places present challenges for youth workers, not least because they cannot compete with commercial social media platforms which generate concerns related to access, privacy, purpose, appropriateness and safety. Youth work often states in its offer to young people that it provides safe spaces, yet in the context of using digital spaces and places, the notion of “safe” is subjective, especially when spaces and places for digital youth work are outside a youth worker’s control, in that content may be too visible, and can be shared, cloned and changed, and advertisements targeting users may not be appropriate in the context of professional youth work practice.

So, I would encourage you to think about the physical spaces within which young people gather. Are they the same or do they differ from the digital spaces and places in which they meet? Youth workers have the unique ability to be able to work with young people on their own territory, in their own spaces and places. Should this not, therefore, extend to digital spaces and places? John Dewey (1938), whose work on informal and experiential education underpins youth work approaches in the UK, recognised the significance of space and place, in relation to where learning is situated or where it takes place. He talks of the responsibility that educators have to exploit the environment, spaces and places in which they “meet” and work with young people.

I believe that youth workers can work with young people in digital spaces and places in the same way that they might work with young people in a local park, on the streets or through a building-based project. However, in the digital world some of the parameters are changed, and it requires careful planning to protect young workers, youth work organisations and young people, as well as to produce powerful learning outcomes. There are also two essential principles that have come through my research: firstly, that working with young people using digital spaces and places is most effective when it is an extension of an existing face-to-face relationship. This doesn’t preclude working with young people virtually, that is where a youth worker only knows a young person through a website. However, I believe this to be a completely different way of working in that such interventions need to be formally structured to protect staff from allegations of inappropriate contact or behaviour, and that it is difficult to know whether the virtual contact is indeed a young person. The UK youth workers that I have worked with describe their best work as a combination of face-to-face and digital engagement, that is where digital spaces and places can extend the possibilities for existing relationships, adding an extra dimension, and a continuation of activities or conversations started face to face.

Secondly, working in digital spaces and places is most effective when young people choose which tools, spaces and places are the best ones to use. As with many physical spaces and places in which young people meet and socialise, youth workers need to go to them. There’s no point in trying to get young people to sign up to platforms and apps that they don’t use and therefore won’t visit.

From my research, four headings have emerged and these can be used to drive both professional and ethical practice, as well as interventions with young people. These can be summarised as follows:

 Safety – safe or unsafe digital practices, duty to safeguard and educate about the safe use of digital technologies;

 Production – digital literacy skills and behaviours, digital footprint, production of artefacts (campaigns, video, photo, blog, podcast, etc.);

 Information – critical consumers of the internet, and broader information, advice and guidance needs;

 Communication – marketing and publicising of youth work, generic digital communication skills, self-promotion, digital footprint.

Within the headings, issues related to both professional practice and interventions with young people can be placed on four continuum representations as follows:

  • safe–unsafe
  • productive–unproductive
  • information–misinformation
  • communication–miscommunication.

These continuums are not intended to represent good and bad aspects of the digital world. Rather, they represent areas to be aware of and supervised in relation to professional practice, and they are also areas that can form the focus of both planned and unplanned work with young people.

© Jane Melvin

These different continuums can be placed into a model as represented here. It is set contextually in digital spaces and places, and these would represent the spaces and places where young people are meeting and socialising, as well as those agreed as spaces and places where youth workers can engage with young people. The four spaces of safety, production, information and communication are represented as interconnected circles, as it is very difficult to view these in isolation. The continuums are also shown as interrelated and connected to each other, and some issues, for example, the impact of a young person’s digital footprint, occur throughout.

As a way of illustrating this, at a conference last year in South Africa, I was asked about how this model could support youth workers working with young people around the issues of extremism and radicalisation, and the fact that many young people are known to have been radicalised initially through the internet. Within the safe space of the model, youth workers can raise young people’s awareness of safe and unsafe practices, particularly in relation to extremist groups online, but also of the reporting processes if they have concerns about themselves and their friends. Equally, youth workers using digital spaces and places to work with young people on such issues need to be backed and supervised by their employing organisations, operate under professional profiles, and be transparent about their presence and role, so that they are not placing themselves at risk.

The production space might look at what constitutes unproductive behaviour, for example, how a young person’s digital footprint is impacted by liking certain pages, or sharing photos or posts relating to radicalised or extremist ideas on social media sites. The digital footprint of a youth worker’s professional profile is also of relevance, in that it can serve to positively promote the work of the wider youth work organisation as well as the individual practitioner. Here, there is also the possibility for young people to produce artefacts to promote positive aspects, for example how a group of young people is working to challenge extremist views, such as those of the far right.

The information space includes the idea of creating critical consumers and supporting young people to know what online information is true and what isn’t; so it would support working with them to question what they encounter on the internet and not take at face value propaganda, for example. It also encompasses training that youth workers need to be able to support young people who are at risk of being radicalised, which might include knowledge of online resources or specialist organisations.

Within the communication space, youth workers could work with young people to look at how extremist views are communicated, and how targeted individuals can be tracked and contacted. They might, for example, work with young people using gaming sites such as World of Warcraft, to educate them about how gamers are being profiled through organisations like the FBI through such games, but also how extremists can target and contact players.

 Ethics and digital spaces

As a final thought, many of the youth workers that I have researched who don’t agree with youth work in digital spaces and places will use ethical practice as the argument for not working with young people in this way. For example, some say it’s not ethical for youth workers to be present on young people’s social media pages or to invite them to be “friends” on Facebook, due to concerns about privacy and that becoming a Facebook “friend” of a young person, allows a youth worker to access the information of other young people through that young person’s profile. Youth workers therefore need policy guidance on how to manage these types of situation.

There are five additional elements that I believe need to be in place in order for youth workers to be supported to work ethically with young people in digital spaces and places, and that it is possible to manage these ethical concerns in the same way that detached youth workers working on the streets, in parks and around shopping centres manage being in young people’s physical spaces and places. These elements can be summarised as follows:

  • professional profiles supported through supervision
  • negotiated
  • transparent
  • training and awareness
  • supported by policy and guidance.

Firstly, youth workers need to have professional profiles and accounts. They should not be using their own personal accounts because of the risk of their personal information being shared inappropriately, along the same lines as guidance about youth workers not socialising with young people outside their work contexts. In the UK, this is managed by accounts where, for example, “Jane Youthworker” would be my professional Facebook name.

With such accounts, passwords and usage can then be monitored and discussed through managerial supervision in the same way that other aspects of a youth worker’s face-to-face work with young people would be supervised. Youth workers can then bring issues and concerns to supervision. They can then work with young people through these spaces and places, whether it be through a process where young people have to “friend” youth workers, or whether it be through closed pages and groups. This process needs to be both negotiated with young people and transparent so that young people know exactly the purpose of a youth worker’s presence and can choose, therefore, whether to engage or not. This would also apply to parents wanting to know why a youth worker was contacting their child online.

In order to do this in an ethical way, youth workers need to be supported by appropriate training so that they are confident of engaging young people in this way, and so that their awareness of the pros and cons of both professional practice and the potential learning and development for young people is clear. Finally, this needs to be supported by policy and guidance for youth workers so that the parameters are set, and it is made clear what represents good practice.


Dewey J. (1938), Experience and education, Macmillan, New York.

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