After nine or ten months of the pandemic, and in a socially distanced winter season, we adults aren’t the only ones tired of virtual communities. “If I never have to have another Zoom call again, it’ll be too soon,” said a teenager in one of the youth groups I run. We really can’t argue with them, can we?
We know that the lack of face-to-face contact due to interrupted schools and distancing rules has had a significant impact on young people’s mental health. The online games and platforms they already frequented – Roblox, Minecraft, Call of Duty, Fortnite – have seen significant user growth, as well as time and money spent there. Young people have turned these into social platforms, as loitering online replaced the street corner and the park. And that’s no bad thing.
However, we also know that these informal hangouts aren’t the only places where young people socialize. Sport, faith, community and outdoor organizations are integral to children’s socialization and growth, and have been particularly hard hit, struggling to keep youth connected and engaged during the pandemic. Scouts, Guides, Girls and Boys Clubs, sports camps, church youth groups and local clubs are all run primarily by volunteers - and coronavirus ripped up their playbooks. Training, outdoor activities, group work and worship had to be replaced by whatever the leaders could improvise on Zoom – Kahoot quizzes, virtual escape rooms, remote workouts, Among Us sessions.
Even for the well-prepared, Zoom and other video platforms are a pale imitation of real-life interaction. Though I thought our youth group plans were ingenious and fun, kids started turning off the video, and even stopping turning up to our video calls.
If Zoom (or Teams, or Skype, or whatever) isn’t the answer, what could be? How can we take advantage of technology going forward to keep these wider social gatherings going? Could technology actually expand youth work, rather than being a disappointing digital stopgap to just keep connected?
Organizations that already had digital strategies in place were best able to pivot successfully into the pandemic, and have maintained or even grown their audiences.
One Hope Canada, which runs Christian camps nationwide, was already developing a social app to maintain “off-season” connection among campers, counselors and staff. When in-person camp was necessarily cancelled, they quickly pivoted to build an app capable of hosting live, virtual camps for thousands of young people (National Director Bill McCaskell discusses the pivot here). Rather than the “checkerboard” of impassive faces on video conferencing platforms, One Hope campers watched live events, played quizzes and games, and even did craft projects together, supported by physical delivery of the necessary materials. Kids split their time between all-camp activities and age-specific play and learning with their “cabin.” Now, “camp” can happen all year round, regardless of the weather!
Scripture Union UK invested a few years ago in “Guardians of Ancora”, a Christian runner/adventure game world built around Bible stories. In the first months of the pandemic, users increased by 25% and have kept steady. (You can hear Ancora Mission Leader Maggie Barfield talk about faith and digital gaming here).
For the most part, however, youth and faith organizations have had to rely on local leaders to innovate new online activities and resources, which can be a bit hit-and-miss.
That has created a vacuum which others have been quick to fill with remote “summer camps” and activities for kids (e.g., Camp Supernow, Happy Camper Live and Camp Bonkers). All use live and pre-recorded video to connect professional hosts with at-home “campers” nationwide, for interactive activities. Established children’s brands have also jumped in to get kids active: the Wiggles branded a series of regularly-scheduled short videos as their “summer camp”; Amazon created “Camp Prime” with Alexa as the “counsellor” for daily, educational, themed programming; and Google offered four themed “Camp YouTube” strands (STEM, Arts, Sport and Adventure) with daily updates and “bingo boards” to track progress.
None of this, of course, can replace face-to-face interaction among leaders, counselors and campers; the campfires or the traditions that kids hold onto for years. In cases where a virtual program stands in for a longstanding “live” camp (like One Hope Canada), though, video and messaging can keep kids engaged with all the songs, games or activities.
In the end, we’ll find that we’ve learnt something from our pivots and innovations, and we’ll keep some elements going forward. Digital communities scale well to any size, as they don’t rely on finding a building or field, or volunteers. Online organizations, clubs or camps can reach further, enabling participation by young people who otherwise might not be able to reach or afford them. In theory, it takes less effort to run a virtual camp than a real one and (although few would ever admit it) professional presenters can provide a more consistent quality of delivery. Plus, you can reach hundreds of kids in every camp, rather than being limited to the size of a field, or the patience of leaders!
For older kids and adolescents, virtual communities can make it socially easier to attempt something new without judgement, or to sample an interest or experience without commitment. We’ve seen this in church groups: kids who couldn’t pluck up the courage to walk in the door have “dropped in” on virtual youth groups.
Gen Z and Gen Alpha have never known life without digital, mobile, social media. Even before the pandemic, they were less resistant to change than Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers. Although their world has been turned upside down by the pandemic, I believe they will adapt to more-frequent remote work and education, a more spread-out population with less emphasis on sense of place, and more time spent meeting friends online. The kids who are making the most of online hangouts and virtual camps now will think nothing of introducing their kids to these in the future.
Still, effective social interaction is essential for young people to become productive workers and citizens. Working, playing, creating, learning, worshipping and adventuring is always better together and in the real world, so we adult leaders should do everything possible to gather again in person as soon as the pandemic subsides. But let’s not abandon the evolving digital resources and communities that we’ve had to embrace: in some cases, these can be tools for expanding our youth work out to the wider world.
(Postscript: One Hope Canada have now opened out their camping and follow-up app for all to use at www.faithsparkapp.com - check it out here.)
Ian Douthwaite is Founder and CEO of Dubit, a 21-year-old UK-based digital agency providing research, strategy and game/app/edtech development. He is also a youth and camping leader both with Scouts and his church.