Cardiff’s digital skills help boost engagement
Tuesday, October 24, 2023
Youth services in the Welsh capital have expanded their reach by developing digital youth clubs and projects designed alongside young people.
When the first Covid-19 lockdown happened in March 2020, Cardiff Council’s youth services realised it was going to need to move provision online to stay in touch with children and young people.
“Our use of digital technology was no great shakes then,” reflects James Healan, Cardiff’s youth services manager. “We had a small corporate web page that few professionals and fewer young people visited, and a Facebook page that was intermittently used.”
The necessity of the situation meant Healan was able to secure some funding to employ senior digital youth officer Dayle Luce and begin a journey that has, over the past three years, transformed the service to the point where its digital youth work is winning plaudits.
Luce, who already worked for the council as a mentor, was given what Healan describes as “the biggest task in the council at the time” to adapt established ways of working to operate in the digital space.
“He was quite blown away by the challenge at first, but then reverted to good old fashioned youth work and said ‘I’ll try to engage young people to find out what they need’,” says Healan.
A Young Creators group was established which quickly grew from four to 21 young people to assess the youth service’s online provision.
“Their analysis was pretty stark,” says Healan. “They said ‘we can’t really engage with you online; you haven’t got the technology; and most of your staff haven’t got the skills’.”
A new website was created with young people that sits outside the corporate framework, with a remit to engage Cardiff young people and provide content for professionals and other support services.
Its minimal use of social media was also overhauled. It still uses Facebook to promote the work of individual projects, but also uses Instagram and Snapchat.
The biggest development was the creation of an online youth club using the gaming platform Discord. The idea came from young gamers who had met on Discord and built up relationships but wanted something more.
“They explained that they could have different rooms and undertake different activities, group watch a film, discuss a topic facilitated by a youth worker or have a one-to-one chat,” explains Healan. “The big thing was we had to build a business case and young people helped with that.”
The young people’s pitch was successful, and the Discord club was created. Club sessions are run twice a week for young people aged 13 to 17. It is a closed server and to become a member young people have an initial meeting with a youth worker. This protects against fake accounts and any grooming risks, Healan explains.
A separate gaming club has also been created on Discord which meets once a week and young people who have become friends online also meet up in person at physical youth centres and for social activities.
Healan says that this approach has helped engage harder-to-reach young people.
“It takes a certain type of young person to walk through the door of a youth centre, but what it has allowed us to do is reach those who are socially anxious or isolated at home and develop their self-esteem and confidence to be able to come to a bowling session or creative session in a youth centre,” he explains.
“Now they regularly meet and take part in activities outside of that online space.”
The youth service’s increased digital presence caught the attention of a broadcast and film expert in the United States who was about to retire from his high school job.
“He looked at our digital footprint, saw we were doing innovative stuff but thought he could make it better for us,” says Healan. He volunteered for a summer and “transformed” the content on the website through his “phenomenal” editing skills.
The connection has resulted in a student exchange last year which saw seven young people from the US come to Cardiff to provide peer mentoring as part of a digital summer camp where Cardiff young people went out filming, broadcasting and live reporting.
“The kind of content we’re creating now is miles ahead of where we were,” says Healan. “One of the pillars of youth work in Wales is to let young people express themselves in any way they can, which today means filming on a smartphone or creating a podcast. What the team has embraced is the idea that young people are miles ahead of us and we want them to lead us in the direction that they want.”
Organisationally, the growing demand for digital youth work has strengthened the case for more resources for the service, with two new members of staff recently recruited.
Another benefit has been how the project has boosted the skills of youth workers generally.
“For example, our street-based workers now do evaluations with QR codes,” adds Healan. “Open access centres will have mini young creator groups creating content for their own website pages. Young people receiving targeted support now record a podcast or video about their journey.”
There are now 30 members of the Young Creators group and more than 80 who access the Discord digital youth club regularly.
Participation has improved young people’s mental wellbeing too, helped them gain transferable skills in digital production, and is more impactful for funders and decisionmakers. “It has transformed how staff and young people across Cardiff embrace technology,” says Healan.
Cardiff Youth Service also won the digital innovation award at the Youth Work Excellence Awards 2022.
A new post-16 Discord club is soon to be established in response to a rise in the number of isolated and marginalised older teenagers who need support that is not face-to-face, adds Healan.
Meanwhile, broadcaster Sky is funding the installation of fibre optic broadband into Cardiff youth centres and creating a digital lab in one of them that will help tackle digital deprivation and improve young people’s digital skills.