Understanding the potential of social media within youth services

on April 17, 2015 Blog with 0 comments
Distributed, community-based ‘drop-in’ or ‘open access services’ for young people potentially offer an important route into social, educational and health support for those who might otherwise be overlooked by targeted, centralised services.   Given that the rationale and cultural ethos of such facilitiesis often based on the idea of communication and customisation we can ask: what might be the role of social media in delivering better youth services for young people?In 2009 Ali and Davies highlighted key areas where young people use social media that are relevant to the development of youth services:

  • Keeping in touch with friends and acquaintances
  • Developing new contacts often with friends of friends, or people with shared interests
  • Sharing content, engaging in self-expression and exploring identity
  • Hanging out and consuming content including commercial and user-generated content —particularly music and video
  • Accessing information and informal learning
  • Participating in informal groups, and formal youth engagement opportunities.


Over the last decade use of social media by young people has grown in volume, sophistication, impact and visibility; at the same time, youth services have become less well funded, more stretched, more complex and less visible, presenting youth services with a challenging task. This short piece aims to summarise some current work around marrying contemporary ideas about social media and new ideas about youth service delivery.

Modelling the most effective services for young people is a particularly difficult challenge. In addition to the multiple contexts, inputs and outputs for any given centre,youth facilitiesby their very nature, seek to support a wide range of young people with multiple, developing and often underdocumented and developing needs. One key issue is trying to model the user journey through such facilities and then to identify the critical points of helpful engagement by service providers.

In that context, a useful starting point from which to consider the role of mobile technology and social media in supporting the user experience and service effectiveness could be to ensure youth services are:

  • Targeting the right audience:
  • Designing the appropriate ‘hook’:
  • Engendering attitude change
  • Smoothing the path to education, employment or training


Belur (2013)

How can we apply social media to an effective engagement by youth services at each of these stages?

Successive government reports have acknowledged the potential role of social media in developing youth services but have not indicated in any detail as to how this might work or what the link to policy changes in the management of youth services might be. Muirhead (2012) reported that many youth workers use social media sites like Facebook not only without the awareness of their managers but in direct contravention of local policies. He highlighted that many youth workers are anxious about the lack of clear guidelines on the use of social media in the youth services. It remains the case in 2015 that most local authorities have social media policies that serve to constrain social media usage by employees with few having a clear strategy on how social media can be supported, funded, integrated and promoted as a service resource in its own right.

And yet the discussion of the ways in which social media can support youth service delivery and improvement appear stuck in a rut. There are uncertainties about the level of user expertise and motivation, and recurrent concerns about safeguarding, bullying and privacy. If the debate on the use of social media in the development of youth services is to move on we need – as an absolute minimum – to think about the phases of young people’s engagement with services and how social media can be applied in different ways at different times.

First of all it is worth looking a little more closely at Belur’s model. Belur (2013) argues that there are a number of key features that appear to be characteristics of successful youth support schemes. In focus here are schemes designed to help young people who are not in education, employment or training (‘NEETS’) to get training support. The crucial point is that it is the way in which activities are managed which is crucial rather than ‘golden bullet activities’ per se.  She found that stand-alone activities or interventions are seldom effective at engaging young people in education, employment or training rather than crime and violence. By contrast, the most effective interventions were found to consist of several different elements and offered an integrated set of engagements; this in itself,in principle,opens up a clear role for social media.

Belur also argues that the activities must be interesting enough to attract young people to effect initial engagement with the project. This ‘hook’ could be anything but these could be recreation (e.g. arts, sports, and music), or even monetary incentives (e.g. weekly allowances or travel costs). However, caution should be used in interpreting Belur’s finding on this point. Extrinsic motivation through monetary award can encourage recipients to interpret their own behaviour as being attributable to just that of reward with a corresponding downgrading other elements (eg a positive atmosphere and friendship).   Overall however Belur’swork suggests that co-location of recreational, advisory and practical resources can help bridge the gap from isolation to education.

Let’s start with the basics. Just how prevalent is the mobile technology which facilitates ubiquitous social media usage? On one level the use of social media amongst young people is very high and yet still growing. Ofcom (2014) found that:

Nearly all 16-24s and 25-34s are now online (98%).

Younger users (16-24) deploy a range of strategies to manage their online experience proactively, while older users appear to prefer a more moderated and regulated experience.

Younger people are also more aware of how to protect their identity.

In terms of mobile technology 90% of young people have access to a smartphone, up from 85% in 2012.   This is an important aspect for online activity for young people in the context of accessing information about youth services.

Looking specifically at different types of information indicates again that young people are discriminating when it comes to assessing the credibility and appropriateness of different channels for different forms of relevant content online.  For example, Lim et al (2014) found that while young people are keen to receive sexual health information online through web pages via desktop devices, fewer were comfortable with such information being presented through social media channels.

What then might be the key principles for using social media in the context of each of the four stages of Belur’s model of Targeting the right audience: Designing the appropriate ‘hook’: Engendering attitude change; Smoothing the path to education, employment or training?

An important issue to consider here is that each of these phases requires a different skill set, facilities and communication strategy.  Crucially these phases are not clear-cut step-by-step stages, they are overlapping phases with the end of one phase blending into the beginning of the next:

At all stages the activities should be client-led, but supported by trained and experienced youth service workers;

At each stage the activity should link back to the previous stage in terms of continuity of client engagement and drawing explicitly on the experiences of users at that stage.

At each stage the activity should already anticipate the next stage. For example getting engaged in a hook activity should in part give the client part of the necessary resource and understanding appropriate to the following stage – a drop in activity should anticipate and present a positive atmosphere around changing attitudes to education attainment.

There should be no assumptions about the rate at which individuals might go through each phase and social media engagements should reflect that.

The client themselves must have a sense of continuity and progress and the option, but never the requirement to share that sense of development with others. Social media blogs can provide the vehicle by which this can be put into effect.   A particular aspect of this is that social media can highlight how progress and development is not always straightforward and not without its setbacks.

Youth service specialists and peer group members should be encouraged to recognise the ways in which social media can play an important and distinctive role in maintaining contact with clients who drift or who for practical reasons cannot attend real world events. Social media should be the ultimate ‘open door policy’.

It is an often-heard mantra of policy developers, service managers, and media pundits that ‘appropriate’ use of social media can help the delivery of our public services. But in that context we should not restrict our thinking to safeguarding, anti-bullying and privacy – as extremely important as they are. If we do we will miss the importance of tailoring social media deployment to clearly thought-through models of how youth services can deliver the right support stage-by-stage, to the right clients, at the right time and with right people.

MetaValue Board Advisor Patrick McGhee is a Chartered Health Psychologist, National Teaching Fellow, and social media analyst.

Twitter: @profmcghee

This is an edited article; for the full article please contact nieema.alom@metavalue.co.uk

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