Growing up in South Africa, poverty and unemployment were the norm. Young people dropped out of school to join gangs; violence and drug addiction were part of a lot of the daily routine in many communities; many young people were exploited, abused and neglected, just as in millions of communities around the world where the future seems dim.
Working in the children and family arena for many years in Britain, and helping some of the most disadvantaged families and young people, I have realised that although the location may differ, these young people, too, have plenty to block out.
For at-risk young people experiencing multiple challenges in their lives, there can also be huge gaps in the support they receive. Services may be unable to identify the different issues or engage effectively across them. Reductions in public spending mean fewer services are available with rising thresholds to access support. Opportunities are missed for earlier intervention for the most vulnerable young people. This leads to escalating problems and lasting negative outcomes that have a devastating effect on young people, as well as a detrimental and costly impact for society at large.
But with the advent of social media, I have observed youth obsession with technology; a double-edged sword. It has opened up pathways and opportunities to grow networks and connections. It has provided a gateway to quicker, easier and more diverse sharing of experience, information and knowledge. At the same time, it has opened the door to exploitation, bullying, a very transient and disingenuous sense of “friendship”, and an overload of information/communication that can actually compound the sense of isolation some young people feel.
My curiosity about this led me to wonder how we can harness the hope and stickiness of technology to help young people overcome challenges in their lives.
Tackling social problems requires a plethora of services and resources that many low-income communities don’t or can’t access. And technology is no silver bullet. Yet, as improbable as it sounds, it’s beginning to build bridges for young people from despair to hope. In my time on the tech scene, I’ve seen at least three ways that technology is breaking social stigmas caused by poverty, and helping and empowering young people to see themselves as part of the solution to challenges facing their communities.
Many vulnerable young people are full of potential but can face huge barriers to thriving where they are exposed to risks, live in challenging environments, and experience adversity. Yet too often, seeking help can be perceived as a weakness or debility, so many young people avoid it, even if it’s free and on their doorstep. We’ve seen an increase in accessible text-based, online counselling services and apps, for instance. This offers young people a way to anonymously reach out to counsellors and therapists located in different places. This tech can also enable the professionals to connect conversations behind the scenes, to track progress and see trends in behaviour. The stigma of accessing counselling decreases as more young people access these services.
Accessing advice and information is also becoming easier as tech like chatbots take flight; enabling young people to access specifically tailored information and advice at any time of day, which replicates the human interactions without the associated costs. Ally is a prime example of this; a chatbot connecting young people to relevant and tailored information about housing, benefits and employment. Next step will be connecting it to voice assistants.
Just as technology can build connections between young people and the help they need, it can also connect them to helping others. Job shortages in a community don’t imply a shortage of work that needs to be done. A great example of where technology has inspired young people to help others is via web-based platforms where young people are able to share their skills and expertise with others through volunteering opportunities, while being connected with local job or work experience opportunities to allow them to build profiles and experience that recruiters can access.
Just as technology coupled with the right content in the hands of young people can be exceptionally beneficial, so too, for the people working with these young people. ‘EdTech’ e-learning platforms, can enable a wider scale of upskilling in shorter periods of time. Traditional face-to-face training models are often expensive, arduous and time consuming, so blended models of delivery (online and offline) seem to be more popular these days. These platforms allow many people to be trained to better support and work with young people; from enhanced understanding of how to spot the signs of many of the challenges they might be facing (like The Children’s Society’s Seen and Heard e-learning platform, which helps health professionals to spot the signs of sexual abuse and exploitation) to tools which they can use with young people during one-to-one or groups sessions (like Mind Moose, a web platform aimed at building resilience in young people).
These are all interesting and creative ways in which tech can be used to better support young people with multiple vulnerabilities.
By Kirsten Naude
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