Youth work and social media: boundaries

Jon Jolly has posted here about the issue of how we set boundaries in our online interactions with young people, citing a forum discussion he kicked off at UK Youth Online.

Here are a few thoughts from our experience, which may have turned into a bit of a ramble, but here goes anyway.

Within CYO our approach is to attempt to replicate the boundaries that we set by, for example, not giving our personal mobile numbers. In practice this means using work email addresses rather than personal ones. When it comes to social networking we do not admit young people (under 18's) that we work with as friends on e.g. FaceBook. Although it hasn't come to it yet, if we felt the need to set up a social networking space, we'd do it in our professional rather than personal capacity. A social networking space in a youth work context will naturally appeal to the same good practice guidelines about how much you share with young people to preserve professional boundaries. So, what photos you post (if any?), what you say in messaging, how much info you add to your profile, how often you update it or are available for IM chat. The guidelines we follow in other aspects of professional youth work practice convert fairly easily to this kind of Social Networking as long as it represents our professional persona.

Most IM clients allow you to save the message log and if you're using
instant messaging with young people I would suggest it's good practice
to save conversations; just as one would log phone calls, make a record
of texts sent / received and save emails.

Collective, the girl band that work in partnership with us, have set up a MySpace page to allow a level of social networking with young people they meet. In their case it's a bit easier and less 'personal' in that they always present themselves as a band and never as individuals, so when replying to young people's emails they sign off as 'Collective' rather than as the person writing the email. If you're the only or main youth worker then obviously this isn't an option – you've got to sign off as yourself!

As above, none of us, including the members of Collective, accept friend requests from young people. However, it's a feature of the internet that if they want to, anyone can find you. We had a very persistent young person who managed to follow a long and ingenious trail to find out personal details about one of Collective.  I would therefore advise anyone, whether working with young people or not, to be circumspect about what they post and where, youth workers especially.

We need to exercise care in what we post – this obviously includes things like blogs and Flickr accounts. There's a whole load of photos I haven't posted to my Flickr account, some for artistic reasons (!) and some because they include people and I want to retain absolute control over how / if I use them, who sees them and in which context. You don't have to post everything; know yourself and be aware of your motives, just as you would be in your work with young people. And be very careful about what gets uploaded to YouTube!

I blog with clear reference to my employer, CYO, and use my work email address, so although it's my personal blog I need to post with regard to the way what I say will reflect on CYO. Anyone can read it, including my Trustees and young people so I seek to post in a way that would not cause problems if one of the young people we work with came by for a look. This means no names of young people and often insufficient identifying information (e.g. name of school) to ensure that if you didn't know the situation already you wouldn't be able to derive missing information.

Any major flaws, or advice you'd add? You're welcome to comment here, but you could also pop over to Jon's blog or the UK Youth Online forum.

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4 Responses to Youth work and social media: boundaries

  1. Jon Jolly says:

    Hi Tim,
    Thanks for taking the time to weigh in on the discussion. I found this really useful and agree with most of what you said. I have one question though; where do you draw boundaries for young people that you know personally outside of work (through family friends for example) and yet who also access some of the activities you do through work? Because they are ‘friends’ would you add them on Facebook, or would this cause more confusion?

  2. Tim Abbott says:

    My view is that the final determinant is not social networking but good youth work practice. It’s very tempting to make an exception for a young person we know socially from another context.
    Some examples;
    – a son / daughter of close friends in the church with whom we have a relationship that predates the young person reaching youth group age;
    – a young person who has been life long friends with our own son / daughter and who knows us well from much time spent in our house as a visitor.
    I would hope that young people who are family friends could understand our reasons, given that they already have an appreciation of our work. Also, they still have the breadth and depth of the relationship we have with them other than through social networking.
    Not admitting these young people as a friend also avoids having to explain or justify to other young people why you accepted one young person, but are not prepared to accept another. Appealing to Youth Work Policy is much easier than having to justify a value judgment about two people’s friendship!

  3. Hilary Mason says:

    An interesting discussion here Tim – thanks for posting your thoughts as it will definately add to our conversation and thoughts as we develop our policies.

  4. Tim Abbott says:

    Hilary – thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving a comment.
    That Dan Meyer clip on your blog is well inspiring!
    My view on the explosion of new communication technologies of the last decade (mobiles, text, blogs, social networking) is that they add new layers to communications. Each one therefore needs to be held in some kind of balance with other forms of communication. This is helpful not only to avoid becoming besotted with the latest technologies but also to stay aware of the potential social exclusion that can befall those without the financial or skillset resources to access these things.
    And I’m still aware that often the most precious encounter a young person can have with a youth worker is face to face time!

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