Digital youth work?

Some time ago danah boyd blogged about a tragic case in the US where a parent was implicated in the suicide of a thirteen year old girl she believed was bullying her daughter in MySpace. The woman was charged under the misuse of computer legislation but danah argued this missed the point about what was actually going on. An adult bullying a child. She went on to argue that in these new online public spaces:

The most important thing that we need are digital street workers. When I was in college, college students volunteered as street workers to help teens who were on the street find resources and help. They directed them to psychologists, doctors, and social workers. We need a program like this for the digital streets. We need college-aged young adults to troll the digital world looking out for teens who are in trouble and helping them seek help. We need online counselors who can work with minors to address their behavioral issues without forcing the minor to contend with parents or bureaucracy. We need online social workers that can connect with kids and help them understand their options.

danah’s research into young people’s use of social network sites like MySpace is highly respected. Although she’s principally interested in understanding how participation in networked publics affects sociality, identity, and culture I’ve heard her comment several times on the need for counselling and social work services to engage with young people online.

As someone who started his social work career as a street worker (ahem…a long time ago) the idea of digital street work is very compelling. Of course there are issues with social services staff working in this space. Young people are so schooled in ‘stranger danger’  they may – quite rightly? –  be wary of trusting an unknown, online worker. Trust building is an important part of face to face work. The ease with which anonymous users can mask their identity online may make online social services deeply problematic. Some of these issues have been surfaced and tackled by Tim Davies and his colleagues in an excellent research report into Youth Work and Social Media.

More recently both danah and Tim have been blogging about online safety and the ways in which innovative practitioners might be:

incorporating sensible online safety approaches into their daily practice with youth in the classrooms, in therapy, in social work, in religious advising, etc.? Who’s out there trying to wade through the myths, get a realistic portrait, and approach youth from a grounded point of view in order to directly help them, not as a safety expert but as someone who works with youth because of their professional role?

Online safety and assisting young people maximise the benefits of the online world – whilst minimising the risks – has to be an important task for frontline social services workers, especially so for those involved with ‘looked after’ children and young people. Too often the response to protecting children and young people online is to restrict or close down access, rather than to empower, enable and educate. This approach fails children and young people in two ways. Firstly, it excludes them from realising the very real opportunities and benefits of the online world: e.g. informal learning, sustaining social relationships, expressing creativity and identity. Secondly, it fails to protect them from risk. An approach that relies on filtering and blocking alone does not enable children and young people to develop the media literacy skills they need to stay safe, and – if they go online ‘under the radar’ of their carers – they may be at greater risk of harm.

So, what do social service workers need to know about the way children and young people are using social network sites like Bebo and MySpace? What would a digital youth outreach service look like? How can social services workers best support ‘looked after’ children and young people to ensure they realise the opportunities and avoid the risks of online communication? All of these questions and more will be discussed at a ConnectedPractice research symposium on 14th & 15th September in Glasgow: danah, Tim and a host of others will be leading the discussion.