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'Youth work practitioners have to be agile.' The EU sees digital youth work as an opportunity for the future

Young people in Europe spend increasing amounts of time using and working with digital media. They live in digital spaces where they learn, share experiences and opinions, have fun with friends and actively participate in society. It is obvious that youth work has to follow suit. Youth work must itself become 'digital'.

What is digital youth work?

But what is 'digital youth work'? ‘"Digital youth work" means proactively using or addressing digital media and technology in youth work. Digital media and technology can be either a tool, an activity or a content in youth work. Digital youth work is not a youth work method. Digital youth work can be included in any youth work setting and it has the same goals as youth work in general. Digital youth work can happen in face-to-face situations as well as in online environments, or in a mixture of the two. Digital youth work is underpinned by the same ethics, values and principles as youth work.' This definition is taken from the conclusions of the Council of the European Union on digital youth work which were adopted under the Finnish EU Council presidency in December 2019. In doing so, the Council heeded the definition and recommendations of an expert group on the subject of 'Risks, opportunities and implications of digitalisation for youth, youth work and youth policy'. The group was set up by the European Commission in 2018. With its 'Developing digital youth work' paper it presented political recommendations, further education requirements and best practice examples for digital youth work. See also in this regard the interview with a member of the expert group, Suvi Tuominen from Verke, the National Centre of Expertise for Digital Youth Work in Finland which shall be published subsequently to this report.

The European Commission and the Council of the European Union have been addressing the subject of digitalisation and youth/youth work for quite some time. The Council already adopted conclusions on smart youth work in 2017. And the Commission communication on the EU Youth Strategy of 2018 stated: 'the structure, methods and communication channels of youth work should adapt to the digital world: it should use technology and pedagogical practices to increase access and help young people cope with digital means. Digital youth work should be incorporated into youth workers' training and - where they exist - youth work occupational and competence standards.' These aspects should also be incorporated into the planned European Youth Work Agenda.

Smart expectations

The Council’s conclusions on smart youth work are evidence of the hopes that Member States attach to technological developments. They 'open great potential for empowerment of youth', it reads, 'by providing access to information and by enriching opportunities for enhancing one’s personal capabilities and competences; providing opportunities for connectivity and interaction with others but also for voicing one’s opinions, for creativity, for self-realisation of one’s rights and active citizenship.' Technological developments could enhance labour market perspectives and young people’s professional career paths. At the same time, they shall enable intelligent solutions and the analysis of large data volumes, which in turn shall facilitate innovation in the methods and concepts, planning, implementation, assessment, visibility and transparency of youth work and youth policy.

Further development of youth work

Two years hence, in 2019, the Council’s conclusions on digital youth work are more reserved. They emphasise the unequal prerequisites for such expectations. It is determined that 'all young people will need an agile, flexible and critical approach to digital technology' and that the digital divide and the gender gap must be bridged. Young people who are 'at risk of being left behind in a digitalised society' must also be engaged. At the same time, the reported lack of foresight in youth policy documents regarding the manner in which digitalisation will influence society, young people and youth work is criticised. Many strategies are said to lack a comprehensive approach to the development of youth work in the digital age.

The Council is, however, convinced that youth work will play an important role: 'Youth work has a great potential to allow for experiential learning in a non-formal setting and to involve young people in activities to strengthen their digital competences and media literacy.' Youth work is said to empower young people to actively and creatively involve themselves in digital society, make informed and reasoned decisions and take responsibility and control of their digital identity. Moreover, it may also help 'to face online risks related to conduct, content, contact and commercialism, including hate speech, cyberbullying, disinformation and propaganda.'

Qualification is important

However, to ensure this, youth work must be able to master the challenges and seize the opportunities of the digital transition. In addition to the technical conditions and resources which must be provided, it is primarily youth work practitioners who require information and data competence. Nevertheless, the Council notes that a large number of practitioners lack 'digital competences and knowledge to make the best possible use of digital technologies in delivering high-quality youth work.' The expert group’s paper lists the individual competences which ought to be considered in education and training and refers to existing training material. In its 2019 conclusions on digital youth work, the Council therefore urgently calls for the qualification of practitioners and young people to extend and improve their digital competences. They appeal to the Member States to promote and qualify digital youth work at all levels and to also use digital technologies to facilitate young people’s access to youth work. Furthermore, the Commission and the Member States are urged to support research and not least extend the action plan for digital education with respect to youth work.

Agility is everything

Although the expert group’s paper does provide practical examples, all of the documents still read like wish lists. Specific implementation ideas are scarce. The EU Council opined in its 2017 conclusions on smart youth work that 'The digital era [...] is a societal phenomenon that still needs discovery and development of appropriate responses.' However, we cannot afford to wait any longer. The expert group had already foreseen that youth work itself must act here: 'Youth work practitioners require an agile mindset and have to be prepared to try out new things and learn from successes and failures.'

Further reading:

Commission Communication: Engaging, Connecting and Empowering young people: a new EU Youth Strategy, Brussels, 22.5.2018 COM(2018) 269 final

Conclusions of the Council and of the Representatives of the Governments of the Member States meeting within the Council on Digital Youth Work (2019/C 414/02)

Council conclusions on smart youth work, Official Journal 2017/C 418/02

Developing digital youth work. Policy recommendations and training needs for youth workers and decision-makers: expert group set up under the European Union Work Plan for Youth for 2016-2018 (20 p., abridged version)

Developing digital youth work. Policy recommendations, training needs and good practice examples for youth workers and decision-makers. Expert group set up under the European Union Work Plan for Youth for 2016-2018 (112 p., longer version with practical examples)

Communication from the Commission on the Digital Education Action Plan, Brussels, 17.1.2018 COM(2018) 22 final