Is online support the way forward?

Being there when young people need us

5th August 2019

Like most 25-year-olds, my phone is rarely more than a meter away from me – despite the fact that I can’t remember the last time I used it to make an actual phone call. Lots has been said about us “Millennials” living our lives on our phones, but why wouldn’t we? We can contact our friends, do our banking, order a takeaway and book a holiday in two minutes; all while listening to music and tracking our steps!

But what about support? Can online replace good old fashioned face-to-face?

Trying to work that out is the challenge that the charity I work for, Hope Support Services, is facing. We offer youth sessions, trips and one-to-ones at our base in Herefordshire, but also have an online service so young people up to the age of 25 across the UK can access support when they have a loved one who is seriously ill.

It’s common knowledge that people can be far more outspoken online than they ever would be in person (don’t we all just love a good keyboard warrior?!) but this can be a positive aspect of the cyber world when it comes to support; giving young people a faceless, secure space to offload leads to them being far more open about what they are going through – often expressing emotions and feelings that can be too difficult to say out loud.

Flexibility is a huge plus point of our online service too. We have bookable slots for young people to chat, and also a daily drop-in for situations where extra one-off support is needed. With the chaos and ups and downs that a serious illness in the family can bring, young people can find themselves juggling homework with caring for their relative one day, then rushing straight from school to visit them in hospital the next. Having a service that they can access on their phones whilst waiting for mum to come out of A & E, and not having to rely on their parent being well enough to drive them to a centre, can be a lifeline.

What are the downsides?

One of the main difficulties is perception. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve answered the phone to a potential referrer, who audibly sighs the moment I mention ‘online’ – usually followed by “oh, is that it? Nothing in person?” As much as I advise they tell the young person what is on offer to see if it’s something they might like to access, I know that the message will never make it through.

Online isn’t, and never will be, for everyone. A messaging service might not suit those who struggle to express themselves without seeing who they’re talking to in person, but it might just be perfect for the 15-year-old who is too scared to leave the house in case she returns to find her mum in a bad way.

So what are we going to do?

The main focus for us is listening to what our young people actually want. We undertook research with the Children’s Resource Centre at the Open University, looking into the types of support needed when a young person is faced with this situation, and one thing that repeatedly came up was that our young people value having the flexibility that an online service can offer – they can message in at a time that suits them and know they’ll receive a reply within 24 hours, rather than having to wait to chat to someone at the next scheduled youth session.

With this in mind, we have exciting plans to develop our existing service from Facebook/email into an app – with, as always, our young people leading the way. They might not always choose our app over the Domino’s or Snapchat ones...but the main thing is that it’ll be there if and when they need it.

Could online be right for your organisation?

When looking at whether you think your charity could move more into the digital world, you can’t go wrong with looking at the five Ws – who, what, where, when, why. So: Who is going to run it and who would use it? What do your beneficiaries want and need? Where are you going to offer support – existing social media platforms like Facebook, or your own app? When would you offer it, 24 hour or drop-ins? And – the most important one – why? What problem is it going to solve?

Take time, plan it and consult with your beneficiaries/clients. There’s no point in moving online if there isn’t a clear need for it, and of course there are safeguarding considerations (how do we know who this person is? What if they tell us they are at risk of harm?) but, if done carefully, digital can be a great way to offer more support to the people who need you most.