Our brains in their hands – how tech isolates our children and why youth work offers a real world solution to the problem

10 November 2023

Debating the future of youth work in a futuristic society

At last week’s U.K. A.I. Safety Summit, Elon Musk grabbed the global headlines by declaring that, “There will come a point where no job is needed. The A.I. will be able to do everything”. Queue much debate about the pointlessness of human existence without work, and how we might all choose to spend the giant amounts of spare time that technological advances could afford us in the future. As if tech isn’t presenting huge challenges for us all right now. Young people’s lives in particular are constantly impacted by the digital world, in fact recent research shows that’s pretty much where they are living: gaming, socialising, campaigning, chatting with strangers. Whatever people born before the digital generations are doing in the real world, young people are replicating on a screen. 

Although kids are back in class and, for most, online learning is thing of the pandemic past, school age children spend 85% of their time outside school, living lives dominated by online interactions and isolation rather than experiencing the face-to-face activities, opportunities and social connection they need to develop confidence and skills for adulthood. Research1 published last month involving over 5000 young people, shows that 76% of them spend the majority of their free time on screens and are totally alone for 18% of that time. A third conduct most of their conversations with friends online, and almost half say they have no way of making new connections other than via a screen. And it goes on… 84% watch streamed content, 80% spend most of their free time in their home, 96% who cite gaming as the thing they do the most are gaming almost every day. It is clear that these statistics are linked to the fact that 50% of young people say they experience high or very high levels of anxiety. 

Youth work is not the only response to this crisis of loneliness, anxiety and isolation, and youth clubs are just one place in which youth work happens, but we must question why 91% of young people never go to one when 89% of those who do find that it makes a positive difference to their lives, and of those, a third say that difference comes from forming new friendships. How is the youth sector adapting to the world in which our young people have been living for successive generations, and how can the youth sector keep providing relevant services in an ever evolving digital landscape? Should we, can we, afford to constantly adapt: and can we afford not to?

To bring National Youth Work Week to a very sociable close, this morning, Oxfordshire Youth’s Tracy Blackstock, Head of Youth Development, David Cruchley, Senior Partnerships Manager and James Edney, Youth Sector Development Coordinator hosted a cross-sector debate exploring these questions. A huge thank you to Lorraine Nicholls, Senior Youth Worker for Be Free Young Carers, Chris Chaundy, Director, Rose Hill Junior Youth Club and Zahid Bhatti, Principle and Chief Executive, EMBS college for devoting their valuable time to this important discussion which, just like the tech our young people are using, will require constant updates. 

Pull up a (high) chair and listen to sector leaders talk tech, outreach, friendships and funding, funding, funding!

1 All statistics from OnSide’s ‘Generation Isolation’ report. Generation Isolation is based on responses from 5,072 young people in England aged 11-18 and was conducted in partnership with YouGov.

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