Learning from, working with at-risk youth

By Anne Collier

A lot of great work on social media and at-risk youth has been done in the UK by Internet-safety consultant Stephen Carrick-Davies, and here’s an important takeaway from his latest work: Educators and other professionals who work with marginalized young people need to understand and use social media – the social and communications tools of their everyday lives.

In the UK, some of that work happens at “PRUs” – Pupil Referral Units, where the some 14,000 students “excluded from mainstream schools” get a basic secondary education. Carrick-Davies writes in The Guardian that 79% of these UK students “have some form of special educational need.” He also writes that, in his work with them – often through filming and interviewing students at PRUs like The Bridge Academy (see the video at the bottom of the “Mature Eyes Only” column on this page in his site) – he and the students have “been able to explore the paradox that, despite being digitally connected, young people are largely having to cope alone.”

What educators can understand

Over the past year, the subject of London’s summer 2011 riots would come up, and when Stephen asked them who they turn to for advice when events like that happen around them – teachers, parents, police, the UK youth helpline? – “the almost unanimous response was: ‘No way, we’d only be able to talk to our mates, they’re the only ones who would understand’.

Well, there are a lot of things kids just feel adults don’t understand, but beyond that age-old challenge, there are two other kinds of understanding needed, I’m seeing in Stephen’s videos and writing and in my conversations with other risk-prevention specialists: the everyday life piece and the technology piece. Educators, school counselors, social workers, and other professionals understand a lot about these students’ everyday struggles and home environments, but not so much about the tech part. Training is clearly needed not only in the technology but also in how youth use it (here, I’m building on what Stephen writes – I hope he agrees):

* Embrace and use the social media tools that they love and that are so embedded in the way they live their offline lives (Stephen writes, “None of the teachers I talked to knew how to help a child block a fellow [BlackBerry Messenger user] who was being abusive or threatening”). With just a little training, adult mentors can help (to the extent that blocking a fellow user can resolve relationship issues). But also…
* Understand how students communicate and play with media and tech, individually and collectively – follow the social-media research as well as the youth-risk research or at least talk with their own students and clients about how they use these tools, what they like about them and what frustrates them. Have them teach you their own everyday uses, strategies, and best practices before discussing what will seem to them to be adults’ theoretical best practices. In the process, you’ll begin to figure out together where technology is helpful and not so helpful.

Leverage social media

“Those working with vulnerable young people need great wisdom and courage to pilot new models of engagement and professional practice,” Stephen writes. “The government advice to simply remove mobiles from schools is like saying we don’t have a problem with smoking because we have a no-smoking policy. The PRUs I worked in were realising that simply banning mobile phones and social networking creates an ‘unwinnable war’.”

So they’ve got the banning-doesn’t-work part right. Next is to end the “war” and make peace with, ideally embrace, technologies and media that, to at-risk youth, afford support and community at least as much as risk of harm – and figure out with them how to maximize the support. Because the research shows that the harm they’re dealing with is mostly offline.

Related links

* Kris Gowen, a researcher at Portland State University in Oregon, recently published an audio presentation on the Web about “eHealth Literacy,” looking at how youth with serious mental health conditions use the Net for info and support regarding their mental health. [Along with her own data, she cites Pew Internet’s showing that 72% of US 18-to-29-year-olds have looked up health information online and about a third mental health information.] Here’s a page with links to text publications based on Gowen’s research.
* A “textbook” I’d recommend to anyone who works with youth – for understanding how they communicate, play, and work with social media – is Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (MIT Press, 2010), reflecting the work of 22 researchers studying youth new-media practices at home, school, and in after-school programs over three years.
* Further insight can be gained from in the final report (Sept. ’11) of the EU Kids Online researchers studying the practices of more than 25,000 9-to-15-year-olds in in nearly 3 dozen countries from Norway to Cyprus. The lead researchers, Sonia Livingstone, Leslie Haddon, and Anke Gorzig, have also just released their book Children, Risk and Safety on the Internet.
* A video interview with Stephen on this project
* My post about the first phase of Stephen’s “Munch, Poke, Ping” project and how it fits with work over here that applies public health’s Levels of Prevention to Internet safety
* Scroll down from here in Stephen Carrick-Davies’s siteto a lot of great video interviews with some great educators and very smart, so-called at-risk students

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