In this episode, we are discussing the limits of digital youth work.

Show Notes

Digital youth work comes, undoubtedly, with many benefits. It was even perceived as a beautiful, pink balloon, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when all youth work had to be done online. However, very quickly it turned out, it also comes with many costs. In this episode, we are discussing the limits of digital youth work based on the research paper published by the EU-Council of Europe Youth Partnership on "Technology and the new power dynamics: limitations of digital youth work" by Alicja Pawluczuk and Adina Marina Serban. We are looking at five areas of these limitations:
  • Digital technologies, mental health, and feelings of disconnectedness
  • Big tech and AI v. meaningful communication and youth empowerment 
  • Digital inequalities in youth work 
  • Strategic digitalisation of youth work 
  • Space in digital youth work
Guests: Alicja Pawluczuk and Andrei Dobre
Hosts: Dariusz Grzemny and Tanya Basarab

The transcript of this episode is available

Link to the research paper: Technology and the new power dynamics: limitations of digital youth work

What is UNDER 30'?

Welcome to UNDER 30, the podcast series by the EU-Council of Europe youth partnership that brings research results, explores trends in young people's lives and themes relevant for youth policy and practice.

The EU-CoE youth partnership is a co-operation programme between the European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of youth, created in 1998, connecting youth research, policy and practice.

Dariusz: We are recording this episode in the time of war in
Ukraine, which was invaded by the troops of the Russian Federation.

In these tragic times in Ukraine our greatest source of strength as Europeans and as human beings is solidarity.

Before we start this episode, we would like to express solidarity with all people in Ukraine,
including young people who either stayed there or were forced to leave their country.

Digital youth work comes without doubt with many benefits.

It was even perceived as a beautiful pink balloon, especially during
the COVID-19 pandemic, when all youth work had to be done online.

However, very quickly it turned out it also comes with many costs.

In this episode, we are discussing the limits of digital youth work on the basis of the
research paper published by the youth partnership on "Technology and the new power dynamics.

Limitations of digital youth work" done by Alicja Pawluczuk and Adina Marina Șerban.

Alicja is here with us today, together with Andrei Dobre, a digital youth work practitioner.

My name is Dariusz Grzemny and together with Tanya Basarab from the EU -Council of Europe,
youth partnership we are inviting you to listen to this episode of our UNDER 30 podcast.

Tanya: So it's been a while since we have co-hosted an episode, but this one is a
really interesting, topic that we will be exploring today with Alicja and Andrei.

You know, digital youth work became a very big, very popular discussion topic, already before the pandemic.

And it became an even bigger and more important topic during the pandemic.

So here we are, beginning of 2022.

And, we've had a few reflections in the partnership.

It started with a paper on techlash and how to engage more critically with technology, by Lasse Siurala.

Then we had the whole exchange about the importance of building competencies and competence frameworks
for youth workers who are doing digital youth work with Michele Di Paola and today we are going to look
even further into this topic and trying to take it with a lot of spices, let's say with salt and pepper
and all the necessary spices that digital youth work is not just a bright, pink, beautiful balloon.

There is a lot in it and we need to engage with it.

As we know at the Third Youth Work Convention, there was a lot of talk
about making a youth work offer to all young people all over Europe.

That's a huge objective.

And digitalization was discussed quite a lot during the convention.

It was a digital convention.

It was all online.

And it was seen as something that all of us, all parts of the community of
practice have to engage with, have to think about it, have to develop ideas.

So I'm really happy to have today the perspective of Alicja who's been researching this topic for quite a while.

Everything around digitalization.

And with Andrei who is actually practicing it on a daily basis.

And he also has his critical reflections.

Dariusz: Yes.

a beautiful pink balloon, as Tanya said, sometimes this beautiful pink balloon was the necessity.

I mean, there was a moment that it was an necessity to move a lot of activities that were
happening offline in the youth center, also international youth activities to move them online.

That was the only possibility.

Basically there were two either to cancel everything or to try different other possibilities that exist.

And one of them was of course technology, using technology as a means, and using digital youth work.

We know it from experience that a lot of institutions and
organizations that are providing youth work were not really prepared.

This is an organizational level, but also the youth workers
were not prepared and the young people were not ready as well.

So there's this combination of not being ready and then being put in this environment, sometimes
very new environment or use the environment that you know for different purpose as well.

So this was the complexity of the whole, let's say operation that happened with the pandemic coming.

We are talking about the limits of youth work.

So looking at this not the pink, bright side of the youth work, but also not on a very dark side as well.

It's looking at where we actually see the drawbacks, where we actually see the possibilities to improve or what
things we should consider and think when we think, for example, strategically about developing digital youth work
and you identified five areas of these limitations of digital youth work, the first area, which we also discussed
somehow to certain extent in our podcast is digital technologies, mental health and feeling of this disconnectedness.

So what are these limits of digital youth work?

And also, what are your conclusions on that, recommendations may
be on what we have to think about when it comes to this area.

Alicja: Okay, thank you so much for covering this topic.

I think it's an important topic to dive into, especially after the pandemic, when
so many organizations had to suddenly overnight become digital youth work experts.

So certainly there has been the shock all over, both for young people and the youth workers.

And many people also talked about the opportunity of getting things digitized
very quickly and actually pushing forward the digital youth work agenda.

But something that I found in my research over the years is that there is a sort of
fear and a sense of embarrassment that you are not engaging with digital technologies
in a meaningful way, or you're just not up-to-date with your digital competencies.

So the more we push the digital work agenda, the more we also learn about the resistance.

And I think it's obvious that, you know, the digital youth work
is developing and we need the digital skills for the future.

So I guess the purpose of this paper was to kind of examine some of them that the limitations of digital youth work.

So what can digital youth work do and what are some of the issues and challenges that
are there and by examining them, we can also learn how to hopefully address these.

So, talking about this beautiful pink balloon, I really liked the metaphor,
I think digital youth work has lots of good press and it's an amazing thing.

But I think it's not about being, well, perhaps it's been about cautiously optimistic, but also realistic.

So the aim of this paper is to realistically review what's out there in terms of the challenges and issues.

And so I'm going to tackle each point one by one.

So, one of the things that you've mentioned Dariusz is the mental health and the feeling of disconnectedness.

And I think that's something that I've heard from the youth workers themselves, but also working with young people.

This is something that I kind of experienced as well during the workshops, during the pandemic.

Yes, digital technologies kind of saved us and helped us to connect during the COVID pandemic.

But at the same time, they sort of moved us away from each other.

For many of the youth workers, for instance, it was a bit of an isolating experience, you know, the
meaningful communication, the relationship, the conflict resolution, teamwork, all of these thrive on offline.

And this is where you need your social skills offline too to tackle these topics.

And yes, as we know, there are different challenges when it comes to digital technologies.

Not all of them are related to mental health, but quite a lot of them are related to, you know,
the screen time, the overuse of digital technologies, the overreliance of digital technologies.

But the key thing that we've also learned is this issue of digital fatigue.

So yes, using digital technologies for a bit is fine, but when
you constantly have to rely on it, it just isn't helpful at all.

So many youth workers talked about digital fatigue, and just being tired of the process.

And the same with young people not being able to engage meaningfully
because how long can you possibly, you know, sit in front of your screen?

So, I think these are the key topics that we discussed.

Andrei: It's not only about the zoom fatigue.

It's also about the trust.

It's related with mental health, when you are obliged to move that from our own team
you practiced probably for 20 years in few days or few weeks in online environment.

It's also about trust.

It's about confidence.

It's about fears.

It's about a learning curve for everyone.

So you need to be patient with the processes you are trying to move in digital.

You need to understand, you need to have the confidence in the process.

This is what we say in all the trainings, have trust in the process.

So, I couldn't see all of these aspects being discussed in the digital youth work area.

Nobody's telling to the youth workers, you need to have patience with yourself,
digitally something you learn, but you don't learn in two days, you learn in years.

So, this is also something we need to tackle, related to mental health and also something
that I wanted to add from the psychological aspect, moving all the relationships
in online environment we don't have enough data to see what are the consequences.

We are feeling that something is not working or something is missing, but still, we don't have
enough data to tell that after two years of online relationships, you will be like this and this.

Dariusz: Yes.

I think a lot of things were challenged when it comes to digital technologies about mental
health and this connection actually, which is very important or relationships in youth work.

That's why you also mentioned the aspect of being aware or maybe even accepting this,
because sometimes I feel that the problem is that we are not accepting certain things.

I mean, the fact that not everything can be done online.

No, not every aspect of youth work can be done online.

and, Yes, especially the one related with building relationships,
which is very much contributing to the mental health of young people.

And then on top of it, we have the third partner, which is the technology, which is the tech
companies, because at the beginning, of course, and nowadays we are using the different means
that are provided by big tech companies, Microsoft, Google, and others, or Zoom, as well.

So yeah, there is this third aspect and this is the moment when you talk about this changing power dynamic that
suddenly from two partners, which is the youth workers and the young people, we have the third one, the big tech and
all the things that comes with it, the issue of privacy, the issue of artificial intelligence and so on and so forth.

Of course, sometimes it may look very interesting at the beginning.

Oh, this is something nice.

Everything is digitalized.

But there is a lot of risks and there's a lot of limits as well related to youth work.

If we can talk a bit about this area, about the role of big tech being the third partner in the youth work.

Alicja: Yes.

I think it connects really nicely into our discussion on mental health.

You know, the amount of power that digital technologies have over our interactions with the world, the way we co-create
cultures, the way we interact with one another, the way we actually perceive ourselves through digital technologies.

So each part of our existence and relationships are being influenced by digital technologies.

So, yes, I believe that digital technologies are in a sense this new partner, this new actor, a proactive actor.

I wouldn't say that it's just passive because as we know, algorithms can have huge impact
on the information that we consume and the way we interact with others, like I said before.

So I think there is an interesting part when we think about youth workers, process of empowerment of young people.

You know, we talk about young people co-creating the new power structure or
dismantling the old power structures and actually becoming the proactive citizens.

And I think this is where, when we consider digital technologies,
that's where digital technologies can in many ways become disempowering.

And we know from, you know, the disinformation aspect to datafication to algorithmic
profiling, digital injustice, all of these factors have to be considered in digital youth work.

So in a sense, we have to consider the power of digital technologies.

And I think what's interesting is that we have no choice, right?

We have to use the digital technologies.

There are embedded into social, cultural and economic structures, but it's just a case of knowing how to work around
them for now, before we, hopefully one day, change the digital landscape and it will become more youth centered.

But being realistic, we have to use what we have, you know, how do we ensure that we use them in a meaningful way?

I think there's a huge gap for digital education.

How do we empower young people and youth workers, most importantly, to feel confident around digital
technologies and not feeling that they're failing or that they have to battle with so many ethical challenges.

And I would just emphasize that digital youth work or youth work in general is this unique
space, which isn't formal education or home, where digital youth workers and youth workers have
to deal with issues that are very unique when it comes to young people's digital citizenship.

So, you know, some of the embarrassing issues like sexting or some of the new emerging forms of digital violence.

They all come to youth workers, or you know, the youth work spaces because that's
the only space that can somehow deal with these issues, these new emerging issues.

So I would say that really youth workers require, you know, like a comprehensive support,
not just in terms of training, but teams of people who could deal with these issues.

So in a sense, we need huge teams of people to not fight back, but to understand the power dynamics with
digital technologies and hopefully educating young people so they can then change the structures in the future.

But it's a, I think years of work but we have to acknowledge that the problem is there, to take it step-by-step.

So I hope this helps as an answer.

Dariusz: Yes, it helps.

I think definitely it does, but I think it's a kind of confirmation as well when
we talk about developing the digital skills, I mean, very often we very narrowly
focus on understanding what actually digital skills or digital competencies mean.

And what, what is the purpose of education, or the purpose of digital competence education?

Very much, for example, focusing on critical thinking, which is very important, but it's not enough anymore.

It's very important to understand the whole technological or
internet ecosystem and everything that actually interacts there.

So I think that this is also important, which is also challenging.

That's why you saying that it requires a lot of people as well to be involved in in this process.


Tanya: I wanted to add that for me.

This was the key message of your research that there is a third actor.

It's often people don't think about it, but it's there and it has a big power.

And if we think that a lot of youth work has emerged through social work, mostly challenging power dynamics already
trying to create better social justice, better rights, better opportunities for young people, the whole set up already.

It's almost like a recall, are you sure that you know everything about the environment in which
you are having a youth work activity, be it with an individual or especially within groups.

And, how do you ensure group dynamics online?

This is really fascinating.

And as Alicja said, there are certain things that technology has brought upon the whole of society.

And we see young people are very proactive on internet governance agenda.

The institutions, the European institutions are starting to think, well, it cannot just be a jungle.

We have to regulate certain things.

We have to stop hate speech.

We have to limit it.

We have to stop fake news today.

It's super important as a topic, we have to stop algorithms deciding and especially pushing for this, what we already
know from 2018 research that we did was that internet, in fact, or technology and internet pushes an accumulation
of advantages for people who already have them and accumulation of disadvantages for people who don't have them.

I think it ties into the one of your next conclusions, which is really about the digital exclusion.

But what does that mean?

I mean, internet has become...

in some countries people are arguing that internet has to be a service and a
right guaranteed to all people so that they can feel they can be part of society.

So yeah, maybe I can hand it over to Andrei or Alicja for the next part.

Andrei: I just wanted to add that regarding the previous conclusion that in practice, actually, everybody when installs
an app, when you have that button to accept terms and conditions, nobody actually reads the terms and conditions.

And this is just something very simple.

That could can be changed in the following years.

And you said competencies, yes.

It's also about competencies, digital youth work being still
youth work, same youth work, but using a different environment.

And yes, we don't know for sure the environment we are working on.

Actually, this is my conclusion from practice.

And going to the social exclusion or this actually we know for sure that we have
disadvantaged youth we have remote youth, we have low skills and low competencies youth.

Actually, the paper is telling that we have quite big gaps, Romania and Bulgaria being
the last ones with almost 20% or 28% of youth not having access or not having a device.

You said about internet, but it's not only about internet.

It's also about having device.

And let's face it, we still have youth that don't have electricity.

So, this is also a reality.

There are few examples, but still we have also this kind of situations in Europe.

So the conclusion is that when you don't have internet or you don't have the device,
the proper device to work with, or you don't have electricity for different reasons.

You can have a storm, like it was in Great Britain a few weeks ago and they didn't have electricity for one week.

It's still, yeah, there are separate cases, but it's a good example, a
good discussion what is happening when you don't have these resources.

And also let's face it we have youth workers that don't have proper internet connection or proper devices.

And we have organizations that don't have a strategy, don't have resources to invest in,
because actually when we talk about digital, we are talking about an environment, not
only one laptop, what the organization probably will have a big environment to work on.

So for that you need resources.

You need human resources specialized in developing it.

It's also about money and skills.

Alicja: Yeah.

I definitely agree with what Andrei has just covered.

You know, there is the issue of digital inclusion in terms of connectivity, but
there's also the idea of meaningful digital inclusion or meaningful digital access.

Different terminology that you can use there.

But in essence it means being able to have access to, you know, a reliable wifi, having the
device, having the skills, the competencies to use it in a meaningful, safe and informed way.

So, how can we achieve that?

You know, there's, different programs out there to obviously train people on digital skills.

But as we know, We are always one step behind, you know, when it
comes to digital transformation, that things are constantly changing.

New skills are being in demand.

You know, we really don't know what the future of labour will look like.

So it's really about being agile and responsive and finding ways so we can all benefit from the digital transformation.

And yes, there are lots of digital inequalities and, from some of the research I've done elsewhere,
I actually have heard of places that don't have access to water or toilet, but they do have a wifi
and a phone, which kind of makes you realize how important it is to have access to information.

It's a basic human right to participate, to have information and to have education to access
information in a meaningful way, but there are two types of digital exclusion that we discuss here.

And I think there is a lot of research focusing on young people
and it's extremely important to know what challenges they face.

And there is the assumption that, you know, young people use phones, therefore they are
digitally included, which is not the case because you need different types of skills.

You need computers, you need, you know, reliable internet access.

There's research that I've done in the past on data literacy and learning that yes
indeed young people use their phones, their smartphones to access social media.

But it doesn't mean that they have the knowledge or the access to reliable information or news sources.

So this is a big aspect, you know, young people's digital inequalities, but one of the
things that I've researched recently is the emerging digital divides in youth work in Europe.

And this is something that I've done over the last year.

And I've learned that there are you know, striking differences between youth
workers who are digitally included and who are at the forefront of the agenda.

You know, they're the ones who experiment.

These are the people who think strategically on how to help other youth workers.

And they're also more sort of cautiously optimistic about digital transformation.

So, we have a group of these youth workers who are doing amazing work in terms of experimenting
with new digital technologies and participatory environments, coming up with new ideas.

And they have the means to do it.

You know, they are also strategically supported by their organization.

However, we also have this huge group of youth workers who are trying to catch up, you know,
who are perhaps left behind in the sentence from the structural point of view, you know,
the, the intersectional kind of factors that affect your ability to digital participation.

So, if you're in remote areas, what Andrei has just mentioned,
you are going to have more issues with your digital access.

The same with issues in terms of socio-economic powers.

All of these affect digital inclusion.

So I would say that when it comes to digital inequality in youth work, we definitely need more research.

Dariusz: Both of you actually talk about this bigger thinking, when it comes to digital youth work,
and this is the next area that you explore about thinking strategically about digital youth work.

So not as something that is only project based.

So we use the technology for a project and that's it.

But put it on the agenda of youth work.

Also as a part of recognition of youth work, if we can focus on this area as
well, what are, what limits you identified and what are your recommendations?

Andrei: If you allow me, I will start with the practice.

The digital came and won't leave very soon from our lives.

So this is something we will do from now on.

And this is for sure, we will live in a digital era for the entire our lives.

So this is one thing.

The other thing is, from my side at the grassroots level, this
transformation it's bringing also the discussion of the quality.

We know that in the past, the youth workers were gathering the youth in one place.

And for some activities the youth, I'm using this metaphor, they were captive at that activity.

You have three hours.

You cannot go out from that activity if you like it or not.

But when you go online and in digital, you can leave at any time.

And this is bringing the discussion of increasing the quality and
actually responding to the youth needs instead of assuming what they need.

So, this is my perspective of what is needed in the next phases and years.

Alicja: Yeah, the issue of quality or lack of it, you know, is a big one because
this is where we also talk about this strategic way to assess digital youth work.

And I think there has been quite a lot of issues related to impact, you know, how do we measure impact
of digital youth work and what criteria do we use, you know, should we use the criteria that have
been there for a number of years or, you know, does that mean that these criteria will stay static?

And does that mean that young people will have to achieve the skills that have been like having around for a while?

Or are we actually responding to the new challenges and are we anticipating the changes that might happen?

And something that I learned a few years ago was that when it comes to impact
evaluation and thinking about the strategic way to manage a project, very often
youth workers in Scotland at least had fit in into certain definition of impact.

And it's the same with young people who felt responsible for reporting a certain type of impact.

So to make sure that the narrative fits in with what the funders need.

So in that sense, it feels like a strategic performance to survive and to have funding for the future
for digital youth clubs and the idea that everybody has to be empowered through digital technologies.

So I think what we need is we need a realistic view or realistic strategic approach to better understand
what's going on in the field without imposing this assumption that everything has to be successful.

That every project has to be amazing and we have to change the world by designing an app.

You know, this is definitely an issue.

And I have learned about issues related to funding, the assumptions that if you
turn activities into online activities, you don't need funding, you know, and that
there's this assumption that just young people have their digital technologies.

The wifi is free.

I mean, tackling these assumptions and ensuring that there is a collaborative approach, and obviously
more research and more voices from the youth workers community to learn about these strategic issues.

Because many organizations have been left to their own devices during COVID for instance, and not knowing
what the procedures to take, not knowing what are the ethical approaches to do digital youth work.

I mean so many practical issues.

It feels like we are throwing the hot potato at this pink balloon and destroying
it, you know, the pink glasses that we wear when we talk about digital youth work.

But I think this is the only way to dig deeper into these issues and to slowly try to address them.

Tanya: Just very briefly I would add that there have been some interesting
initiatives and digital is part of the bigger environment of youth work as well.

And digital is another environment that youth work has to enter.

So this crossroad has to be really looked at between these two big policy fields.

And we cannot just stop at thinking about upskilling the youth workers so that they are comfortable to do.

They have better competencies.

There's much more, there is a need for investment.

There's a need for devices for ecosystems, digital connections that function well, there's a
need for understanding and monitoring constantly where the young people are digitally, where
do they spend their time online and how is that helping them or how is that making them feel?

Do they feel better or worse?

Are they learning?

Are they just getting captives of strange narratives?

So all of this is part of strategic thinking and some countries literally during the pandemic have
given grants to organizations to set up better equipment, but also better systems to do youth work.

So I think that's really important that more countries have to
invest overall in youth work and with a particular focus on digital.

Dariusz: I think that what really comes from what we were discussing is, on a very
kind of practical level, these questions that we have to ask ourselves when we
actually think about digital youth work or making our youth work activities digital.

So it's not to take everything for granted, not to assume a lot of things as well, but just to ask or be aware of this
different limitations that you identified and maybe other ones as well, that are identified in a very specific context.

So I think that these questions are very important to take into account when we think about our youth work activities.

We of course encourage everybody to look at the paper, find out more.

There is a lot of research examples, a lot of data from different research collected in the paper.

And as usual, we also putting the link to this paper in the notes to this episode.

So thank you, Alicja.

Thank you, Tanya.

Thank you Andrei for this time and yeah, that's it.

Thank you.