We now have a better understanding that to encourage young people to connect with each other in a physical location we need to ensure they still have unfettered access to digital connectivity.

Building Connections Fund grant-holder

We’ve been hearing a lot about the links between technology and wellbeing. Studies warn that relying on technology to communicate can reduce our enjoyment of face-to-face interactions, make us feel more anxious, and undermine our mental wellbeing. Loneliness may also be more painfully felt online, where exposure to idealised images of friends can result in negative social comparisons.

On the other hand, a recent study by Wavelength found that technology can help people feel less lonely. Young people’s opinions can also differ from their parents. A TalkTalk report found that half of young people think technology makes them feel less lonely, yet only a quarter of their parents agree.

Through our work with the Building Connections Fund, we’re learning about the opportunities technology offers for engaging young people and reducing loneliness. We’re finding that co-design is key because it enables young people to share what they think their needs are, what engages them, and what keeps them connected.

Co-design is a form of user involvement which recognises people as experts of their own experience. Co-design goes beyond seeking opinions and advice, and allows users to design services or products in collaboration with an organisation.

As part of the Building Connections Fund, charities received grants to work with young people to reduce loneliness by co-designing services. Of the 97 organisations we examined, almost a third prioritised the use of technology to engage young people. We’ve explored their approaches and identified three ways that technology can help to reduce loneliness.

 

Technology helps reach people

We found that young people are often unaware of the services available to them. Social media can be an effective tool for sharing information, targeting specific or hard to reach groups, and offering a platform for broader community input.

It’s worth thinking about the best channel for your audiences. For example, the young people we spoke to emphasised that Instagram and Snapchat are currently more popular than Facebook.

We will start to market our support in places we were not before this project, including Snapchat and Instagram, because those places are where young people told us they would see marketing and pay attention to it.

Building Connections Fund grant-holder

Several organisations were able to start valuable conversations about loneliness online. Young people created digital resources, such as Instagram comics, to raise awareness of loneliness and destigmatise the subject. These resources are particularly important for people unable to access youth services in-person.

The main barriers for accessing support are lack of knowledge about support, lack of time to access it and cost of transport/lack of transport to get to the places where support is offered.

In order to break down these barriers, it became clear that an online network… would be a better way to support them.

Building Connections Fund grant-holder

 

 Technology brings people together

Many projects involved refurbishing and modernising community spaces to make them more welcoming for young people. These projects often found that upgrading computers, improving Wi-Fi, or providing tablets attracted more young people and enabled them to participate in new activities.

We have noticed that young people are interacting who wouldn’t normally talk to each other; a young person doing homework, next to a gamer, next to someone connecting with family.

The space organically promotes connectivity and friendship building.

Building Connections Fund grant-holder on its ‘digital café’

Some charities combined technological upgrades with courses in digital skills, such as coding. This not only brings young people together and gives them a sense of purpose and achievement, but also helps to reduce inequalities by offering those who are isolated or disadvantaged access to IT equipment and training.

 

Technology facilitates creative activities and the development of skills

Several projects found ways to integrate technology into social activities. These activities brought young people together and helped them develop new skills.

One organisation invited Instagram and Snapchat users to take part in a photography project:

When the young people were asked the main reasons for using their phones, Instagram and Snapchat were identified as priorities.

Photography was therefore selected as a form of creative expression to explore, as it was rooted in a familiar activity. However, the method of production was changed to pinhole photography, to remove the social media element (and any inherent need for social validation) and to provide a new, unusual, and exciting method for creative expression.

The young people were fully engaged with this process, and there was tangible joy as they saw their photographs appear.

Building Connections Fund grant-holder

Grant-holders were required to evaluate their activities by filming a video. This offered an opportunity for young people to collaborate and develop new skills, and often increased their confidence in other areas of life.

I was scared about doing my filming for creative media at school. After [the filming for the Building Connections Fund video], I went in there and I did it and I got a high mark on it. It kind of pushed me in the right direction.

Young participant

 

Harnessing technology to reduce loneliness

It’s true that technology can make us feel more alone. Even the organisations and young people that described the benefits of technology also acknowledged that it can be prohibitive to meaningful connections.

We wanted a calm space because nearly everyone was on their phones and like didn’t pay attention…you can make friends, instead of being on your phone. We can sit down and do our homework. We can look at nature instead of being stuck to a screen.

Young participant

However, this should not blind us to the potential advantages of technology that can be harnessed by youth charities.

What is clear is the importance of co-design. To reduce loneliness among young people, we must understand their views on how technology affect them and what they think they need to address loneliness and improve their lives.

In July, we’ll be publishing a paper that explores the principles of co-design and evaluation in more depth. Sign up to our newsletter to stay up to date with our latest research.

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