Project: Transformations in Digital Youth Work – Supporting LGBTQ+ Youth During the Pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic put many LGBTQ+ young people at risk in the UK, with many living in hostile or unsafe environments, experiencing isolation, mental health pressures and homelessness. In the UK young LGBTQ+ people’s experience was compounded by an increasingly hostile public climate around trans and gender-diverse young people’s rights. The demand on organisations providing support increased significantly, with the LGBTQ+ helpline Switchboard reporting 20% more calls and LGBTQ+ homelessness charities saw a substantial rise in referrals. Community organisations supporting LGBTQ+ young people took a lead by rapidly developing digitally delivered services to continue supporting young people.

Working together with community partners Allsorts Youth Project, AKT, Comics Youth and Mosaic, a University of Brighton research team, investigated the transformations in digital youth work that organisations embarked on, centring both young people’s experience and the youth workers’ perspectives. We collected pilot data whilst organisations were actively delivering youth work in digital environments, during the COVID-19 pandemic, documenting both challenges and opportunities.

The project explored how digital tools were repurposed to support LGBTQ+ youth living in diverse settings across the UK. This included for example using apps originally geared towards gamers, such as Discord to deliver youth work and create online peer support environments.

We found that there were several pressures put on the sector, including capacity issues and financial issues whilst demand increased. We found that staff and organisations were very committed to supporting the young people in our community and delivered new forms of support that they had not done previously, including online homework support and sending out care packages. We also found that organisations were digitally agile and creative when it came to finding solutions to engaging young people in digital environments, and were able to create the supportive, nurturing environments, young people associated with their drop-in, face-to-face youth services.

We found that young people, once they felt able to reach out, made extensive use of the social environments created by the community organisations and supported by youth workers. The value they put on these environments was evident in the care they took to maintain them. The flexibility of connecting digitally with peer groups, youth workers and the online spaces, enabled some young people who had not been able to attend youth centre activities before to participate. Different barriers to attending youth clubs in person including geographical location, or school timetabling, but also social barriers such as feeling anxious in busy group environments were overcome in the digital environment where young people felt more in control of their mode of participation. This indicates an ongoing need for digital youth work to support LGBTQ+ Youth.

There is an urgent need to produce research that foregrounds young people’s voice and documents LGBTQ+ youth’s experiences of the pandemic, their resilience and strategies for help-seeking. We are continuing this research and have pursued some of the immediate findings around young people experiencing hostile home environments and homelessness and in collaboration with Switchboard the CTSG has co-hosted a conference addressing LGBTQ+ housing and homelessness.

The research team is

Supported by Research Administrator Assistants Dr Willem Stander and Caleb Hayes.

The pilot study is financially supported by the CTSG and the CDMC.