Risk, resilience and young people online

A few weeks ago i attended two conferences on how young people use the internet and the risks and opportunities involved. Both were fantastic experiences and i not only enjoyed attending the conferences and hearing from young people and practitioners around the country but also presenting to such fantastic audiences.

Munch, Poke, Ping

The first conference, “Munch Poke Ping”, was hosted by Stephen Carrick-Davies and was something i had been looking forward to for a long time given that the subject matter was so intertwined with my own experiences and work. Originally i had asked Stephen, who i met through Katie Bacon of Online Youth Outreach, if i could attend. This led to me not only attending but also presenting at the conference about my own experiences of using the internet as a therapeutic tool, the positive power of peer support and the work i am doing currently with YoungMinds and MyHealthLondon.

The conference was attended by professionals working with children and young people from a variety of perspectives including teachers, support workers, youth workers, psychologists and others and the line up on the stage was just as varied as the audience itself.

Among the line up were speakers from PRUs including pupils, staff and a headteacher as well as Online Youth Outreach, Blackberry and Dr.Richard Graham who works with young people with technology addictions.

Although i am well versed in public speaking this event, for me, was a little daunting as it was my first foray into speaking as a professional and not just a “young person” or “service user” (the labels normally attributed to me). However as soon as i had a microphone in front of me i was fine! (Something that i imagine would shock those who went to school with me where i was known for being quiet and anything but happy about standing up in front of large groups of people).

After a somewhat dark session in the morning looking at grooming i spoke about the positive effect of the internet and how i believe it has helped me and helped me help others over the years. I did this through talking about my own experiences of mental illness and using and running support groups and forums online. I wanted to stress that not everything that happens on the internet is bad or untoward and that actually thousands of young people are helped every day by the peer support they receive online.

I have noticed that professionals, when considering young people and their internet use (especially “vulnerable” young people), find it very hard to see beyond one thing. Risk.

This means that projects are often slowed down or more likely not even considered, I hear a lot of fear and dismissal of service user involvement and participation let alone the concept of peer support within this.

My answer? Yes there are risks involved in going online, and yes some people are more “vulnerable” than others, however there is risk inherent in all areas of life. Risk is a fact of life and people will do “risky” things regardless, you may not be able to stop it but imagine the effect it would have if you could at least help manage and minimise it.

The ban and block  culture and our fear of the worst case scenario paralyses us and certainly does not move us forward.


And while bigger organisations are pondering all the worst case scenarios of having even, say, a pre-moderated, closed forum for service users, service users like me have been doing this for a decade now.

And i understand the fear that exists, believe me. I understand the fear of lawsuits and Daily Mail fodder but please bear in mind it can be done, and done well.

It’s not about trying to making risk obsolete, it’s about building resilience, educating young people and providing support; just check out what the Cybermentors do.

There are safeguarding measures that you can put in place, so many i wouldn’t know where to start..and do you know what? A lot of them are common sense! Like not giving out personal details online, just like you shouldn’t give them to a stranger in the street.

I’m sure most young people would tell you too that we don’t want to be wrapped in cotton wool and actually we need to learn by experience.

Personally i doubt exactly where i would be today without the peer support i have and currently still get online, i don’t imagine it would be a good place.

It has been a part of my life for around ten years now including before, during and after more conventional psychological help. Yes the help that i was receiving wasn’t from someone qualified in any paper-based way but i was fully aware of that going in. Not only that but the support was free and, unlike most mental health services, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. A stark contrast to most service provision which operate on a strictly 9-5 basis (with a few exceptions of course). No two year waiting lists in sight either..

I don’t blame the services. I understand the pressure they are under, it was pretty bad ten years ago and with the brutal cuts to the NHS things aren’t looking too good here on the ground right now.

Peer support should be encouraged, as a grass roots movement of sorts it already wields immense power and touches and enhances the lives of thousands. Just look at the hit counts on websites that are already doing it. And look at how successful ChildLine and Beat Bullying for great examples of how to reach out online.

It was amazing to be given a platform to speak about something that is so important to me both personally and professionally. It is the reason that with YoungMinds and MyHealthLondon i am developing an app and website to help young people who need support.

I met some incredibly interesting people throughout the day and the conversation continued both at the conference and on twitter (#mpp #munchpokeping).

The day after was a conference run by YoungMinds and ACAMH titled “Young people in the internet wilderness: a ticking time bomb?”,  my next post will be coming shortly!

Connected Generation 2011

Well I’m here at Youth Work Online’s Connected Generation unConference and i must say even with a lot of conferences under my belt this already feels different and i love the feel of the space (The Hub at Kings X) and the ethos of unConferences. As someone who has often done things a bit differently (the road less travelled and all that) an unConference is right up my street. Although Tim Davies of Practical Participation and Katie Bacon of Online Youth Outreach are chairing, we, the participants picked what we wanted to talk about and set the agenda for the day.The morning covered the following subjects with five discussions going on at any one time:

• Getting beyond risk assessment with participation provision
• Mentoring online and offline
• Changing perceptions of social media
• Informed consent and young people’s rights about online content
• How do we make online participation safe for young people
• Online newsrooms
• Getting whole organisations on board in social networking
• How do we make online participation safe for young people
• Basics of legal information for online youthwork
• Do virtual learning environments work?
And after lunch (during which time much pizza was eaten by the delegates and a lot of networking when on which was great to see):
• How can we evaluate how effective our online interventions are?
• Death of local democracy
• How do we get people to see the value of change
• What training is needed and how can it be delivered?
• Why blog? Blogging as an effective tool
• Youth work online group
• Productivity and digital technology-what works for you in improving your productivity and time management at work
• Tackling racism and homophobia online
• Gaming and stories
So we weren’t ambitious or anything!

People were free throughout the conference to move about and talk about the issues that wanted to in the subjects they chose at the beginning of the day. Such a great, open and flexible way of doing conferences. I sat in on four discussion groups, taking notes for this blog, tweeting live and getting involved too. Because there’s a lot to cover i’ll just do a quick summary of these but if you want to know more about what i’ve been speaking about just send me a message and perhaps i will do some more comprehensive blogs on individual topics in the near future.

1. Perceptions of young people and social media

We had a very interesting mix of people at the conference and this particular group had youth workers, people working in local government and charities and me representing young people and mental health. It was nice hearing from so many different perspectives and i like to think that i wasn’t the only person that learnt something new.

The discussion started with a broad conversation about how young people and social media are perceived by the general public. The general consensus was that it’s not a great picture! Negativity sells so of course the headlines are going to be about anti-social behaviour and not some of the amazing positive things young people do. I think as young people we can probably all say that we have felt misrepresented by the media in the past. And that’s before we even start talking about young people and mental health.

There was the suggestion that young people need to be pro-active in changing society’s view of them. However i struggle with this and the term “young people” in general just because we are in no way all the same and it seems unfair that we are often all tarnished with the same brush. It may be a sign that i am young person when i say that this is “unfair” but i think it’s true.

We also looked at the way in which local government and other large organisations use (or more often don’t use) social media and the issue was raised that when it comes to social media, adults are often too fearful. The policy that is written is not enabling, it’s very much prescriptive, telling people what they can’t do (just look at how many schools and companies have a blanket ban on sites like Facebook).

This led to a discussion about how social media could be put to good use if we weren’t so scared and apprehensive about it and nicely ties in with another discussion later in the day when one of the delegates told us about a primary school that actively blogs and how well this has worked for them.

2. PuzzledOut
Next a discussion around PuzzledOut, the online consultation and participation tool developed by CERNIS for young people to feedback on their experience of CAMHS and for commissioners and practitioners to see what young people in their area are saying.
The discussed was hosted by Joe from PuzzledOut (@JoeRoberson1).
This is something that has already been discussed on the VIK website in the past so i won’t take long on this but in short i will say i love it! It’s an excellent way for young people to get their voices hear and hopefully see real change based on their thoughts and opinions about their CAMHS service as well as being able to see what other people think about their service by viewing survey results from their area.

3. The death of local democracy

I think that this was one of my favourite discussions of the day, a real exploration of politics, education and the philosophy surrounding these subjects, it really got my brain working and some fascinating points came out of it. As i mentioned before these will only be brief summaries of the discussions (which were each an hour long) so i may well have to blog about this topic further as i want to do justice to the great conversation we had.

We discussed how young people view politics and this was even worse than how society views young people (as discussed earlier in the day)! The general consensus was that young people have absolutely no faith in and very low opinions of politicians at all level of government. The message that politicians give young people is that they can vote and make a difference, their voice will be heard and yet politicians have broken their promises time and time again. It’s no wonder we don’t trust a word that comes out of their mouths!

We also considered that perhaps a lot of young people are not apathetic, they are passionate but they don’t see the point in voting because nothing ever changes. This frustration is growing by the day and the evidence is the growing number of protests, marches, sit-ins, etc that are being held by young people. And unfortunately sometimes this frustration translates to violence but as i remember hearing someone say after the tuition fees protests maybe the violence is okay? After all a small minority of young people may have caused some superficial damage to windows and shops but the government is destroying our education system!

There was also the point that we need to hurry up and start valuing youth workers. We play down their role so much in this country when in reality they have an incredibly important job; they work directly with and support the future of this country..including this country’s future politicians! We need to make use of them and value them.

There was so much else discussed and i hate to do the subject an injustice so briefly some final messages to take away:

• We play down the role of youth workers in this country when they are really important, they work directly with the future politicians of this country, make use of them and value them!
• Politicians are openly seen as liars by young people
• Changing the attitudes and mindsets of politicians is the most difficult
• People are only apathetic because they know that what they say won’t be taken on board by politicians and nothing will change
• More political education in schools-young people don’t know enough
• Manage young people’s expectations of politics and politicians
• Don’t dumb down issues for young people-give them some credit
• Democracy is a process not a test, there isn’t a right or wrong answer
• To new politicians: you’ve arrived, great, but you’ve just started
• Young people are good at self organising (facebook groups on any and every issue under the sun) but adults and politicians do not engage with this-untapped wealth of information, resources and voices
• Politicians: back off and let the future generation take the reigns a bit-but they’re very reluctant to do so, politicians have a sense of entitlement and authority because they have been elected-but actually they’re just normal people really

4. Why blog? Using blogging as an effective tool.
And finally a discussion purely about blogging and why people should get involved which was always going to lure me in. As most of you already know i have been moderating forums, journaling and blogging online for almost eight years now and so i couldn’t wait to hear other people’s experiences of the “blogosphere” and share some of my own.
The session was lead by Amy McLeod (@AFMcLeod), a blogger who works at Warwick University and she discussed how blogging had helped her both personally (blogging can be a very cathartic process) and academically (it helps develop writing and typing skills). We shared some of our own gems including Posterous and Tumblr as well as WordPress and shared good and bad experiences of blogging.
It was a really interesting discussion and by the end of it several members of the group who had never considered blogging before were beginning to change their mind which is great!

The top tip that came out of the conversation was this: know who your audience is. We decided that this is one of the most important things that bloggers need to do in order to make sure they are talking about things that interest their readers and will keep them reading future blogs. And also something that i hadn’t come across before that @timdavies mentioned was this tool:30 days to a better blog http://www.blogworld.com/tag/30-days-to-a-better-blog/
Which i will definitely be checking out.

So all in all a wonderful event, innovative, creative and flexible. It had a much nicer feel than a lot of conferences i have been to previously and i came out of it feeling positive and relaxed which is a big difference from how i usually feel: rushed and somewhat manic. I will definitely be attending next year and i really hope that there will be some more young people there too, i would definitely recommend it to any young people interested in politics, the internet, technology and youthwork!

First published 22nd May 2011: