Comment Blog 14 May, 2019

A Web of Support: Digital Services to Reach Vulnerable Young People

Our digital and online mentoring service is akt’s safe, non-judgemental online space which connects LGBTQ+ young people with digital mentors and provides a range of digital resources across all kinds of relevant topics. The space is accessible through chat, messaging, video calls or audio; and can be accessed on most devices, including smart phones, tablets and laptops.

We developed the service in response to consultation and direct work and input from LGBTQ+ young people and aims to harness and utilise the opportunities that digital presents to akt, to reach and support more people across the whole of the UK. Mentoring has been an integral part of akt’s work for years, and the service continues to update as we respond to the evolving communications needs of the young people we work with and support.

The space marked our first step on a new digital journey for akt, and so still has room to grow and develop, but has very quickly shown great success.

Regardless of where they are in the UK - even if they’re based in one of our operating cities of Manchester, Newcastle and London - a number of young people we’ve spoken to said they would prefer a digital mentor to face to face mentoring. This might be because it provides more flexibility, anonymity or even just a more comfortable space for those who might experience anxiety or find it easier to communicate via text rather than face-to-face.

Working digitally ensures akt is able to support some of the most vulnerable and isolated LGTBQ+ young people across the UK. Early data suggests the service is particularly beneficial for young people from rural communities and faith backgrounds. Often we’re in the privileged position where a young person opens up to us about their sexual or gender identity for the first time. So many young people feel more comfortable making the first step digitally rather than face to face.

Quickly, we’ve experienced a high volume of interest, in particular given that we’re yet to roll-out much marketing or PR around the service. This is fantastic, but also has raised some flags around ensuring we have the infrastructure and capacity in-place to support the service.

For example, specifically managing all of the young people who come through our digital services is really a role in itself, and certainly will be when we start to market the platform more (and experience much more digital footfall). This is something we’ve begin to discuss internally, in terms of looking for grants or opportunities to support a new post to take over this workload.

There are also issues around ‘opening hours’, as the internet, Apps and the digital world do not keep office hours. Young people access digital services around the clock, and at the moment we don’t have capacity to respond outside of our core hours. It’s important we look at how to navigate this, in case of anything urgent that comes in when we’re not around.

We’ve been working with the NSPCC to ensure we have secure safeguarding procedures for online mentoring. Before accessing the service, one of our Services team assesses the young person, ensuring mentoring is the right way for akt to support them. Our online mentors have been trained in recognising and dealing with any safeguarding concerns they might have about a young person during or after a session.

Finally, there’s the important issue of safeguarding: ensuring the space is safe for young people and that they feel safe in accessing it. There’s something around ensuring we can quickly build a rapport with people who come to the service, as it’s lacking the easy-to-establish friendliness you can set out in a face-to-face meeting.

Overall, the service is off to a fantastic start, and we’re thrilled that as such a small charity we’ve been able to take this step. From here on the only way is up, and we look forward to working cross-departmentally to get the infrastructure in places to market, grow and build on the initial success of our online digital mentoring service.

This will ensure we’re able to continue using it to reach and support even more young people in the UK, harnessing digital tools to enable them to enjoy safe homes and better futures.

This blog was co-authored by Matt Horwood, akt Assistant Director of Communications, and Sean Bookless, akt Digital Services and Innovation Manager