Digital youth work is not a new phenomenon but suddenly a new way of working for many of us during Covid-19. Lockdown has meant that we have had to get creative and mobilise quickly, opening our minds to new possibilities but also to a wide range of digital dilemmas.

One of the aims of Youth Justice Voices, is to influence policy and practice through youth-led participation groups. These groups rely heavily on the support and assistance of residential care staff, social workers and other frontline staff members to promote engagement.  So what does this mean for young people during Covid-19? Should participation groups be put on hold as we grapple to deliver frontline services or are online groups a way of keeping young people connected and engaged during difficult times?

“If I didn’t have our [online] groups I would feel alone and down and not valued, also I would find it hard to get up every morning and keep doing things. It encourages me to go about life as normal as possible…if I didn’t have this then I would find it really difficult.

It’s one of the most important and valuable services in my life, it’s cheesy but people like us don’t have families who are mature and capable…it’s made me realise how much I appreciate Staf and other services." (Youth Justice Voices, young person).

Whilst these groups are not frontline services, they are lifelines to some of the most socially excluded and isolated. So what can we do to keep participation alive - and how can digital methods increase engagement?

Whilst digital methods offer a range of benefits, there are also limitations, particularly for justice experienced young people. Since embarking on this new way of working I have become acutely aware of the impact of digital isolation and poverty. For Inside Out, group members in HMP&YOI Polmont, Covid-19 is exasperating this exclusion further. Social distancing means that children and young people in custody have lost many of their privileges, including their access to education, work and youth work. They have also lost contact and support from family, friends and dependable workers. Not to mention participation opportunities, which are more than often regarded as a non-essential privilege.

Despite these complexities we are working hard to keep young people engaged. We are working closely with the Barnardo’s Youth Work team who are endeavouring to keep in contact from home and provide opportunities for Inside Out to have their voices heard, whilst they work creatively to ensure that they can provide vital support remotely during these difficult and uncertain times. We are maintaining our “digital” connection through Email a prisoner (via SPS and Barnardo’s) where we will pose weekly questions and challenges to individuals until we can physically meet. With our groups in the community we are hosting two weekly zoom sessions for the Youth Just Us steering group and issue based art activities for our Artivism group with Articulate Cultural Trust. We also hope to make some digital noise by creating an issue based zine and digital exhibition of the group’s physical art work.

Like all of the project’s work, engagement is completely voluntary; we’re exploring different ways to keep in touch and engaged. What is important to us and the young people is that we maintain the same principles and values and we move what we do offline safely to online spaces, which is why we created these spaces alongside young people. They have told us that keeping connected, being creative, discussing well-being and make plans for the group is important to them. That’s why we have also created ‘Whatsapp Wednesdays’. This small closed group is optional for group members and has clear and agreed ground rules. It is managed by me and supported by an additional participation worker and has the specific focus of setting group challenges to beat boredom, and posing care and justice related questions in the future. We have also set up a participation practitioners’ forum via Zoom to share digital practice ideas with colleagues across Scotland.

Staf have supported young people in the project to stay digitally connected with mobile phone top-up vouchers, vouchers for food and other creative resources to keep people busy. We have also been able to provide devices to those who need them via Articulate Cultural Trust. However, we would urge local authorities, mobile and internet providers and the Scottish Government to act quickly and join the national campaign to make sure no one is left behind.

The future of participation groups rely heavily on the collaboration and support of partner agencies. We would urge corporate parents and policy makers to consider how they can support young people to ensure that their participation rights are upheld and respected during this difficult time. They cannot do it on their own. People need the confidence, knowledge, skills and support to connect digitally. Digital inclusion will only be achieved if we acknowledge these barriers and develop platforms collaboratively so that they are relevant and meaningful to people’s everyday lives. In some respects Covid-19 has brought people together, but for others the divide has increased as the most vulnerable remain isolated and unheard.

If you are working with young people aged 16-25 with care and justice experience or are a young person yourself, and wish to raise issues or share ideas about how to stay connected and engaged, we would like to hear from you. Get in touch at [email protected].