Marco Fiorentino, director of justice & enforcement at Northgate Public Services explores a digital approach to protect young people from crime

The numbers of young people feeling isolated during the pandemic have skyrocketed. According to New Office for National Statistics (ONS), young people have been the most affected by ‘lockdown loneliness’.

Loneliness alongside poverty and mental health difficulties are high up on the criteria for criminal gangs when they are looking out for new recruits.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new about children being exploited by criminals.  And according to The Children’s Society, 46,000 children in England are thought to be involved in gangs.

The promise of money, drugs, status and a sense of belonging is a strong pull for some vulnerable young people – so how do we step in and keep them from being easy prey?

A new approach

The pandemic has meant that the regular interactions young people would normally have with people who provide them with valuable support such as teachers, youth offending case workers, friends and family has been impacted.

Obviously, this has compounded feelings of disconnection and isolation and puts young people more at risk of being tempted by criminal gangs.

What we need is a better way to stay in touch with young people to be able to keep them fully engaged.

We’ve seen first-hand over the last year how technology can keep us connected and reduce the sense of isolation when meeting in person isn’t possible.

We have a big opportunity to learn from this and to rethink the way youth services support young people.

If we look to criminal gangs, their most powerful tool is the mobile phone. It has proven to be an effective way for them to control their gang members and keep them engaged and trapped in criminal activity.

So, are we using the best methods of communication for a digital generation?

Meaningful connections

For example, a simple mobile phone app could be the answer to open up lines of communication.  This would ensure contact could be maintained on a much more frequent basis and prevent young people from feeling alone.

Youth officers could stay in touch with individuals via the app to send reminders about forthcoming appointments or to offer messages of support and guidance.

Using an app could also give the power to individuals to reach out for help whenever they need it.  It could also enable them to keep their case worker updated on how they are feeling or enable them to send an emergency alert if they are feeling unsafe or in danger.

Identifying patterns

Mobile phones also offer the organisations working with young people the ability to access and update case files at any time and on any device.

Making this real-time information available to authorised youth workers would mean they have everything they need to spot any warning signs and put in place effective interventions.

For example, if those working with teenagers could see a clear history from absences from school, a visit to A&E or a drug related arrest, they would easily see patterns and have the ability to work with other organisations to provide support or flag concerns.

We aren’t going to know the true impact of the pandemic on our young people for some time yet – but if we can make communication easier and more relevant to Generation Z, we have a much better chance of helping them to reject crime and secure a better future.

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