Among the many things that COVID-19 put in the bin is the idea that ‘real life’ and ‘online life’ are separate. Even for those of us who were basically raised by the internet, the overnight merge of our offline and online worlds was exciting, overwhelming and unknown all at once. 

Most of us know how to keep away from the obvious red flags of online danger, but what ‘green flags’ should we be looking for – the good signs that help you decide if you’ll feel safe? 

The Y’s Latrobe Youth Space in Morwell, on Gunai Kurnai Country, was one of several regional youth services that hauled all their programs online overnight when lockdown started. Members of their A Youth Governance Committee is a group of young people that make decisions about how a youth group runs.Youth Governance Committee(YGC) Catherine and Danni, along with youth worker Kylie, talked us through their tips to regional young people for navigating online groups in this sci-fi pandemic age.  

Before you join 

Groups that require membership and use some simple questions to screen before you join are a big yes. 

‘Membership’ might make you think of something expensive or exclusive, but we just mean groups that check who you are before letting you in. Just like you wouldn’t let any stranger walk into a youth space in person, the same goes for online. Plus, a secure membership process encourages Accountability is when you can show that you are doing things the way you said you would.accountability and keeps the trolls out. 

For example, just because you’re in an LGBTQIA+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual, plus other people too.LGBTQIA+ group, that doesn’t mean everyone in the group is out to everyone or out all the time. The Y’s Rainbow Group didn’t let just anyone in a member’s household join in a Zoom call without first following the membership process. This way everyone knew who they were sharing their sexual or gender identity with and could make informed decisions like if they wanted to have their camera on or just stick with the chat function. 

Another thing to consider before you join an online group is if you feel comfortable using the platform it’s run on. 

‘Know the functions of what you’re using,’ explains Danni. For example, if you feel unsafe in a Zoom group, you have the options to turn the sound off or ask someone to leave. Some other things that might impact your decision could be: 

  • Can non-members see the names of who’s in the group? 

  • Do you have to sign in using your social media account? 

  • Can you use only video or only messages to participate if you need to? 

  • Are there ways to privately contact the moderator if you need to? 

  • Does the platform Authenticate means you prove that you're not pretending to be someone else.authenticate that you are who you say you are? 

There aren’t right or wrong answers to this. It’s about choosing what fits for your age, skill level and access needs. 

When you’re in 

As Catherine explains, knowing a trusted peer volunteer or mentor will be there every time can make you feel safe to stay in a group long-term. Group rules or a Code of Conduct can also be great green flags that show you everyone knows what is and isn’t okay. 

The YGC had nominated young people supervising each of their Zoom social groups, but also empowered the members to shape the group culture themselves. They all wrote Codes of Conduct together to come up with guidelines everyone was happy with and went over them at the start of each session. Importantly, the Codes also included problem-solving tools for if anyone was struggling with something. 

For example, some of the rules their groups created include: 

  • Use a quiet room or headphones for privacy 

  • Turn your microphone off when others are speaking 

  • Only positive feedback unless otherwise asked for 

  • Respect names and pronouns 

  • Don’t use the group to arrange third-party meetups 

  • Do not screenshot or share things from the group, unless you are reporting it to a moderator 

A casual red flag system was also popular with the YGC’s social groups because it makes moderating each other feel more approachable. Members could say ‘red flag’ or just ‘red’ when someone breached the group rules. This was often done among friends which made it feel safe to say you weren’t okay with something, Catherine tells. ‘It becomes a bit of a ‘joke’ so it’s not as intense and [you] don’t feel like [you’re] in trouble.’ 

Safe spaces are more than just rules and regulations though – visible actions that include diverse groups of people also go miles. ‘Particularly in regional spaces, young people often only hear the negative,’ Catherine explains. ‘There’s not as much active ally behaviour, and even visuals, like wearing your [pronoun] badges and things...even just being visible was pretty radical in a regional area.’ Other things they and Danni recommend include diverse flags and symbols on your digital content, and thoughtful Acknowledgements of Country. You can discuss with your group what is relevant to your area and your community. 

Another green flag is when groups have actual young people making decisions. 

The Y’s programs were so successful because at every turn, the young people in the YGC ‘actually were the judge and jury on programs that were decided on,’ says Catherine. Danni adds that they were all treated equally regardless of age, like each of them had something unique to offer. Even if you’re not on any group committee, you can still benefit from this - you might feel safer giving honest feedback to a peer your age about if a program is working or not. 

There are so many fun, safe and accessible ways to connect online, you just need to find what feels right for you. Asking questions about how a group decides who can join, what the platform it uses is like, and how the group works through things together, can all help you make An empowered decision is when you feel confident and safe in a choice you make.empowered decisions.  

If you want to hear more from The Y’s Latrobe Youth Space or other regional youth spaces near you, check out our upcoming IGTV series, Green Flags

This story is part of our Learning from COVID-19 series, featuring the creativity and adaptions of young people and youth workers. Check out our other stories or share your own.