We need to build our knowledge about the potential of digital and virtual support to reach vulnerable children and prevent youth crime.
Social distancing and stay-at-home measures have seen access to support for vulnerable young people dramatically reduce. Local authorities, charities, schools and others are all working hard to reach young people and maintain their support. Whilst some continue their face-to-face work, many are changing how they deliver their activities and services, moving content online and communicating with young people via phones, messaging or video conferencing. In a recent Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) survey of those delivering early intervention programmes, over three-quarters were continuing to deliver with major adaptations to their usual methods of delivery.
Whilst the determination of organisations to continue their support and move their activity online is impressive, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that not all activities will work as well when adapted and delivered remotely. Support to young people delivered digitally and virtually has much weaker evidence than face-to-face approaches. Rapid adaptation risks losing the core components of an activity which makes it effective. The absence of face-to-face contact can also make building strong relationships – which effective support depends – so much harder to establish.
Mind the gap
At the Youth Endowment Fund, we have been reflecting on the findings from the EIF’s recent review of virtual and digital delivery which found that the evidence for virtual methods is particularly weak in relation to violence and crime (unlike other areas such as health or education). This does not mean these methods cannot reduce crime and violence, it means that we don’t know because there are just not enough studies to enable us to say very much.
This lack of knowledge about whether online support can prevent crime and violence, at the same time these services are being ramped up, is problematic. We urgently need more information about the potential of remotely delivered support in reaching vulnerable children and preventing youth violence.
Building the knowledge
We’ll make a contribution to developing this much needed knowledge through our current COVID-19 grant round, which aims to find out the most effective ways of supporting children – right now – in times of social distancing. This includes building knowledge about the potential of online methods in tackling youth crime and violence.
We’ll fund and evaluate the most promising digital and virtual support for vulnerable young people. To do this, our criteria for the grant round has been informed by the evidence. For example, there’s evidence that a trusted relationship is often an essential ingredient of effective interventions. Therefore, when assessing funding applications for digital and virtual approaches, we’ll be looking for activities which involve regular contact with a practitioner. Conversely, activities which require participants to engage independently with self-help material may struggle to achieve impact.
We also know that remotely delivered activities can experience significant drop-out and struggle to reach and retain more vulnerable young people. Support that was previously face-to-face were designed to be delivered in settings such as schools or youth clubs, which are now restricted or closed, or rely on incentives such as sports, which are no longer possible. All of which can impact the likelihood of reaching young people. That’s why we’re asking applicants to our COVID-19 grant round how they will engage vulnerable children in their funded activities and how they will track and monitor who they are reaching.
In building this knowledge, we will enable those designing services locally, national policy makers and funders to make better informed decisions about what to fund and what to deliver. The current context requires urgent action to help vulnerable children who are no longer in touch with the services that are there to support them. But it also requires evidence about how best to do this, so that those designing services are not operating in the dark. Through the work we will fund and evaluate over the next year, we will shine a light on what our best bets are right now in terms of preventing youth violence.
By Donna Molloy, Youth Endowment Fund