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 –



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