Youth workers, it’s time to adapt to the online world.

By Anna Woodd

Oh, social media. It’s a love-hate relationship. Especially when you’re working with young people.

You're probably more than aware of the complications phones and social media bring to young people, and the ways we support their wellbeing.

Every month, it seems like a new piece of research comes out about young people and social media. One month, social media is the cause of all harm to young people. The next, it’s an innocent boredom-killer at worst and the saviour of connection at best.

Our phones bring us into constant connection with the world – we're always available to others. It's easy to feel like this leads to stronger relationships – and sometimes it does – but our phones also make us vulnerable in a way we still haven't adjusted to as a society.

Through their phones, young people are susceptible to cyber bullying, catfishing, misinformation, pornography, graphic or violent content, constant comparison and, in particular, the highlight reels of others' lives.

The intent of saying this isn't to demonise social media. Instagram is great and I use it often (I’m that person who posts too many pics of their meal). The reality is, though, these risks are part of the world our young people are growing up in.

Many youth workers express that they're not sure how to deal with the added complications of phones and media in their work with young people.

How do you protect a young person from something that's constantly with them? Especially when it’s also their tool for both connection with the world and self-expression.

Another struggle is having difficult conversations with young people via text or DMs. Especially when it comes to mental health and other tricky topics, many people working with youth avoid these online conversations, as it feels like the risk is higher. It can seem like the conversation isn't quite in your control, with increased danger of miscommunication or misinterpretation. It also might feel more comfortable to have the young person in front of you, or at the very least have the connection of a phone call.

The hard truth is, those safety nets aren't our reality anymore. The world of our young people is one of texts, posts, DMs and messages. And we need to adapt.

But, how?

Go to them

Firstly, we need to meet our young people where they already are. This means, if they're most comfortable opening up to you over text, this needs to be how you help them. By doing this, rather than asking them to pick up the phone or meet you in person, you're accepting them exactly where they're already at.

It can be scary having these difficult conversations in a text-based format – but you can still use all the youth work skills you've been taught, online. Instead of relying on body language, read between the lines in a text. What's being implied? What does their language suggest?

Suggesting a young person meet you where you're comfortable means you're actually expecting them to change in order for you to help them. Expecting a young person in a moment of crisis to adapt to our needs, is like asking a sick fish to jump out of water in order for us to help.

Facilitate conversations about health in the online world

While it's important to acknowledge and accept the presence of technology in our relationships with young people, we are also in a position to open the topic up for them.

As a young person, it can feel socially unacceptable not to engage in the online world. With all the idealistic content online – perfect bodies, unaffordable "must-haves" and an onslaught of content telling them they must be a certain way – it's easy to feel overwhelmed by content. This can be confusing and difficult to deal with at the best of times.

Have open discussions with your young people about the problems they face online. Give them a chance to offer their perspective on how to best deal with online bullying. Let them share how they feel about the types of less-healthy content they're exposed to.

Opening this conversation up gives your young people a voice, which will help them stay open to ideas about how to stay healthy and safe online.

Encourage healthy connections

While it's important to accept the online world our young people live in, we still need to be modelling and encouraging healthy relationships with our phones and social media.

Rather than trying to shield young people from the online world, try and see your role as one of providing balance. Real-life connection is crucial for young people – that could be with others, or with nature, or with an activity they enjoy doing.

Facilitate activities with your young people that encourage that connection. Create a boundary – acknowledge that the online world is a valid place for them to feel belonging, while also providing space for connecting in other ways.

Do this by getting out in nature, creating something as a group, or just having open and honest conversations.

It is possible to help our young people feel connected and safe online – but this requires a bit of give from us too. Young people are online. As youth workers, we need to be there too.


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