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CEO blog: Life online – the digital world and young people

31st March 2023 by Jamie Masraff, Chief Executive, OnSide

It’s no exaggeration to say that technology and the digital world has fundamentally changed the experience of being a young person today. Some of its impact has undoubtedly been positive, but I am increasingly worried that technology is becoming a virtual comfort blanket that young people need to cast aside to engage in the sometimes messy yet vital interactions of real life.

Technology has become embedded into how teens build and maintain relationships and provides many with communities beyond the confines of where they live. For young people who struggle to make friends and to find people with similar interests, forums can make it easy to connect with like-minded peers. It was lifeline for many during the pandemic. Our Youth Zone members could continue to access vital support virtually from their youth workers, and Youth Zones made over 45,000 welfare calls to young people during this period. It has also made it so easy to keep in touch with others, and seven in ten young people say the internet made them feel closer to their friends and peers. Our research, Generation Isolation, found that 77% of young people use their phones to communicate with friends.

Unfortunately, technology does have its downsides. I’m sure many of us have been there; your phone pings with a Facebook or Instagram notification which you take a few minutes to check. Before you realise, half an hour’s passed, and you’ve mindlessly scrolled through hundreds of pieces of content. It’s no surprise, as these social platforms are designed for excessive and addictive use. They wrap you up in an addictive comfort blanket, drip feeding personalised content which builds your craving for more. It’s said that 18 to 24-year-olds spend an average of 5 hours and 6 minutes online daily. This also creates a level of expectation. To always be on, to live up to the perfectly curated life portrayed by many online. This causes tremendous anxiety in young people, with 89% of 8-17-year-olds saying they’ve felt pressure to be popular on these platforms.

The technologies used by social media companies have come such a long way from the days of puppy ears and flower crown filters. Like TikTok’s viral and problematic filter, ‘Bold Glamour’, which uses AI to edit users’ facial features, which the brand Dove publicly spoke out against. Filters have become so advanced you sometimes cannot tell what’s real and what’s not, creating the risk of distorting people’s self-perception and impacting their self-esteem. As a father to two girls, it worries me to think about the world they’re growing up in, and how I can best support them to know the reality behind the photos and build their confidence.

Though kind and supportive communities exist online, they aren’t always the norm. 17.9% of 11–15-year-olds reported being bullied online. Many of us can recall school experiences where kids were unkind. The difference is that pre-digital, these challenges were largely left at the school gates. That safety valve doesn’t exist today. Young people can’t escape bullying; it follows them through their day via the device in their pocket. That’s why it’s vital that young people have trusted adults they can speak to if they are experiencing bullying; for many, youth workers play that role.

Digital technology will only grow, so how does youth work evolve with it? As a youth charity, we train and support youth workers across the OnSide Network of Youth Zones to help young people navigate the risks and maximise the benefits of the digital world. Covid, in many ways, was a valuable experiment for us, as it allowed us to see what can be done with digital youth work delivery. While online youth work was a lifeline in this period, we found you can’t replicate the quality of face-to-face; the relationships developed are stronger, and the impact greater.

We know from our Generation Isolation survey that young people simply aren’t interacting as much face-to-face as they used to; 73% spend most of their free time on screens. That’s why the youth sector has a vital role in creating exciting spaces where young people want to spend their time. We must provide young people with more opportunities to build social connections and friendships, and to benefit from youth work and its life-changing impact.

So, though digital has its benefits, nothing can beat the magic that happens when skilled youth workers, like those at youth centres and Youth Zones across the country, connect with young people, helping them to see and grow the potential within.