In the media

How digital disruption can deliver better futures

Amanda Kelly

By Amanda Kelly

The MJ

22 July 2021

This article was first published in The MJ

Technology is the domain of young people. It is the ‘go-to’ means of communicating, organising, shopping, entertainment and remote meet-ups. It has become their primary source of help and advice, and where they look for role models who can have both negative and positive influences. Research published in January this year revealed YouTube to be the leading social media platform for teenagers, where ‘how to’ videos are their preferred source of advice.

Through the ever-increasing sophistication of data analytics, Amazon, Facebook, Instagram and Google combined know more about the way vulnerable young people are living and the risks they are taking than any youth offending service or social care records can possibly reveal. In short, digital disruption has already happened for vulnerable young people. Those that seek to exploit and abuse them have successfully pivoted their business models, distribution channels and marketing methods in response. The numbers of young people involved in Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) is estimated by the Children’s Commissioner to be 30,000 to 50,000, but the number could be much higher.

The BBC recently highlighted the formidable power of social media as a potent means of recruiting young people, following its expose of a 14-year-old boy who, within 80 minutes of responding to a Snapchat post was being driven to deliver a consignment of drugs for a criminal gang.

In order to stand a chance of redressing the balance, and overtaking perpetrators, the public sector – and all those whose aim is to keep young people safe – need to apply the same and better digital disruption techniques, drawing on the best of new technology and embedding it in professional practice. In response, the Coram Innovation Incubator has teamed up with PA Consulting to develop and test a novel digital outreach tool.

Working with local authority partners within the Incubator, it aims to create something which blends the best of technology with best professional practice. It reflects input from interviews with young people which revealed that the excellent youth work that goes on every day across the country needed to be supplemented with a contemporary, online equivalent. The need for this kind of digital outreach tool became even clearer during lockdown as vulnerable young people were out of sight, giving perpetrators uninterrupted access to their target audience.

The digital outreach tool is an app intended to attract and ‘pull in’ young people through a carefully curated incentive programme, much in the same way as employer reward schemes such as Perkbox, which users can benefit from in exchange for regular dialogue with the app.

Through regular check-ins and chat bot discussions, the app will learn about the young person and their circumstances. This data will then be gathered and used to build a picture of trends and needs across age groups, gender etc, and will gently ‘push’ relevant links to subtly educate and advise as well as provide encouragement to seek help when appropriate. It will cater for all literacy levels and will be designed – and continually curated – by young people to ensure it appeals to our target audience.

The digital outreach tool will also provide a bridge between isolated young people and the services they need, removing the barriers to help, whether that is specific local programmes or national provision.

For Newham LBC, tackling the exploitation of young people and youth violence are urgent priorities. Newham is one of three local authority partners in this particular Coram Innovation Incubator project to develop a digital outreach tool. Newham’s participation in the project means it can go further to reach these young people who themselves are at great risk of becoming both victims and perpetrators in a damaging cycle of abuse and violence.

Internal change and gradual improvement alone cannot address these serious challenges, but radical digital innovation such as this provides the opportunity for the step change needed to find and support the area’s vulnerable young people.

As part of a wider tech strategy that focuses on preventing, reporting and intervening, the app will help all the partners to disrupt the exploitation pathways and give young people a chance of a better future.

The app is just one of the ideas being developed by the innovation incubator and its founding councils: Redbridge, North Yorkshire, Hertfordshire, Southend-on-Sea, Bromley, Stoke City, Havering and Newham.

The Incubator is now looking for additional local authorities to join its work and urge any council looking to develop radical new approaches to improving children’s lives to get in touch.

Dr Carol Homden CBE, group chief executive at Coram, Amanda Kelly, PA Consulting’s children’s services lead, and Tim Aldridge, corporate director of children and young people at Newham LBC, discuss the Incubator project.

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