Socially Distanced Social Responsibility: Engaging Young People Today

Over recent years organisations have increasingly tried to engage with the digital world, but who would have thought that a global pandemic would be the thing to turn our practice upside-down?

To the world, and its young people, 2020 was a year of change and instability; rules changed seemingly minute by minute. Life as we knew it was altered, and nobody knew how long for.

In an era of disrupted education, social distancing and lockdowns, it is imperative that young people are supported to have a meaningful voice; but practice needs to be change.

Forays into video conferencing tools and an often-sporadic social media presence are no longer enough. Some were asserting that everything we previously knew about youth engagement was about to be turned on its head. Or was it?

At its core, engaging young people over the internet is not dissimilar to engaging young people in person. You wouldn’t jump straight into doing work with a group having only met them 5 minutes ago, so why do this over a video call?

In a digital world, icebreakers and games may need to be adapted, but this doesn’t make them any less important. I’m sure many adults relate to the feeling of being “Zoomed-out”; young people are not any more immune!

In a similar vein, I’d like to think that we would never hold an event on the top floor of a building with no lift access – so why would we hold a digital event when our attendees may not have a device capable of hosting video-conferencing software or have a reliable internet connection?

Yet the issues that young people have in the forefront of their minds has changed as a result of the pandemic. The Make Your Mark 2020 results are a particularly interesting read.

Make Your Mark allows young people aged 11-18 in the UK to vote on issues that are important to them, and 2020’s results speak loud and clear. A fear of domestic violence was prominent, as was concern about homelessness, and many feel scared about their future employment or educational opportunities. After a year of feeling like their lives were in some ways out of their control, we owe it to young people to champion their voices in everything that we do moving forward.

Young people as a whole are not any less enthusiastic about engagement, but we need to continue to adapt our practice to fit our ever-changing world and the unique challenges it throws at us.

In many ways, the pandemic has given us the digital wake-up call we needed. Now we need to ensure that we do not leave people behind, for to engage with young people in a socially distanced and socially responsible way we need to consider the needs of all.

Milo Dwyer works with Youthfocus NW, and was a contributor to the recent ISR webinar on How to Do Socially Distanced Social Responsibility.

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