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Engaging with young people online: navigating the opportunities and risks

Throughout history, the Church has been consistently changing and adapting the way it communicates the unchanging message of God's grace. Even in these unsettling and unprecedented times, we’ve seen the church courageously reinventing the way it does ‘church’ by embracing technology to reach out and minister to its community through various online means. 

However, for those involved in youth and children’s work, this emerging digital frontier has long been part and parcel of their work because most young people are familiar with the digital space. It’s where they feel ‘at home’, live out much of their lives and conduct most of their social interaction.

As churches (and particularly youth ministries) rush to get up to speed with the latest ways of communicating online, we are posed with both a great opportunity to innovate and engage with young people in new and relevant ways and a significant risk in ensuring we continue to keep our children and young people safe from harm.

As part of an ongoing partnership, Christian charities Thirtyone:eight and Youthscape have recently released a set of guidance in response to the current situation and on communicating and working safely with young people online. 

Martin Saunders, director of innovation and deputy CEO at Youthscape says: “Digital technologies present a huge range of opportunities for innovation in youth work. Even when we’re not able to physically meet with young people in groups or as individuals, the internet enables us to connect in a range of ways. 

"Young people who find it difficult to meet and talk in person can often feel much more comfortable communicating behind the ’safety’ of a screen. Connecting through a smartphone or computer opens up huge potential for a different kind of outreach, where we can invite young people to view and even participate in activities without ever having to cross the threshold of a church or other physical meeting space.”

Technology allows us to reach beyond the physical barriers that exist and continue to stay connected. But what does this mean for youth work and particularly adapting to the change in physically meeting and holding events for young people?

Consider the risks

Martin explains: “Online youth work can take many forms, which may include: meeting as a group through an online video chat platform; connecting with individuals and groups through messaging software; broadcasting activities or video on social platforms; or a video call with a young person and two approved youth workers. 

"Each of these methods can provide a great opportunity for youth work, which otherwise might not happen, or even for an enhanced experience of what is possible. But all come with risks, which we need to understand and plan for.”

Communicating with groups and holding virtual gatherings via online platforms as well as being a great opportunity to engage, also present a number of challenges and safeguarding risks that should be considered before jumping ahead.

Justin Humphreys, joint-CEO at Thirtyone:eight, says: “It’s important to remember that communicating with young people online, whether via messaging or video, is the equivalent of meeting that young person in real life. Just as meeting in a room on your own with no one around brings with it risks, so too does meeting them on your own in the virtual space. Even group calls or broadcast media carry their own set of risks that we must be careful to mitigate against. 

"That’s why we’ve create this guidance with Youthscape to help churches and youth workers think through the various implications and risks, and to help them respond appropriately. Some of the potential areas of risk include: the opportunity for grooming/sexual exploitation; sharing of personal contact details of young people and youth workers; inappropriate conversations between young people and workers; potential allegations against workers; use of apps with minimum age restrictions; and the facilitation of abusive or unkind behaviour (cyber-bullying) between young people.

"What we would urge all churches and organisations to do, as they are thinking about making alternative arrangements for the foreseeable future and engaging young people online, is to make sure you are consulting your safeguarding coordinator or your parish safeguarding officer so that they can talk through with you the potential implications and make sure that whatever we are doing to keep connected with young people and other vulnerable people in our communities that we're doing it safely."

Check your policy

As you establish new ways of communicating and working with young people online you need to ensure that this is covered in your organisation’s guidance and policy. Your safeguarding policy should be a working document that is continually reviewed and updated as your work develops, and many organisations will create a separate policy specifically for issues related to online safety.

An online safety policy will typically include: expected ways of communicating with young people online; advice on which online platforms have been agreed for use by the organisation; information around consent and permissions ie what level is needed for what and by whom; codes of conduct on acceptable use; information on how to respond to concerns.

Another important consideration that may go overlooked is that some young people do not have access to reliable technology. So, as we plan activities that might only be accessible online, we need to continue to consider who might inadvertently be left out or isolated by this method, and ways we might continue to keep in contact.

Engaging with young people online can be daunting, especially if you’re doing it for the first time, but it doesn’t have to be.  Seeing it as an opportunity to continue to engage and build relationships with young people, can often help overcome the fear of getting it wrong or of losing connection with young people who may already be on the margins of your church community.  Thinking through the potential risks and getting an understanding of the pitfalls and areas of concern, will help you make sure that however you choose to engage online, that you’re doing it safely and in a way that properly protects those with whom you are working.

You can download the guidance on communicating and working safely with young people online from the thirtyone:eight website here: thirtyoneeight.org/resources.

Thirtyone:eight is an independent Christian safeguarding charity. Call on 0303 003 1111 for professional and compassionate support around safeguarding in your organisation.