Tips for online youth work

Note: this list is also available in German here.

The current epidemic sweeping the world puts new challenges for the whole youth work sector as well. How can we reach young people in digital environments? What activities can we arrange for young people online when youth centres are closed? Here are some tips compiled by Verke, the centre for expertise on Digital youth work in Finland. Therefore they are originally tailored for the Finnish youth sector, so you might have to make adjustments that take into account your particular youth work goals and traditions, as well as any legislation guiding the field in your country.

For a different set of tips, see the good practices section on this website; with a little creativity, a lot of the practices can be tailored to online work as well!

  1. Tackle Discord, if you haven’t already. Discord is a platform where you can talk either by voice or typing. Originally Discord has become popular in the gaming communities, but it is well suited for youth work as well. The platform is free to set up and use, and many Finnish youth work actors have successfully used it for engaging young people online.
  2. See what young people are sharing on TikTok.How are young people discussing the Coronavirus on social media? Do some other themes present themselves? Young people readily discuss current phenomena on their most used social media platforms, one of which is currently TikTok. While the short videos on the platform are often quirky and humorous, serious societal topics are also present.
  3. Offer chances to discuss issues on WhatsApp (or other messaging platforms). Young people are most likely concerned about the current situation, and youth workers are potentially a neutral, yet familiar face to confide in. Using instant messaging platforms is also a very low-threshold way for young people to contact adults with their thoughts. It is advisable to use any available social media channels to make sure that the information about this opportunity also reaches as many young people as possible.
  4. Ask how young people are doing on Instagram stories. You can host a Q&A (questions & answers) session on Instagram stories. Set aside time for questions and replying to them in your social media plan and allocate time to be “on-call” to respond to any questions coming from young people. You can also host Q&A sessions on other topics since other issues facing young people have not disappeared during the Coronavirus outbreak and young people still need to discuss them as well. Q&A sessions are also an excellent way to take the pulse of what young people are talking about right now and tackle these topics with other approaches if need be.
  5. Host a gaming stream on Twitch. Do you have a gaming-oriented youth worker that could host a live-stream? If you have the necessary equipment (which isn’t a lot), download Twitch, set up your account and jump live. A lot of people are interested in following streamers even if they’re not that much into games so that might be an engaging thing for many young people stuck at home. If digital games aren’t your thing, you can stream pretty much anything on Twitch – there’s even one example from Finland where a youth house live-streamed their cooking activities on Twitch, and it was a huge hit.
  6. Inform young people of other available support services. If your country has online chats or other platforms dedicated to helping citizens in dealing with the Coronavirus or other help platforms (mental health, etc.), make sure you are aware of the central ones. Many young people need professional consultation when the media is saturated with scary scenarios, and the Coronavirus is worrying and frightening. While our help is invaluable to many, youth work has its limits as well.
  7. Host a quiz on Instagram. A quiz is an easy and accessible way to organise activities for young people. Figure out the topic – or topics – of your quiz and prepare images beforehand with a platform like Canva. Young people can respond to your quiz for example via direct messages right on Instagram. You can set a predefined time period for responses and give out awards to all correct responses if you wish. A fun example was a quiz on meanings of emojis hosted by youth workers in Kemi in northern Finland.
  8. Use simple games to engage young people. We might be forced to practice social distancing, but that doesn’t need to prevent having fun together. For example football teams started a game of Connect four on Twitter (tweets are in Finnish, but you get the idea). Challenge young people to games of connect four, tic-tac-toe or even hangman right in your organisation’s Instagram story. You can use Canva or a similar platform to create blank digital handouts to share in your stories for your followers to screenshot and share.
  9. Discuss topics with young people on Instagram Live. Instagram Live is an easy platform to engage young people easily on a platform many of them already use daily. Live videos can be a chance for a light discussion on centred around a particular theme. It doesn’t always need to be overly serious, either. A radio channel in Finland hosts a weekly live stream called “Wednesday”, which is a collective coffee break where the host is tasting different cookies each day. Hosting a live stream is super simple; swipe right on your Instagram front page, and you are on the stories -page. From there by scrolling the toolbar on the bottom, you are good to start your live stream. Remember to let young people know when you plan to be live so that they can be there at the right time! After the live stream, you can also continue the discussion on other platforms, if you wish.
  10. Host an Instagram live show with another user. Did you know that you can add other users on your Instagram Live? You could plan a live stream with an expert on a particular theme and add other speakers in the stream without having to be physically in the same place. To add another person, they have to request to be added via the chat in the live stream. You could also have young people participate by having them appear in the live stream as well, though we would advise being careful about the topics or structure.
  11. Watch something together with young people. You could agree to watch a TV-programme, a YouTube -video or anything of interest together. You can use a digital messaging platform like WhatsApp to host a group to comment and discuss the content like you’re watching on the same sofa. Some platforms like Facebook (“watch parties” on that platform) also allow watching content together and discussing it.
  12. Give out tips for passing the time at home. Now that we are encouraged to spend most of our time home, we all need to figure out how to pass the time. Gather tips among colleagues how time is spent well and share them as a series of tips on, for example, Instagram Stories. The repeating content continues to engage young people on your social media and keeps them coming back. You could even try to start a social media challenge with the young people you work with.
  13. Have young people participate in writing a shared story. Grab your social media platform of choice and start a fictional story that can be added to by young people. You could, for example, share the beginning of your story (“It was a dark and stormy night..”, anyone?) on Instagram and give young people 24 hours to continue the story. Choose the most interesting one, share it with your followers and then rinse and repeat. You could keep the story going for a week or so and see where it goes.
  14. Host a group discussion on Instagram. One of the more recent features on Instagram are group discussions. You can host a group discussion using the stickers on Instagram stories. Read more about it here.
  15. Provide opportunities for anonymous discussion. Young people might have concerns or questions they would not want to share face-to-face or with their own name. Use your social media channels to inform young people that you can be anonymously contacted via for example Discord, Snapchat or KIK messenger. Be aware, of course, of any legislation that concerns your particular work community and be transparent of the limits of anonymity.
  16. Host an online jam session. Many gigs and concerts have been cancelled at this time. We also can’t host band activities at our youth houses. However, there are several online platforms you can use to be creative with young people! Many of the platforms that are usually used for online meetings like Google meet can be just as easily used to create music with young people, using any instruments they might have at home. There are also dedicated platforms for co-creating music online, for example, Jammr.
  17. Start a challenge on TikTok. Engage young people with your challenge. Come up with a suitable hashtag – like #boredathome – and create a campaign around it. First, you need to create your first entry and ask young people to contribute their entries. A follow-up could be #stufftodoathome to approach the topic from a different angle. On TikTok relatability and simple, quirky observations from daily life tend to work well.
  18. Organise a drawing event online. You can engage young people to be creative with a drawing game. For example, Drawesome and Skribblio allow you to host games where the platform randomly assigns a word for the one drawing and other participants try to guess what the word is. You can also make the event private so that you can limit the participants to ones receiving the links through your social media contacts. You could also make the whole thing even simpler by assigning kids a topic, having them draw it out and showcasing the creations (anonymously, if young people want) on your social media channels.
  19. Host a tournament in an online game. Use your skills as a youth worker to organise a tournament with young people on, for example, FIFA or NHL, or whichever game is on your young people’s plate these days. You can use your existing social media channels to organise everything and run the show. You could even consider streaming everything to get an audience going. Another approach could be to pick a few multiplayer mobile games and organise sessions around those.
  20. Make a game together with kids. The free, educational platform Scratch facilitates a low-barrier entry to creating games and animations without learning too much coding. As with any youth work activity, you could make things more engaging by having kids work in pairs or giving them a challenge, i.e. having one pair of kids create a maze, another a character and a third pair the bad guys for the game. The platform has loads of detailed instructions, and all previous creations are openly shared to help to make your custom creations.
  21. Offer to play games with young people. For young people, it can be precious that the secure adult they know are also present in the gaming environment they frequent. In online games, we can combine co-operation and doing something fun together. Simultaneously we can offer young people a coordinated gaming session, where the adult guarantees a safe environment with common rules, starting with the etiquette of behaviour. You can use any existing social media channels to set up gaming sessions, whether it’s WhatsApp, Discord or Steam’s built-in chat. To facilitate youth work during gaming, it can also be a good idea to use Discord or a similar voice platform to enable talking during the game, if the game itself doesn’t provide this.
  22. Start a podcast. Podcasts are a rising trend, also among young people. There are some good experiences on podcasts within youth work, both with just youth workers talking as well as young people. When we can’t be in the same place, you can use a free platform like Zencastr to record a podcast online. Themes can be anything you wish, or what young people choose to bring to the mix – although experience has shown that it pays off to have at least a loose structure for episodes. See one example of a youth work podcast here.

Something missing? Send your own good practice (in the format above, please) for us to add at juha(a)verke.org.