YWN Article: The old rules still apply in the online world

3 July 2009 — 8 Comments

ywn-logoThe following is a short article I wrote that was published in Youth Work Now Magazine (A supplement of Children & Young People Now) this week. In addition to the print copy, it can be found on the CYPNow website here.

The old rules still apply in the online world
Like many youth workers, I use online social networks. A while back I took the decision to use these networks as a “work profile”, that is, to treat any interactions that occur online as part of my job.
While I may sometimes comment on things that happen in my personal life, I am careful to be transparent in my dealings online and be thoughtful over what I post.

As I have a work profile, many young people have added me to be their “friend” online and I have accepted. It has become a useful tool where young people can contact me to find out about events, and I can broadcast messages to them. Of course, you also get to see a lot of personal information about the young people and this can be problematic.

A few weeks back, I saw a status update from a young person that concerned me. It read: “gunna bash Billy n hiz windows r gunna be egged hardcore”, meaning he was going to beat up Billy and throw eggs at his house.

Now I know Billy quite well, he’s a small lad who gets picked on. I also know that the young person who wrote that statement has been picking on him for some time.

I reasoned that the individual who wrote the statement had added me as a friend and had therefore given me permission to read what he posted. I also felt that as a worker I couldn’t ignore a direct threat against another person, so I tried to do what I would have done in a face-to-face environment. My response was to write a comment in reply to the statement saying: “Hi Sam. This could be classed as threatening and bullying. I’m really unhappy to see that on here and suggest you remove it.”

I’m not sure Sam took much notice, but my comment did serve to remind the young people that I could see what was written on their profiles. I got messages back saying “I liked Sam’s statement” and “He does wot he does innit”.

So what should we do as workers in an online space? Should we challenge “unacceptable” behaviour even if it means alienating ourselves? Should we have young people as our “friends” or even be there in the first place?

A good general principle seems to be to treat online work as you would detached work. First, you need to be upfront about who you are and what you do. Second, it’s the young people’s space and you are there with their permission. We may well all come to different conclusions about how we treat online work, but it’s vital that we think through our response and set clear boundaries for our interactions.

Jon

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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

8 responses to YWN Article: The old rules still apply in the online world

  1. I think if one is going to interact online with young people then it has to be made clear that your role hasn't changed just the medium that is being used.

    In the same way that on a face to face situation one explains confidentiality (and when it needs to be broken), acceptable behaviour etc then those same boundaries of role should be clear online.

    Personally, I wouldn't discuss the issue online if at all possible but contact the young person and to speak to him/her directly (phone or face to face) and get the background.

    It's a difficult one & I suppose it's the same issues you have in youth work generally and it is a professional judgement call.

    I would like an update on this if at all possible and it's good that it has been raised.

    • Hi Leo, thanks for the comment and great to see your blog taking shape! It's good to know there's more critical and reflective thought happening out there.

      You've got a point about addressing the issue offline. I think that face-to-face interaction is vital in order to prevent misunderstanding and allow for honest conversation.

      I do however also think there's a need to address it online too. By simply ignoring the comment (as you would be seen to do), it gives acceptance or indifference to the bullying it implies. The writer and subsequent readers need to know that sort of comment is unacceptable.

      For more info and draft policies on online conduct, check out Youth Work Online and in particular, this thread which has some great advice.

  2. I think if one is going to interact online with young people then it has to be made clear that your role hasn't changed just the medium that is being used.

    In the same way that on a face to face situation one explains confidentiality (and when it needs to be broken), acceptable behaviour etc then those same boundaries of role should be clear online.

    Personally, I wouldn't discuss the issue online if at all possible but contact the young person and to speak to him/her directly (phone or face to face) and get the background.

    It's a difficult one & I suppose it's the same issues you have in youth work generally and it is a professional judgement call.

    I would like an update on this if at all possible and it's good that it has been raised.

  3. I think if one is going to interact online with young people then it has to be made clear that your role hasn't changed just the medium that is being used.

    In the same way that on a face to face situation one explains confidentiality (and when it needs to be broken), acceptable behaviour etc then those same boundaries of role should be clear online.

    Personally, I wouldn't discuss the issue online if at all possible but contact the young person and to speak to him/her directly (phone or face to face) and get the background.

    It's a difficult one & I suppose it's the same issues you have in youth work generally and it is a professional judgement call.

    I would like an update on this if at all possible and it's good that it has been raised.

    • Hi Leo, thanks for the comment and great to see your blog taking shape! It's good to know there's more critical and reflective thought happening out there.

      You've got a point about addressing the issue offline. I think that face-to-face interaction is vital in order to prevent misunderstanding and allow for honest conversation.

      I do however also think there's a need to address it online too. By simply ignoring the comment (as you would be seen to do), it gives acceptance or indifference to the bullying it implies. The writer and subsequent readers need to know that sort of comment is unacceptable.

      For more info and draft policies on online conduct, check out Youth Work Online and in particular, this thread which has some great advice.

  4. I think if one is going to interact online with young people then it has to be made clear that your role hasn't changed just the medium that is being used.

    In the same way that on a face to face situation one explains confidentiality (and when it needs to be broken), acceptable behaviour etc then those same boundaries of role should be clear online.

    Personally, I wouldn't discuss the issue online if at all possible but contact the young person and to speak to him/her directly (phone or face to face) and get the background.

    It's a difficult one & I suppose it's the same issues you have in youth work generally and it is a professional judgement call.

    I would like an update on this if at all possible and it's good that it has been raised.

  5. Hey Jon, everywhere I look these days there's another conference on social media and youth work! It's definitely a subject that the sector as a whole is trying it's hardest to maximise (Like everyone else). Trouble is I'm not entirely sure of how much we can achieve through it.

    I like the approach that you suggest—that it should be treated as detached work—but I'm not sure it goes far enough; and really it's the questions you pose which are lingering in my head, in particular on whether or not we should be there.

    I can't really see a valid reason not to be there, after all, we go out onto the streets, into schools and playgrounds and even into the underage clubs. So why not online?

    As you stated it can be used to advertise events and services etc and I know we use it for this purpose within my own workplace, but then it is not so much detached as outreach work. Semantics perhaps, but it does change the focus of why you are there in the first place—is it to provide information or learning opportunities?

    One other point is that when detached workers go into young people's space they always have the opportunity to leave when inappropriate behaviour (anti-social or threatening) is being displayed. As you pointed out, online there is no real option to do this, unless you state that you can't be seen to condone it and then "de-friend" the young person.

    I might leave it at that for now & later develop this into a blog post of my own as it's currently sending my head off into a number of directions. Such as the private messaging element, how is confidentiality affected in the online world, or even for what purpose do young people use these sites: is it really for socialisation or is it for something else?

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts!

  6. Hey Jon, everywhere I look these days there's another conference on social media and youth work! It's definitely a subject that the sector as a whole is trying it's hardest to maximise (Like everyone else). Trouble is I'm not entirely sure of how much we can achieve through it.

    I like the approach that you suggest—that it should be treated as detached work—but I'm not sure it goes far enough; and really it's the questions you pose which are lingering in my head, in particular on whether or not we should be there.

    I can't really see a valid reason not to be there, after all, we go out onto the streets, into schools and playgrounds and even into the underage clubs. So why not online?

    As you stated it can be used to advertise events and services etc and I know we use it for this purpose within my own workplace, but then it is not so much detached as outreach work. Semantics perhaps, but it does change the focus of why you are there in the first place—is it to provide information or learning opportunities?

    One other point is that when detached workers go into young people's space they always have the opportunity to leave when inappropriate behaviour (anti-social or threatening) is being displayed. As you pointed out, online there is no real option to do this, unless you state that you can't be seen to condone it and then "de-friend" the young person.

    I might leave it at that for now & later develop this into a blog post of my own as it's currently sending my head off into a number of directions. Such as the private messaging element, how is confidentiality affected in the online world, or even for what purpose do young people use these sites: is it really for socialisation or is it for something else?

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts!

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