Urban youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. A study of young people’s leisure time, detached youth work, and accumulating worries

Sofia Laine & Eila Kauppinen & Karla Malm & Tommi Hoikkala (edit.)


The purpose of this study is to produce extensive and multifaceted knowledge on young people’s leisure time in urban environments during the COVID-19 pandemic; that is, during the exceptional period of time of the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent restrictions. The point of departure for this study is the concept of sense of place. By this, we mean young people’s understanding of, competence with, and impressions of leisure time environments and of a city’s geographical location. In this study, the concept is firmly linked with the city space and its various social and spatial practices.

In the study, we ask: 1) where and how do young people spend time and move in the urban environment during the pandemic, 2) what experience do young people have of these environments during COVID-19, and 3) what kind of impressions do young people associate with different places? With these questions, we build an understanding of 4) how universal youth work services could better correspond to the malaise caused by COVID-19 in the future. Our focus is primarily on young people, secondarily on detached youth work, and partly on youth work more widely. Our study focuses primarily on young people under the age of 18, but we have refrained from setting absolute age limits in the focus of the study. The study was carried out in the capital region (i.e., Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, and Kauniainen) and in Tampere, but the results of the project can be utilised on a national level.

The basis of the research project was built partly by actively engaging in discussion with workers at youth services in participating cities, and partly by the researchers going out into public and semi-public spaces both independently and with detached youth work in the cities. The researchers observed young people and their leisure time alongside youth workers carrying out detached youth work. In these situations, researchers also engaged in dialogue with both young people and youth workers. The observations were written in fieldwork diaries. This formed the first set of research data for the project. A second set of data was collected from individual and group discussions with youth workers. A third set of data comprises material produced by young people themselves about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to collect the material, a competition aimed at 15–20-year-olds was organised in which young people were asked to explain what they would like adults to understand about young people’s lives during the pandemic. A fourth set of data utilised in the project consists of youth workers’ experiences during the pandemic, and a fifth concerns media material. The book contains a total of eight peer-reviewed chapters, five other chapters, six opinion pieces, and literary texts or other artistic works from 13 young people. The work was an application of team ethnography, and 35 different authors contributed to the book.

Young people hanging out during the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as their attempt to live the most normal life possible even amid restrictions. Hanging out with peers maintains young people’s wellbeing, and most often actively supports their development. When guided hobbies were closed during lockdown, shopping centres, parks, and other outdoor urban spaces became used for hanging out. The social aspect of urban space changed drastically. Active detached youth work began immediately to support young people. Adults and the media saw groups of young people hanging out as more problematic during a time when the Finnish government and health authorities actively warned against unnecessary close social contact.

The results of the study show that the majority of young people spent time in the urban spaces within the framework of restrictions without causing any disruption. Young people persevered in using places such as shopping centres to hang out, which caused discussions and sometimes confrontations with security guards and with other adults who used the spaces. Discrimination, harassment and disruption in urban spaces, and young people’s concerning use of intoxicants are not new phenomena that were created as a result of the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Young people and youth workers have nevertheless described an increase in different kinds of disruptive behaviour in cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The use of intoxicants has become polarised, and concerning intoxicant use increases the risk of violence and other illegal activity. Based on the results of the study, 17 recommendations and suggestions for action are presented to better support young people’s sustainable wellbeing during their leisure time in the future.

Key words: youth research, ethnography, young people, leisure time, leisure spaces, hanging out, COVID-19, young people’s position in society, urban regions, city, home, youth work, detached youth work, youth services, wellbeing, disruption, harassment, intoxicants, security guards, youth cultures, gangs, youth crime, styles, sociability, loneliness