© Illustrations by Ana Mendes, apart from where specified

© Illustrations by Ana Mendes, apart from where specified

Throw the smartphones away?!

Opinions of youth workers and young people on internet usage in youth work

  by Ewa Krzaklewska and Marzena Ples 


Youth workers today are faced with the challenge of involving in their activities young people who are more and more immersed in a virtual world – the ways young people communicate, relate to others or gain knowledge are changing due to their extensive usage of the internet. Young people use the internet daily or almost daily – 90% of those aged 15 to 24 years old in the EU declared so, and 80% of them use social media everyday as well (Eurobarometer 2016). Smartphones are present in the lives of young people, and are also present in youth work. Interestingly, the internet can be seen as a space that has synergies with youth work: participation is voluntary; it is interactive, allowing for creativity and self-expression. These could be a good basis for seeing the internet as a potential, and, in fact, both youth workers and young people believe that the internet is a tool that could support the wider aims of youth work. At the same time, the methodologies of youth work were invented before the “smartphone invasion” and our research shows that youth workers are often critical towards these new developments, not knowing how to deal with them.

In the Erasmus+ project, the ABC of Youth Work, we wanted to enquire about the impact of virtual tools or new technologies on young people’s engagement in youth work. This article is based on reflections resulting from the analysis of 32 qualitative interviews with youth workers and 8 focus groups comprising young participants of youth work activities, carried out in Slovenia, Poland, Italy and Germany.

 New realities – a new mission for youth workers?

The youth workers who participated in our research have an ambiguous approach towards the presence of the internet and new technologies in their work. They are aware that social media provides necessary channels of communication and is an inseparable part of young people’s lives today, but still they question its benefits, and some of them are hesitant towards its usage in youth work.

The youth workers interviewed named numerous advantages of using the internet in youth work and underlined its potential. Among others, new technologies make many aspects of communication easier with young people. The internet is an important tool for the promotion and dissemination of the youth work results, especially through social media. Using new technologies helps young people to develop a whole range of digital competences, through entrepreneurship and a sense of initiative to fundraising and implementing their own ideas.

At the same time, youth workers see elements of concern in the use of new technology by young people. They believe that overuse of the internet has a negative influence on interpersonal relationships. Youth workers observe difficulties with face-to-face communication among young people, especially with expressing their emotions and feelings. It happens that young people lose concentration during activities owing to simultaneous communication through different smartphone applications. One of the youth workers in the study told us about a situation when young people were chatting with each other using communicators on smartphones, even though they were participating in an activity together in the same room. He found it frustrating and struggled with finding the solution. Moreover, young people are believed to lack the ability to think critically and reflect on what they see and read online.

Youth workers feel a bit lost and find it difficult to adapt their work to the rapidly changing technology that young people use. One of the interviewees admitted that he takes away young people’s smartphones before the activity, which is controversial. In general, youth workers admitted the benefits stemming from diverse digital tools, simultaneously warning against them becoming the “goal” of youth work activities:

 The new technologies can be a useful and valid support tool to traditional ways of recruitment, but cannot replace them or become the main tool. Use the new digital technologies as work tools, giving value to the process, without letting them get too much importance: they are and should remain tools and not goals of the activities. (Youth worker, 40-year-old man, Italy)

In light of both the advantages and disadvantages of internet usage, youth workers notice that they need new skills, as well as new aims appearing for them to accomplish in their work. Developing their own digital skills would allow them to better understand young people’s realities. It is not only about admitting to the importance of new media in their lives, but also about knowing which websites, social media and applications are popular among them and getting acquainted with those tools and applications. Youth workers need to dedicate some time to reflect on why young people use them and what they look for in a specific medium. The urgency to better understand young people’s social worlds is expressed in the following quote:

 Young people communicate through social media, but also talk to each other face to face about what happens in digital spaces: about published posts, about photos uploaded and the thoughts that they convey … If you are an educator YOU HAVE to understand what is happening on the smartphone of a young person. You have to be an educator also in the digital world because the DIGITAL IS REAL. (Youth worker, 38-year-old man, Italy)

An important goal for youth workers should be ensuring that young people develop their digital literacy skills, which are essential for full participation in a technology-based society. But some youth workers see a new mission for youth work: showing young people the value of the world outside the internet, the opportunities that it offers and the importance of face-to-face meetings:

 I think young people have never needed leaders so much as they need them now. There is a bigger need for youth work, because the picture in young people’s heads, based on images, is totally different from reality. They need reality; they need people who will know how to introduce this reality to them. To be with them. (Youth worker, 36-year-old woman, Poland)

 Young people need youth work to spend time together

For the young people we talked with, the presence of internet tools is their reality, and it is never really questioned. Nonetheless, they are also critical of some ways of using digital technologies.

When they talk about their experiences in youth work, young people underline the value of real-life contacts – meeting other young people, developing meaningful relationships, face-to-face interactions are the reasons for them to participate in activities and groups. They reflect critically on the level of their own participation: they see that you are more engaged when actually meeting others in real life and that online groups are not sustainable, nor really attractive to youth. One group described online engagement as shallow: young people participate in it when it does not demand any contribution beyond “like it” or “share it”: “An online group doesn’t make a community; it is just for information exchange.” Still, they and practically all their friends belong to at least one social network on the internet. Data show that 82% of European youth belong to social networks (Eurobarometer 2014).

Young people take for granted that an association or youth club will use internet tools (websites, social media) to inform them about activities, to give members access to important resources such as documents or photos, and to attract new members. Interestingly, in practice, usually young people join youth work activities through personal contacts (for example, by recommendation of a friend) or a contact at an institution (in school, unemployment office). Cases are appearing though where an online announcement, website about volunteering or information on a mailing list was a trigger to find out more and join activities. Our respondents often look at organisations’ websites to find out about their mission or programme, even if beforehand they had a recommendation from a peer. The wide access to information on different youth work activities, matched with the possibility to move between towns, for example, caused young people to enjoy a wide range of offers, also from other localities. An effect is that more diverse groups of people come to associations, but also they are less committed as they continually look for new offers.

Young people’s usage of online resources is usually associated with their actual participation in a group, so it is complementary to their physical participation and activities. Participants admit that they sometimes feel overwhelmed by the variety of existing digital tools and do not utilise them to the full. Overload of information is a problem hard to tackle: one young person complained that one organisation’s members do not even read internal content placed online. Some of them suggested that the number of solutions should be low, and that most traditional forms of communication work best, such as email: “Every new thing with a username and password is a barrier for me. It’s hard to remember them and hard to learn new applications. What works: email, phone (minimum).” This participant, as well as others, underlined the importance of phone communication – in one organisation the volunteer actions are always arranged through phone calls. When internet tools are used systematically and in a structured way, they make youth work more sustainable and strengthen the sense of belonging to the group: “Online communication cannot make a community, but it can strengthen or support it through different tool.” One such example is the use of interactive Facebook groups. Members of the group are always kept up to date with what is happening and they have a platform, where they can exchange information and discuss ongoing activities and events.

 Conclusions: what does it mean for practice?

Our discussions with young people and youth workers on internet usage in youth work bring some important suggestions for youth work practice. We would like to present here our reflections based on the interviews’ results. We see that there is a need for youth workers as a community, but also for individuals, to face the fears or worries that they have towards the internet. There is a need to discuss the issue, but most of all for gaining more solid knowledge on the impact of the internet on young users. Youth work needs research outcomes for better understanding of what is going on in the lives of young people and how the internet impacts on their interactions, behaviour, health or well-being. This knowledge should come from specialists, such as psychologists, pedagogues and sociologists who study the impacts of new technologies. This would also allow adequate solutions to be based on the research evidence.

Secondly, our study shows that it is not just youth workers who are critical towards internet usage, but young people see well the dark sides of their intensive digital participation – often they would choose face-to-face contacts over shallow internet interactions. Therefore, these two groups should discuss together to what extent they want the internet to be present in their activities. The debate should not be perceived as between youth workers who “do not want young people to use the internet” and young people “who want to use it as much as possible” – both groups actually have similar attitudes: seeing the internet as a tool not an aim of youth work activities – and this could be a basis for potential solutions.

The study suggests that we need more learning dialogue on internet tools between youth workers and young people. The young participants do not demand youth leaders to be super fluent in digital technologies, but as having some basic skills and an open mind towards such tools. Youth workers can learn from young people about their realities by trying to explore the communication channels they are using. This could be done together, allowing young people to become educators, and co- operating together on how these could be used for the benefit of the whole organisation. Moreover, our outcomes point to both groups being lost sometimes between the plurality of digital solutions and the need for more knowledge on the management of internet tools.

Youth workers also voiced worries about the disattachment of young people from reality. This is, as such, a very good topic to explore with young people. Why not face directly the challenges that stem from extensive use of smartphones in youth work activities? This could give youth work many new topics for activities, projects and debates. Exploring the unknown is yet an aim in youth work.

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