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The report was produced by researchers Deborah Erwin and Lorraine Thompson, using a combination of quantitative and qualitative research tools. The findings show thousands of young people missed out on the supports they would normally receive from local youth services as a result of Covid-19. Of 256 services surveyed for the report, 14% were unable to provide a service during lockdown, impacting on approximately 6,900 young people.
A further 59% of the services surveyed had experienced a reduction in the number of young people with whom they engaged, with figures falling from 59,822 to 18,391, equating to a drop of 70%. Only eight projects saw an increase in engagement in virtual activities during the pandemic.
Impact on ‘at risk’ young people
The report highlights how the Covid-19 pandemic made it more difficult for youth services to engage with ‘at risk’ or marginalised young people. 67% of youth workers surveyed cited this as a key limitation of the move to online models of working.
Commenting today, Mary Cunningham, CEO of NYCI, said: “Over the past six months, youth workers have shown their creativity, flexibility and commitment in numerous ways. However, the research shows clearly that – despite the strenuous efforts of youth services – young people who were already most at risk became the most disconnected during the pandemic. Young people already experiencing poverty, for example, became even more isolated.
“The pandemic exposed a whole range of inequalities and exacerbated vulnerabilities in the youth sector. Covid-19 had a compounding effect, whereby online engagement was significantly hampered for young people already experiencing marginalisation in various ways. The drop in engagement levels paints a stark picture and demonstrates just how important face-to-face youth work is, particularly for those in marginalised and vulnerable situations.”
Challenges of digital working
The challenges of delivering youth services digitally are highlighted in the research report, with key findings including:
- Almost one in four youth projects surveyed experienced difficulties with the switch to digital youth work because young people did not have adequate digital access.
- Similarly, 24% found staff lacked the requisite digital skills.
- 17% of survey respondents expressed concerns about safeguarding mechanisms not being in place for digital service delivery. Safeguarding concerns were a particular issue in relation to work with younger age groups, with youth workers highlighting the challenge of trying to connect with younger age groups where these young people might often be reliant on going online via a parent’s device and / or might be below the legal age limit for social media platforms.
- 68% of survey respondents cited young people’s reluctance to engage digitally as a major challenge.
While highlighting the challenges faced by the youth sector, the report also points to “good-practice examples” of youth services that responded proactively and effectively in the face of the pandemic. Examples cited include:
- The #GaisceAtHome campaign, which encouraged young people to stay active and engaged in their personal development and community action.
- Foróige’s ‘Feed Your Body, Fuel Your Life’ initiative, which was launched as a social media campaign to encourage young people to focus on mind, body and soul, addressing self-care through music, art, craft, design and food.
- ‘The Happiness Jar’, a podcast developed by a group of young people from YMCA Cork Region. It aims to tell the story of the COVID-19 pandemic from the perspective of young people.
- The Girls’ Brigade in Tallaght, whose members engaged in a ‘Covid Hearts’ project, where they sent handmade knitted or crocheted hearts to patients at Tallaght University Hospital.
- BelongTo, which conducted an ‘LGBTI+ Life in Lockdown’ survey, in which almost 300 LGBTI+ young people from all over Ireland participated.
“What youth workers and projects have managed to achieve in the midst of a global crisis is highly impressive and commendable,” said Mary Cunningham. “Youth workers have been thrown into the deep end, yet have stepped into the gap and embarked on a steep learning curve to support young people and their families in whatever way possible within public health guidelines. All this has come at a significant cost for youth workers and youth organisations, however, in terms of exhaustion, emotional labour, stress, unhealthy work/life boundaries, isolation from colleagues, challenges with regard to poor broadband connectivity and digital poverty, and safeguarding concerns.
“What is important now is for the youth sector to get into a stronger position to meet the current and emerging needs of young people in the face of challenges arising from the pandemic. Youth organisations need to be ready to change at a moment’s notice and prepare to offer a ‘blended’ approach to youth services combining digital and face-to-face methods. In the coming months, funding and investment for the youth sector will be vital, as will technological innovation and ICT infrastructure, training for digital skills and on various digital platforms, and Covid-19 compliance.”
Minister Roderic O’Gorman
The NYCI research report was officially launched at an online event today by Roderic O’Gorman TD, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Commenting on the report, the Minister said: “The youth work sector plays a vital role in supporting young people nationwide – particularly young people who are ‘at risk’ and marginalised. The support provided by youth services becomes even more important during times of crisis, such as those we’ve experienced over the past six months.
“This research clearly shows that youth services throughout Ireland have gone above and beyond to maintain contact and continue to provide supports to the young people with whom they work. I know this has not been easy, and I know challenges will remain in the aftermath of Covid-19. But I would like to commend the youth work sector on their responsiveness and commitment to date.”
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Notes to Editors
The National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) is a membership-led umbrella organisation that represents and supports the interests of 55 voluntary youth organisations and uses its collective experience to act on issues that impact on young people. Further information is available at www.youth.ie or by following NYCI on Twitter, @nycinews.
Youth worker and young people case studies are available to the media on request.
About the Research Report
In June 2020, NYCI commissioned Deborah Erwin and Lorraine Thompson to conduct an independent review of the youth work sector response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The review involved:
- Desk research: A review of NYCI members’ websites and social media platforms; a review of data and research from other jurisdictions on advice and responses to the pandemic; a review of NYCI online ‘check-in’ sessions with youth workers.
- Survey with sector projects: the survey was distributed to youth sector organisations running from 24th June to 10th July 2020. There were 256 valid responses to the survey. Respondents were representative of a wide range of thematic and geographical areas.
- Semi-structured interviews with stakeholders: 15 interviews were carried out with representatives from youth sector projects and took place in July 2020 via Zoom or WhatsApp.
- Focus groups with young people: 5 focus groups from 4 organisations were facilitated via Zoom during July and early August. A total of 16 young people participated from the ages of 14-25.