Emerging Technology, Engaging Youth, and Your Mission: YOLO!

At Pathways to Education, we offer cross-cultural conflict resolution training called YOUCAN, and one of the first topics we cover with the students is that the analogy of an iceberg can be useful in understanding people.

Typically, you only see about 10% of an iceberg above the water, and the remaining 90% remains submerged and unseen. We use this analogy to help students remember that when interacting and communicating with others, there is much underneath the surface that remains to be discovered through conversation and engagement.

The iceberg analogy can be a particularly powerful analogy when we think about how we might use social media to truly engage youth. While there is an increasing number of youth-facing nonprofits that employ organizational Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, the usage of separate, professional, Facebook profiles and Twitter accounts can be a more meaningful way to engage young people. In our experience, effective engagement and monitoring of social media in this way can help reveal the “hidden” 90%.

To illustrate this, we will draw upon the high-profile example of 17-year-old Yannis Carayannopoulos, also known as the “YOLO streaker.” In 2012, Yannis hopped over the fence at the Roger’s Centre in Toronto during a Blue Jays baseball game and started running across the field.

He tore off his shirt and pants to reveal only a Speedo and the word “YOLO,” which he had emblazoned upon his chest. He evaded game officials for several minutes before being apprehended by police officers and charged with “mischief — interfering with property.” While most people heard about this incident after it had occurred, we wondered if he may have given any indication online that he was planning this.

Sure enough, Yannis has a Twitter account that provided a play-by-play commentary detailing his plans for what had been dubbed #ProjectY. Evidently, he had done his research beforehand and ensured that he was wearing a Speedo so that he would not be charged with indecency.

While his teachers and parents may have been surprised, his friends knew what was happening the entire time. Indeed, several of them were publicly responding to his tweets about #ProjectY right up until the time he entered the stadium. This is the 90% that can be valuable when considering working with youth.

Yannis and the YOLO streaker incident may be a humorous example, but there have been many instances in the last few years in which Twitter and Facebook have been used to help our organization better provide resources to serve our youth. We have gone beyond having organizational pages, and many staff members have created individual profiles to provide an additional channel in which they can communicate with youth who are in our program.

By using Facebook and Twitter to keep these lines of communication open, we have learned about many situations and circumstances that may not have otherwise been discovered. A young person who had clothes stolen from an apartment laundry machine was able to get help immediately from one of our staff after we saw it on Twitter. Another youth expressed challenges dealing with alcoholism in the family through Twitter. And, of course, we often hear about relationships on Twitter and Facebook, and that provides us with an opportunity to provide support for youth during those times as well.

The front line staff in our organization often meet with students in person, but tools like Twitter and Facebook allow us to engage with them in real-time.

One of the questions we are frequently asked is how to develop policies and guidelines around engaging youth on social media. PolicyTool.net is a great website for developing a very basic policy for your organization. It allows you to input some basic information about your organization and will provide you with a policy to guide initial usage. However, we have also developed what has become known as the “Shopping Mall Question” to help us address some of the concerns that may arise from engaging with youth via social media – as a kind of “general policy” guideline.

The Shopping Mall Question simply asks, “if the situation was happening in a shopping mall, what would you do?” This tends to address 95% of the questions that arise. By framing social media within a familiar, real-life context, this approach empowers staff members to use their best professional judgment without feeling intimidated by the technology or the virtual setting. For instance, if a young person indicates via social media that they may be going through a rough time at home, the Shopping Mall Question application would go something like: “as a professionally trained youth worker, how would you deal with that situation if that was disclosed to you in a shopping mall?” The framework often yields useful considerations.

We are also often asked about establishing boundaries on social media. Our response is that there are no “social media boundaries” — there are only boundaries.

With this in mind, setting expectations is still important, so setting clear expectations around responses and availability via social media is vital. If you are regularly responding via social media to youth in the evenings, they may have a reasonable expectation that you will be available during those hours.

Since piloting an initial project with one of our local Pathways to Education program sites, we have seen the use of social media help our staff save substantial amounts of time and provide additional opportunities to engage our youth across the country.

When working with young people, one of the most important things that a youth worker can do is simply to be there to listen. Social media provides us with incredible opportunities to do just that.

A number of years ago, one of us had the opportunity to chaperone an Antarctic expedition with high school students. One sunny afternoon, while standing on the ship’s deck with a few others, we were all startled by a loud crack. A nearby iceberg had calved and large pieces of ice fell into the water. It happened quickly, and soon enough, the iceberg, which was now imbalanced, started turning over in the water. For those of us who were there, we witnessed an incredible sight – amidst all the cascades of water, the overturned iceberg revealed what had previously been submerged.

We are frequently reminded of this iceberg when we see all the Facebook and Twitter updates from youth. If we are there and we are listening, it can provide us with another opportunity to engage with young people when they reveal what is under the surface.

Jason Shim is passionate about the intersection of nonprofits, youth, and technology. In his role as Digital Media Manager for Pathways to Education Canada, he leads the organization’s national digital strategy. In September 2012, Jason led a team to create Txtocracy.com, an open-source project that aims to increase voter turnout via text message reminders. Follow Jason @jasonshim

Shubhagata Sengupta is passionate about photography and film. Shubhagata is the founder of LaunchVault Media, which provides unique photography and video solutions for clients in the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Shubhagata is currently completing a degree in business and digital media and loves exploring social media, technology, and entrepreneurship. Shubhagata has also been the youngest presenter for two consecutive years at the annual conference of the Nonprofit Technology Network. Follow Shub @shubsengupta.