We finished the paper back in April, but it’s taken a while for it to make it’s way to being available online. But it now is – and you can find the full report to browse, or download as a PDF here.
Whilst we put the report together in the context of work for AIDS2031, and many of the case studies and examples have a HIV/AIDS element to them, my hope is that the full report also provides useful input for anyone exploring how young people in the UK and beyond are engaged with social networking.
An exploration of a connected generation – building on previous work from the Youth Work and Social Network research to offer a generalised overview of how young people are engaged with social networking, and the sorts of behaviours and changing behaviours this is leading to.
This hope is that this report is only the first step for further work by CFSC and Pete Cranston looking at tracking emerging trends in the use of social networks for social change communication – so all feedback and comments, and ideas for future developments, are most welcome.
[Summary: Online social networks have a role to play in bridging one off engagement with more structured forms of participation.]
A bit of scene setting
The ‘Ladder of Participation’ which asks organisations to consider the depth of youth participation in particular activities will be familiar to many people in youth engagement. Using Hart’s Ladder of Participation you can assess whether a youth council is acting as a genuine structure for youth empowerment, leading to young people and adults sharing decisions and creating change – or whether it is really a tokenistic gesture, creating the illusion of participation whilst adults are actually running the whole show.
But youth participation is not just about youth councils and young mayors. Good youth participation offers young people the chance to get involved and influence issues that affect them in a wide variety of ways, from one-off input into feedback and complaints processes, through to more structured engagement in the governance of organisations. On it’s own the ladder of Participation doesn’t show the full picture. That’s where the ‘matrix of participation’ comes in.
It’s a tool I’ve been using in training sessions for years, having first discovered in whilst working with Bill Badham delivering Hear by Right training. However, as far as I can tell we’ve never written it up online (though it is written up in this book which you can search inside with an Amazon account (search for ‘matrix’)).
The matrix of participation includes Hart’s Ladder of Participation on it’s vertical axis, and adds a horizontal axis consisting of different participation approaches, running roughly from one-off, short term or informal approaches on the left, to more structured and long-term approaches on the right.
Organisations can map the different participation opportunities they provide against both their level of participativeness, and against the type of approach they represent.
The matrix is particularly useful to encourage organisations to consider whether they are offering young people a spread of engagement opportunities, and our experience is that attempts to just provide opportunities at one side or other of the matrix is unlikely to lead to sustainable and effective youth participation which leads to positive change for young people.
An observation: the gap in the middle
When Bill Badham joined us at the April meeting of the Youth Participation and Social Network Sites Action Learning Set he led the group in using the matrix of participation (plus some post-it notes and a big sticky sheet) to put together a big visual representation of the different participation approaches in use amongst the 20 or so local authorities participating in the learning set.
Standing back from the wall where this matrix had been put together during the lunch break we spotted something interesting. The participation methods shown were clustered on the left and right of the matrix, and things were thin in the middle.
Already participants had been talking about how many of the more structured participation methods to the right were limited in their efficacy because they only managed to attract certain groups of young people who did not reflect the diversity of the young people the organisations worked with. And this got us thinking.
Participation methods towards the middle of the matrix are really important. It is through involvement in events; in creative projects; and in short-term activities that many young people can develop the confidence to express their views and can build the networks with other young people and with supportive adults that enable and encourage them to then get involved in further participation. The middle of the matrix is a key point on young people’s ‘pathway of participation’. Without opportunities to gain experience, information and develop networks – many young people (and often the young people we most need to hear from) may never go on to speak up in forums where they could have power to make serious change happen.
Bridging the gap: online social networks
Online social networking is not a cure all. But it seems that it could have a role to play here.
Right now, young people engaging in participation on the left of the matrix of participation, in one-off participation opportunities have few ways of connecting this engagement to longer term involvement in participation. Filling in a paper form to provide feedback on an activity and handing it in can often feel like a participation dead end.
But what if, instead of just handing in feedback, young people were encouraged to digitally provide their ideas for improvements to a service, and were to vote for the ideas supplied by other young people (see tools like UserVoice)?
And what if young people taking part in survey and small-scale engagement were offered an opt-in opportunity to connect with the person who will take forward action based on their input, so they can continue to engage with further questions that crop up as a policy or practice comes to be implemented?
And what if young people who want to express their view on a single issue could do that by joining a group within a social network, in the process coming to discover the other issues their peers are working on – and becoming part of a shared network with young people already involved in formal participation structures?
Not all young people will go on to ‘leap the gap’ themselves and move from one-off engagement to sitting on a youth forum or governance board (nor should they), but perhaps some will – and perhaps, equally importantly, those young people who take part in formal participation structures will have ways of keeping connected with the issues that matter to their least advantaged peers, and will be better able to represent the views of others and to advocate for improvements that benefit those most in need of change.
How are you blending online and offline social networks into your youth participation practice?
[Summary: Practical questions to use in e-safety education when working with social media and social networking sites]
Later this month the House of Lords will be spending two and a half hours discussing young people and social networking sites in a debate initiated by Lord Toby Harris. As Shane McCracken has pointed out, a focus on “the adequacy of safeguards to protect [young people’s] privacy and interests” risks as debate leading towards legislation to restrict and control how social network sites function or young people’s use of them. However, even if Shane’s more hopefuly scenario of “increased awareness about the need to educate young people and parents about internet privacy issues” results, we could still end up heading in the wrong direction.
Far too often e-safety education places it’s focus on communicating ‘safety messages’ which are either counter-intuitive to the active social network using young person (‘don’t share any personal information online’) or which end over-detailed, complex or in contradiction with the way social network sites operate (‘use a nick name’ – ‘but it asks for a real name’). Plus, being aware of a safety message and putting its content into practice are two very different things.
In a project I’ve been working on for the Brent Local Safeguarding Children BoardE-Safety Subcommittee we’ve tried to explore how, instead of a focus on safety messages, we can use critical questions* to structure education about safe use of social media, whilst promoting the opportunities that new technologies offer at the same time. Using a critical questions approach can enable professionals to facilitate young people’s own exploration ofsafe and effective uses of new media, without the professional needed to be a new-media expert.
Here’s the current working draft of our question-bank: All these questions were designed be asked in the context of some form of purpose driven online-communication – such as using a blog, social network or social messaging tool to run a campaign on a local issue. The questions are divided into six sections.
1) Think about: the idea
What are you trying to communicate?
2) Think about: intended audience
Who are you doing it for?
Who might also be interested in what you have created/posted/shared?
How long do you want it to be available online for?
Do you want to allow others to copy and remix it? Or should it be covered by copyright?
3) Think about: the impact of the information or media you are sharing
What difference do you want it to make?
What other impact could it have?
Could anyone get upset because of it?
What good things could happen because it it? What bad things could happen?
4) Think about: identity Thinking about how you have/will share this information or media:
Is it/will it be linked to personal information about you? Who can see that information?
Do you just have one identity online, or are you a different person in different spaces?
5) Think about: interaction Thinking about information or media that you have shared:
Who are you connecting with through it? Do you know them? Is it ok if you don’t know them?
Can people leave comments and feedback on it?
How would you respond to a comment from someone you don’t know?
How would you respond to a comment that said something hurtful or aggressive to you, or to a friend?
6) Think about: each other
What would you do if a friend shared a photo or video of you online that you didn’t want shared?
What would you do if you had shared a photo of someone and they asked you to delete it?
What would you do if someone you know was spending all their time talking to someone online who they have never met?
What would you do if you were worried about your friends being bullied?
Using critical questions
Whilst these questions don’t give explicit safety messages – in encouraging young people to develop their own understand and literacy with digital tools they are designed to act as a vehicle for exploring safety messages. In Brent I’m hoping that, with continued development, they will form the backbone of a programme encouraging young people to develop their digital literacy whilst creating and sharing online content about their local area.
However, I believe that moving from a ‘safety messages’ to a ‘critical questions’ and a ‘literacy building’ frame of engagement with social networking and social media also has other implications:
It suggests that instead of placing restrictions on young people’s access to social network sites, or seeking to control the activities young people can engage in on social network sites, we should look to the design of online social networking environments to ensure that they encourage their users to consider, rather than ignore, key critical questions about what will happen to information and media they share. Whilst it may take government pressure before the big networks build safety and ethics into the core of their designs, we can explore creative ways to inject critical literacy building features in social networking platforms already.
Some questions for you
I’ve not yet had chance to pilot and evaluate the critical questions framework in depth – and I’m keen to make sure it continues to develop to be as useful as possible in ensuring young people take up online opportunities in safe and effective ways. I would really value feedback from anyone working on e-safety:
In your experience, how well equipped are the young people you work with to respond to these sorts of critical questions about their online activity?
Are there other key questions you would add to get young people to consider issues not raised above?
How would these questions work with different age groups? In our experience is there an age range for whom safety messages, rather than critical literacy building, is the only option?
*Critical questions – as in ‘constructive criticism’ or ‘questions that make you think and re-evaluate activity or behaviour’.
I've tried to keep the plethora of reflections and shared bits and pieces from the Youth Work and Social Networking project over on their own blog – but I'm aware some people have been expecting me to post them here also. So, here is a quick run-down of some of the posts, documents and resources you will find over on the Youth Work and Social Networking project blog.
We've created two mini-guides to introduce MySpace and Bebo. Like the one page guides series, these are free for you to use and adapt. The Bebo guide in particular is designed to help introduce Social Network Sites to a beginner audience of youth workers who may never have explored social network sites before.
We've been exploring how youth workers can turn to Social Network Sites and search engines to support them in community profiling.
This turned into a far longer report and piece of work than I'd anticipated – but I hope it sets out some clear foundations for the next phase of research – working on the practical 'How To' of moving from where we now, to a place where an effective youth work perspective and practice in responding to online social networks is in place.
To quote from the post I've just written over on the project blog.
How are youth workers using online social networking tools themselves and in a professional context? And what is the role of youth work in supporting young people's interaction with online social networking?
Those are two of the questions we're hoping to get a little closer to answering through this online survey.
If you are a Youth Worker in England and you can spare up to 25 minutes of your time, then please do head over and complete the survey online before the 21st January 2008.
Your answers will inform a series of focus groups and action research projects running between February and April, and will feed directly into the final project report due in mid 2008.
I'm collaborating on the research project with Pete Cranston and just through our initial conversations and early background reading, a wealth of fascinating sub-questions about how youth work interacts with online social networking have been thrown up. So I'm hopefuly that through the survey we'll soon start to see the outlines of some answers emerging – although I'm sure as many questions will be raised as answered!
We're targetting the survey at 22 specific local authorities, but other youth work professionals from England are very much welcome and encouraged to complete the survey also.