Digital Youth Work – Beginning to Define It

Dana Cohlmeyer, PhD Researcher at the University of Edinburgh

Dana Cohlmeyer

Dana Cohlmeyer

Live Facebook chats. Apps. Sharing photos on Instagram. Posting videos of the experience of young people in your community to YouTube. Online games. Using social media to remind young people that tonight’s club is on at 7pm. Twitter. Creating an online community in a virtual world where young people hang out.

Which of those fit your definition of digital youth work? All? None? Some? Every youth worker has a different idea of what this type of work means. As a researcher, I have been pondering it in one form or another for eighteen months across two projects.

They all fit my definition in different ways because they address different needs, different groups of young people and require different digital media skill sets. How do I define it, you ask? Simple – digital youth work consists of four overlapping components: youth work traditions, digital media and technology, youth workers and young people.

Visually, I picture it as a series of concentric circles with youth work traditions enveloping it all and young people lying at the very heart of it. Practically speaking, it means using any digital media or technology such as those listed above to adapt or enhance what most consider traditional youth work or to develop and deliver wholly new pieces of work.

Now, I know the thought of doing that terrifies more than a few of you; I don’t think it should. It is possible to begin breaking down the apprehension that exists surrounding this type of work by considering a key point:

The internet is a place not a thing. It exists as a place like your local youth centre where you run a drop-in club or the city streets where you do detached street work. The internet is simply a new place in which you can deliver creative, dynamic, engaging youth work. Without question, the place that is the internet can at times be unnerving and confusing, but so can the youth centre or streets.

In attempting to measure digital youth work in and alongside traditional youth work, I feel we as practitioners have a duty to embrace it in broad terms such as those outlined here if we are to continue to engage young people in ways that make sense to their lives no matter how we engage with technology in our personal lives. Doing so is necessary; after all, many young people no longer make a distinction between their online and offline lives – to them, they simply live their life in a blended world somewhere between the two.

The challenge for practitioners, therefore, lies in understanding how to best do this. To meet this challenge, we must come together to agree practical definitions of digital youth work and develop appropriate ethical, safeguarding and best practice guidelines. Alongside these steps, it is also vital that we develop a framework for the professional attributes necessary and establish a plan for effective training and continuing professional development.

I argue for these points because they form the foundation of my PhD project exploring the impact of digital media and new technology on the professional development of youth workers. If you are interested in this topic, join the discussion on Twitter – @DigYouthWork –



A tour with a difference

Jim Sweeney, CEO, National Youth Work Agency, YouthLink Scotland

On the Hebridean waves at Radio Cullin FM

On the Hebridean waves at Radio Cullin FM

‘The greatest good we can do for others is not just to share our riches but more importantly to reveal theirs.’

In some ways that sentence both illustrates what youth work is all about and is also the reason why it is so important for me as Chief Executive of YouthLink Scotland to hit the road every summer and find the hidden treasures which are lying undiscovered among the work of the membership.

Michelangelo said that David was already there in that block of marble, the raw material. His job had been in patiently chipping away at the superfluous detritus to reveal the astounding beauty that lay within. How many youth workers out there can relate to that when reflecting on the changes they see in the young people they work with over a period of time.

This summer visits are very much still in progress.  I have been visiting many of our more remote member locations and I have been made very welcome everywhere.

In Portree I took part in a Radio Chuillin conversation with Highland Councillor and part time radio Presenter Drew Miller. We discussed the subject of male role models and also the role of mentors.

Jim with YMCA mentors

Jim with YMCA mentors

I then met with some of the mentors from the YMCA who are doing terrific joined up working helping troubled young people get their lives together. The empathy and nurturing nature displayed by the volunteers augured well for this project.  A massive thanks to Christina Crichton and her dedicated team for sharing their experiences and their future hopes with me.

The next day I spent some hours at Columba 1400 which owes its existence to the incredible vision of a local minister named Norman Drummond. Appalled at the human misery and lack of social and moral cohesion in so many lives he decided to do something about it…in one of the most remote corners of the British Isles. Like Disney in a swamp in the Everglades he believed if he built it they would come and so it has been proved.

Beautiful Staffin

Beautiful Staffin

I spent time with Gregg McLennan the programme manager at Staffin. A satellite centre operates at Loch Lomond. For groups who cannot get to Skye .The main programmes of Columba 1400 last for around nine months with the week long residential being key to getting the essential elements across. This is intensive group work and a very effective means for helping anyone but especially young people take control of their lives.

From Uig I set sail on the last ferry to Tarbert with a spectacular Hebridean sunset drive to Stornoway on disembarkation. My task in the Western Isles was to brief a substantial group of staff from CLD partner agencies on the latest developments in the sector.

CLD seminar

CLD seminar

The structures in the islands are by necessity very different though,  the closer working around health and social care budgeting and planning is very high on the agenda at present. The lack of clarity around the next tranche of Euro funding is also a worry. I visited the Café Project in Stornoway which is a social enterprise /work experience operation employing young people with special needs in a catering and retail setting. Great atmosphere and a busy place.

I sailed that evening to Ullapool thinking that more than ever we need youth work as an essential part of the toolkit that helps young people in their transition to adulthood. I was also heartened by the commitment of everyone I met in believing that young people mattered and had intrinsic worth and talent that needed and deserved nurturing.  More of my wanderings at a later date.

Uig to Tarbert

Uig to Tarbert


Teenage Pregnancy – Is it really all about sex?

Dona Milne Specialist in Public Health

Dona Milne Specialist in Public Health

Dona Milne, Deputy Director of Public Health, NHS Lothian

Teenage pregnancy statistics released this summer offer some reassurances that work to reduce teenage pregnancies may finally be paying off. Often, however, the release of new statistics about teenage pregnancy is followed by public debate around issues such as morality, fecklessness and the right kind of sex education for young people.

Much of the commentary however misses the point by talking only about sex and sex education. It is important that public policy focuses on addressing the underlying social factors that cause teenage pregnancy and that we are not distracted by myths and hearsay.

The term teenage pregnancy refers to all conceptions in young women under the age of 20 and for some young people teenage parenthood is very much a planned and positive experience.

For others, however, teenage pregnancy is not an informed decision. Unfortunately for many young people the decision to embark on parenthood is likely to continue a cycle of deprivation and lack of support from parents and family.

How can we ensure pregnancy is a positive decision and reduce the rate of unintended teenage pregnancies?

In Lothian and many parts of Scotland, we have built a firm foundation through the delivery of good sexual health work but we recognise that sexual health services and education, whilst important, are only a small part of the approach needed to see changes across the population. Our focus needs to be on earlier intervention, increasing aspirations, achievement, and approaches to addressing wider inequalities.

Young women from our least well-off communities are more likely to become pregnant than those from more affluent areas. Unintended teenage pregnancy is due to the effects of deprivation, a lack of connectedness with education, few prospects of meaningful employment and a lack of skills to negotiate sexual relationships based on mutual respect.

It is important that adults working with children and young people recognise the need to ensure they are supported to achieve all that they can in order to widen their horizons and the range of opportunities available to them in the future. Something that youth workers do every day with young people.

Teachers, youth workers and school nurses delivering education and services need to make these as relevant as possible to the lives of young people. Universal services such as education and youth work play a key role in addressing these issues in a way that does not stigmatise the individual. However, it is parents who have arguably the most important role of all to support and encourage their children as they grow up.

The Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee Enquiry into teenage pregnancy was published at the end of June. As with all parliamentary reports it considers targets which can help reduce teenage pregnancies in Scotland.

There are many targets we can set but my simple suggestion would be to ensure that no young woman leaves full-time education as a result of an unplanned pregnancy.

This would signify that our emphasis is firmly on providing young women with the tools to ensure they can be confident and successful contributors to Scottish society.

Melissa’s story


Melissa with some of her artwork

Melissa with some of her artwork

Every 30 minutes, a child or young person in the UK will acquire a brain injury. This could be the result of an accident, an illness such as meningitis or encephalitis, a poisoning, a stroke or a brain tumour.

A brain injury has a devastating and life-long impact on a child and their whole family. Bones can mend and scars can heal but a brain injury stays with you for life and impacts on everything you think, feel and do. The full effects might be unclear until the brain finishes developing, around age 22.  Parents often remark that no sooner have they dealt with one problem than another one emerges.

Since the damage is often hidden, with few physical symptoms, many children are misunderstood or even misdiagnosed and don’t receive the support they require.  Difficulties faced may include problems with fatigue, memory loss, concentration, impulse control, mobility, speech and vision, and changes to personality.

Melissa’s Story

Melissa was knocked down by a car while walking home from school, aged 8.  She suffered 5 bleeds on her brain and was in a coma. Mum Barbara said, “My world was turned upside down. We were told to say our goodbyes that day.  But our little princess was a fighter.  She came out of her coma then all we could do was wait and see if she would fully recover.  Anybody that knows Melissa is well aware that she likes to talk.  I just couldn’t imagine how she would be not being able to chat.”

However, Melissa made good progress in hospital and very quickly began to walk, talk and feed herself. Says Barbara, “It was like a miracle; we were getting our little girl back.” However, issues gradually started to arise at school, “Melissa was becoming so unhappy and lonely.  This broke my heart. She was aware that she was different from before the accident.  This was the stage that we realised we needed help and support.”

“The Child Brain Injury Trust helped us and the school to recognise Melissa’s needs.  Their specialist staff went into school to train the teachers and work with other children to give them a better understanding of brain injury.  They’ve been a valuable support; helping us cope with issues caused by the brain injury in a child-friendly way.  They’ll be involved with Melissa all through school.”

The Child Brain Injury Trust aims to raise awareness amongst professionals working with children about this condition and the support we offer to families and professionals.  Anyone can refer to our service, simply contact our helpline on 0303 303 2248 or visit our website for more information

This year we are staging our first ever Scottish conference, thanks to support from Digby Brown Solicitors.  Taking place in Edinburgh on 12th November, with reduced price places for public sector staff and parents/carers, this event will showcase academic research and successful interventions.  Bringing together professionals and families, it offers opportunities to network, learn new information, develop a greater understanding of brain injury and improve practice and care for families.  For information and tickets visit logo

Lady Albemarle gave me a push!

Ted Milburn CBE, Emeritus Professor at University of Strathclyde; former senior educational manager; youth worker and adult educator

Ted Milburn CBE

Ted Milburn CBE

In 1959 I was 21 and had recently been demobbed from my 2 years national service in the Army. My job as a wages clerk in a psychiatric hospital brought the pennies in, and a good few evenings a week were happily spent as a voluntary youth leader in my local church and as a Rover Scout. However, my Minister, together with a friend who was an elder, had been urging me to think of training to become a full time youth leader. They had to be joking! I was just out of the army; glad to be home; my mother was a widow and I was her only child; training would involve moving from Northumberland to London; I had no O levels or A levels; I would probably fail the exams – and it would be a disaster; I had a ‘safe’ job in the NHS and I enjoyed my voluntary youth work. Plenty of sound reasons to leave it alone.

However, the notion of fulltime youth work continued to unsettle me and it was this uneasiness which persuaded me in 1960 to buy and read a copy of the recently published Albemarle Report (Ministry of Education (1960) The Youth Service in England and Wales (“The Albemarle Report”) London, HMSO). In a personal sense – “the rest”, as they say, “is history.”

The Report carried strong messages which related closely to my own ambitions to work with kids from working class backgrounds, laying emphasis on person-centred associational work with young people. There was a profound commitment to informal relationships and it encouraged the development of spontaneity and flexibility – developing three main themes for future work with young people: training, association and challenge. These ideas were backed by a range of recommendations which called for an unparalleled increase in resources to a newly constituted Youth Service.

The main proposals, which were immediately accepted by the existing Conservative government without alteration, included:-

 – A ten year development programme
 – The establishment of a Youth Service Development Council to advise the Minister
 – More paid part time workers
 – More cooperation between LEAs and voluntary organisations
 – A youth service building programme
 – An emergency training college to be established to increase the number of fulltime
leaders from 700 to 1300 by 1966
 – A committee to negotiate salaries
 – Ministry of Education grants to national voluntary organisations
 – Capital grants by LEAs to local voluntary bodies
 – Matching grants to LEAs to ensure they increased expenditure on the Youth Service
 – Young people as partners in the service

Lady Albemarle was the exceptionally able Chairman of this Committee who guided this process to the production of the report and from all accounts, personally persuaded government ministers of the value of the proposals. She had a life of public service which included work with the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, Women’s Voluntary Service, National Youth Employment Council, Carnegie UK Trust, and British Council.

She died in May 2013 aged 103. Thank you Lady Albemarle for what you did for the Youth Service in England and Wales – and thank you for giving me a push which led to my lifetime career.

I am grateful for the excellent analyses of the social, political and educational context of the Albemarle Report and the impact of its recommendations in the following texts:-

Smith, M.K. and Doyle, M.E. (2002) “The Albemarle Report and the development of youth work in England and Wales”, the encyclopedia of informal education,

Davies, B., “Chapter 2 – The Albemarle Report: A New Beginning” in A History of Youth Service in England., NYA, Leicester.