Defining the concept of “Digital youth work”

A group working on defining the portrait of a young person in relation to social media.

Although we naturally sent out lots of material to our participants from 16 countries beforehand, we also had some unexpected help to “set the stage” for our seminar. The in-flight magazine on the flight from Helsinki to Oulu featured an article eight pages long about the changing curriculum and teaching approaches in schools across Finland. The tie-in to the topics of our seminar was twofold: firstly, in the future there will be a much higher focus on using and integrating digital technologies. Secondly, there will also be a much more higher focus on non-formal learning, such as the learning we see all the time in youth work activities.

“One major thing is learning by doing and the associated learning of broader phenomena. The other one is bringing digitalisation more prominently into schools,” says Minna Huotilainen, a brain researcher and research fellow at Uppsala University in the article. A very nice helping hand from the airline and the finnish school system!

After the first warm-up activities – which naturally used digital tools by way of “learning-by-doing” – and going over practicalities we went to work. To develop a common starting point and get the exchange of ideas going, the participants were first tasked to collaborate on some definitions. How do practitioners from different local and national realities see digital youth work? What would they define “new media” to be? How do people see e-participation? What would an optimal european project to develop digital youth work consist of?

Participants were very quickly effortlessly discussing themes like providing education services through digital media, old school journalism vs. the changing media production landscape, self-expression and e-participation through digital tools and whether digital youth work should even be seen as a separate approach. It was evident from here on in that attendees could easily find common ground in their respective fields of expertise.

“The thing about these international and European conferences is that although you have been doing something for a long time, by talking to people with different backgrounds and different contexts you get lots of new insights.” says Heleen Mesellem from Belgium – FL.  “So even if you think “ok, I’ve got this, I’ve mastered this”, by talking about it you get new points of view.”

Heleen was a first-time seminar attendee but doesn’t think being a “rookie” in these seminars should deter anyone from signing up. “Surely anyone has something to contribute, because we have all had our own hurdles to overcome. And even if you haven’t mastered many kinds of digital youth work methods, that’s fine because the main thing is you get to learn from other people and people can definitely benefit from your experience even if you haven’t mastered all the latest technologies.”

This definitely seemed to be the case when listening in on the discussions. Participants were keen to expand on each others ideas and everyone contributed to the common discussion from their own viewpoints. The shared interest in digital youth work really showed.

It’s not something extra, but instead you just replace your old methodology with new digital approaches.

The participants defined Digital youth work to include – among other things – new competencies, new possibilities for participation, deeper cooperation with youth & youth workers, non-formal education through digital media, peer journalism and fostering chances for young people to connect with new groups of peers. All in all, these definitions don’t look that different from youth work goals in general. That is also what many participants brought forward in their presentations: Digital youth work is not a separate form of youth work, but rather a new way realizing the core competencies of youth work. The expert groups first draft on the definition of digital youth work also agrees with this statement.

Heleen put it this way: “I think the beauty of digital youth work is that you get to try out a new way of doing the thing you’re best at. You get to pour this layer of sauce on top of your traditional dish, which makes it more spicy. It’s not something extra – which I think many people struggle with – but instead you just replace your old methodology with new digital approaches.”

Written by the seminar facilitators Nerijus Kriauciunas (Nectarus) and Juha Kiviniemi (Verke). Photo by Juha Kiviniemi.

This is the 2nd part of the article “Taking youth work to the digital world”. This article is an outcome of the international seminar “Developing digital youth work”. The seminar was hosted 13 to 17 September 2016 in Oulu, Finland by the Centre of International Mobility (CIMO). This article was first published on Verke’s website. Continue to the previous part “Playing catch-up with the digital (r)evolution” or next part “Online youth participation”.


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