The 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.