The Covid period saw a surge in digital engagement. This is especially true of young people whose learning had shifted from face-to-face to online. The pandemic has also given rise to an urgent need among youth mentoring agencies to take up and, or, switch to e-mentoring or digital mentoring.
Digital Natives and Mentoring
The use of digital tools for mentoring comfortably matches the profile of the current youth generation who are digitally savvy and who spend a vast amount of their time in digital communication and formation of relationships. Zachary (2011) described millennials, those born between 1980 and 1995, as the First Digital and iPod Generation. Similarly, Lim and Parker (2020) termed them ‘digital natives’ whose lives are consummately dominated by technology. Indeed – millennials have grown up not knowing a life without the internet or computers.
Naturally, they regard internet content more highly than television. The internet is not only a source of information - it is the platform for entertainment, shopping, gaming, socializing, and making, and unfriending, friends.
Digital mentoring thus has the tremendous potential to reach youths, using tools already familiar to them. From the outset, it has the ubiquitous advantage of overcoming time and physical barriers, making rich mentoring resources available to both mentors and mentees. Likewise, it enables youth mentoring organisations to share resources and ideas globally. Omara, Hassana and Atanb (2012) cite Price and Chen (2003) in highlighting the benefits of e-mentoring. Mentors can communicate with mentors across distances and time. They are also able to talk to more than one mentee at a time. Different kinds of support are now available for online mentoring tools, as is a wide range of digital apps to suit different needs (Omara et al, 2012).
Interestingly though, despite all the advantages that digital mentoring offers, it has been found that only 3% of mentoring programs in the U.S.A. has a digital portion, and only 1% is exclusively digital. Granted, these figures were cited from the 2016 National Mentoring Program Survey conducted by MENTOR (Radlick, Mirkovic, Przedpelska, Brendmo and Gammon, 2020). Generally, the effectiveness of e-mentoring or digital mentoring lies in the profile and personal characteristics of the mentees, communication styles, ease of accessibility and implementation of program.
In a post-Covid-impacted world, however, we may reasonably expect numbers pertaining to digital usage to be markedly different, particularly as technology improves and digital adoption increases. Consequently, to harness the benefits of digital mentoring, it is crucial to understand how youths’ learning is shaped by their digital engagement and how this, in turn, transforms their mentoring process.
Youths' Digital Engagement and Learning
Youths’ ubiquitous experience in the digital world inevitably shapes the way they learn, quite unlike how the older generations learn. An appreciation of these unique learning traits would help apps designers craft activities that stimulate learning. For millennials, action and instant results are more important, since they can easily access cognitive content from the internet, as opposed to baby boomers who prefer more conventional pursuits of knowledge (Lim and Parker, 2020).
In contrast to older adults, who were taught to learn by following sets of rules, millennials value trials and failures. They are conditioned by online gaming to view failures as trial-and-error opportunities, paving the way to level up in a game (Lim and Parker, 2020). This implies that we should plot iterative cycles in digital mentoring apps, allowing users to retake quizzes or quests, hence promoting learning through trial and experimentation.
Another millennial trait is the purported ability to multitask – for instance, listening to music and texting while simultaneously doing homework. In fact, the Age of Information has seen successive generations of youths being increasingly cyber-suckled. Lim and Parker (2020) state that Generation Z youths outdo their millennial predecessors in technology-usage and multi-tasking to the point that manufacturers incorporate dual screens, by default, in digital devices to cater to their needs. Clearly, app designers must similarly cater for much shorter attention spans and ever-varied learning styles.
A key distinctive trait also attributed to youths of today is their use of digital devices to connect and engage socially. Theirs is a social world of Instagram and web-based communications, although the preferred tools of choice may differ. (Millennials use WhatsApp while Generation Z is inclined towards Telegram.) That said, however, it has been shown that a combination or blending of both in-person and digital mentoring may be more effective for youths. Despite the predominance of technology in their lives, the research done by Lim and Parker (2020) shows that millennials and Generation Z still value face-to-face mentoring over social messaging platforms.
How Digital Learning and Experience Transform the Youth Mentoring Process
From the previous section, we gathered that the kind of learning youths partake in is much more than a cognitive process (Zachary, 2011). It is multidimensional and includes social networking and digital experiences.
The traditional role of mentors thus has to evolve to meet the demands of this new reality. No longer are mentors the sole experts imparting knowledge and wisdom. Rather, the mentors of today should function as facilitators and guides. The mentoring partnership is now more mentee-driven with mentees learning through reflection and critical thinking (Zachary, 2011). Through the use of digital apps, mentors can allow the mentees the space to develop autonomy, independent thinking and decision-making skills.
This transformation of the mentor’s role potentially affords mentors greater scope to prioritise the growth process of youths. The mentoring practice can integrate the concept of adult learning, espoused by Malcolm Knowles, that states that youths learn best when they are actively involved in diagnosing, planning, implementing and evaluating their needs. The mentor’s corresponding role is then to help foster a conducive climate for the mentee to achieve these.
On the aspect of growth, apart from learning outcomes, there has been research showing the efficacy of digital tools when used for delivering therapy, coupled with mentoring, for people with mild depression, anxiety and stress.
A study conducted by Proudfoot, Clarke, Birch, Whitton, Parker, Manicavasagar, Harrison, Christensen, Hadzi-Pavlovic (2013) reports outcomes of a CONSORT-compliant randomised controlled trial (RCT) to assess the effectiveness of myCompass, an independently-guided psychological treatment delivered via mobile phone and computer. This tool was designed to treat mild-to-moderate depression, anxiety and stress, and increase work and social functioning. Their study shows a significant improvement in the symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress in both work and social situations at the end of a 7-week therapy.
The results of these studies resonated with Rhodes (2020). She explains how mobile mental health apps have made evidence-based care available to those who need it and transformed the mentoring scene. Apparently, games, quizzes, lessons and virtual rewards in apps appeal to the young generation and remove the stigma of mental health care as well as give autonomy to users to regulate their own emotions.
The effectiveness of digital mentoring in mental health promotion is also reported in a study by Radlick et al (2020), that zoomed on the question, “To what extent could an evidence-informed electronic mental health platform (called ReConnect) be adapted to the needs and experiences of mentees and mentors to enhance mentoring?”.
Themes that emerged in this research included, firstly, connection or a sense of community. The mentees wished for a connection with a larger community. Related sub-themes include the desire for social gatherings, balanced relationships, contributing to the community, trust and a need for social exchange with peers.
The second emergent theme was the mentees’ desire to attain personal goals. They were motivated and specific about the kinds of assistance they needed. Their mentors, on the other hand, viewed themselves as guides who offered the support and encouragement mentees needed to achieve their goals.
It is clear then that as much as digital tools offer enormous benefits, youths still value human touch and connection. Digital tools therefore act as enablers, enhancing, but never replacing, the relationships and connections that mentors establish with mentees.
Barriers to Usage of Digital Mentoring Apps
Notwithstanding the benefits that digital apps may offer, barriers do exist, unique to the usage of apps for delivering mentoring. Stiles-Shields, Montague, Kwasny and Mohr (2017) advocate the need to identify these barriers in order to assist app developers design better applications. Possible barriers include concerns over effectiveness of the therapy; the functioning of the app; privacy; security and control of personal data; costs; and guidance and feedback.
Two Examples of Digital Mentoring Platforms
In the light of this discussion on youths’ digital engagement, learning and the mentoring process, we examine two digital mentoring platforms, namely, WeConnect and Mentor Together, founded by Kelvin Kong, from Singapore, and Arundhuti Gupta, from India, respectively.
Kelvin Kong is a human resource leader who advocates for creating safe and supportive environments by promoting socially-responsible technologies. He has an impressive career comprising 18 years of sales and marketing experience in MNCs including Apple, DHL Express, Unilever & Lazada/Alibaba. This wide span of exposure has enabled him to acquire the skills and experience in both the business and talent side of the organization, across different industries ranging from e-Commerce, F&B, Media, Technology, FMCG and Logistics.
As a leader, Kelvin is a dynamic manager and coach, helping and motivating his team to consistently achieve great strategic goals. He has spoken in many conferences and has coached & mentored sales & customer service professionals across Asia, Middle East, Africa & Latin America. Apart from his career achievements, Kelvin has a big heart for people and he wants to make a difference through teaching and mentoring. To ensure that he supports people from a more holistic perspective, Kelvin has built his capabilities in the areas of family, youths and life coaching as well.
Driven by a vision to make an impact among the young people of Singapore, Kelvin founded the mentoring movement Voices Of Asia (VOA) and subsequently launched WeConnect, a web-based mentoring application.
Arundhuti Gupta is the founder, trustee and chief executive officer of Mentor Together, which is India's first and largest non-profit organization providing mentoring relationships and networks to young people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.
Arundhuti graduated top of the Bangalore University with a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce and also completed a Masters in Finance from the Manchester Business School as a UK-India Commonwealth Scholar 2009. She is a Brookings Echidna Global Scholar 2021, a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and an International Youths Foundation Global Fellow.
Arundhuti started Mentor Together to pay forward the mentorship that she received as a young student in India. This mentoring process helped her discover her passion for social entrepreneurship and youth development. She set up Mentor Together at the end of 2009, with a vision of building a society where all young people have the equal opportunity to pursue their dreams and actualise their potential. Under her leadership, Mentor Together has grown to serve 11,000 young people by 2020. It has offices in five cities and a pan-India network of corporates, university and non-profit partners.
Harnessing Technology for Mentoring
In November 2020, Mentoring Alliance Singapore (MASg) invited both Kelvin and Arundhuti to share their experiences at its monthly TouchPoints session via Zoom. Typical TouchPoints session audiences include mentors, mentoring program coordinators, youth-serving agency personnel, as well as members of the public interested in youth mentoring. The session aptly titled “Harnessing Technology for Mentoring” saw a turnout of some 60 people keen and interested to hear from these two dynamic young leaders.
Voices of Asia (VOA) is a Singapore-based social enterprise which was established in 2010 with the aim to build a safe and supportive society for youths. VOA seeks to create an ecosystem that leverages on data-driven technology to support the journey of youths through mentoring and learning. The mission of VOA is to leverage technology to enable youths to grow in the three pillars of self-development, family life and career development.
VOA believes that it takes a village to raise a child and a community is needed to achieve this. This movement started with storytelling in 2010, with their leader volunteers recounting their personal stories to inspire corporate professionals. Following this, VOA began to reach out to university students and fresh graduates. New projects were launched that focused on developing less privileged youths and equipping young corporate managers with essential skills.
Voices of Asia is also part of the Mentoring Alliance Singapore (MASg). Their mutual vision is to foster and facilitate a national mentoring movement. VOA developed and self-funded WeConnect, a web-based mentoring app designed to support the mission of uplifting mentoring standards in Singapore. Through the WeConnect app, VOA aims to address issues like mental health, depression and suicide in innovative ways.
For Kelvin Kong, technology-delivered interventions can be used to fill in existing gaps within the current mentoring field. Using an ecosystem concept allows for supply optimizing and improved digital community engagement.
Kelvin’s motto for WeConnect app is ‘Program methodology drives, technology enables.’ He highlighted that technology allows us to leverage the power of data to understand users and provide support in the right manner. The WeConnect app provides intuitive tools such as meeting session trackers, and rewards and coaching tools which are designed to equip youths in their mentoring journey.
Kelvin also quotes another tagline - “Don’t fight tech, work with it. Leverage it.”. He believes young people today spend a lot of time on technology, so mobile phones should be utilized for mentoring. The design of digital tools need to incorporate an understanding of youths and reach out to them in real-time. These tools need to provide youths a holistic support and learning experience.
This embodies the vision of the digital tool, WeConnect, which is being developed in phases from 2020 onwards. The application is designed in such a way as to attract youths into the ecosystem by providing first, mentoring (baseline), second, support groups and third, events and projects. A process is thus created for mentors and mentees to meet a mentor naturally and accomplish the following goals:
3. Understand and Build Trust
4. Commit to a mentoring journey
The app enables the mentors and mentees to meet on a one-to-one, one-to-a few and one-to-many basis. These goals are aligned with those embodied in youth-initiated mentoring.
The primary goal of WeConnect is to increase the amount and quality of mentoring that youths receive from non-parental adults in their existing social networks. In addition, mentors can use the coaching tool and live coaching session tracker to make mentoring more engaging and accountable.
Voices of Asia has also launched an Academy to provide quality training to mentors and govern safety to protect mentors and mentees.
In creating the digital mentoring app, Mentor Together, Arundhuti felt that mentoring is necessary to improve social and intergenerational mobility since increased access to education is insufficient to help disadvantaged youthss. To her, a virtual mentoring platform enables greater access due to digital interconnectivity and global networking. It can also be scaled more efficiently and allows a higher volume of mentor-mentee data to be processed, thereby reducing the obstacle of limited manpower. The app also increases the ease of joining the platform with greater flexibility and convenience since it removes the usual challenges such as busy schedules and travelling time. To cite their website, https://mentortogether.org/, “Mentor Together provides empowering one-to-one mentoring relationships that helps young people from disadvantaged backgrounds break the inequality of opportunity.”.
Mentor Together was created out of a drastic need in India to provide support for youths. The Indian government estimates that almost 176 million young people in India have a critical need for care and protection. These youthss come from disadvantaged backgrounds that negatively impact their life outcomes. A study conducted in 2010 showed that almost 17% of income inequality is due to the youths’s family background. Family background, combined with what is known in India as the 'lottery of birth', namely caste, gender, religion, location of birth, determine the greater part of economic and social outcomes of people (https://mentortogether.org/).
The question arises: How do we solve this complex and entrenched inequality of opportunity? Arundhuti felt that no single intervention can be a silver bullet. She felt that two aspects are critical to for the future of youthss - the power of life skills or non-cognitive skills and the power of social networks (https://mentortogether.org/).
Researchers have found that life skills like time management, motivation and perseverance are highly predictive of social and economic outcomes of young people. Adolescents learn lifeskills by observing and inferring the lives of adults. Adults demonstrate such skills and provide youths with opportunities to inculcate these skills. This is where mentorship plays a critical role as an intervention in the lives of adolescents (https://mentortogether.org/).
Secondly, youths from disadvantaged families can benefit from the power of social networks. A sociologist in 1976 highlighted that any individual who seeks to mobilize resources, move upwards and gain social mobility, requires a rich and diverse network, where s/he is connected to a network of information and opportunity. For many young people, their natural networks are restricted. Mentorship paves the way to connect youths to the wider world and networks of experienced mentors.
The app, Mentor Together, is designed to help mentors and mentees in their journey by enabling them to develop an empowered relationship through a toolkit of 18 different life skills and work skills. These skills are adapted from the UNICEF classification of skills to apply to a mentorship context. There are four stages and a set of underlying skills in the framework of mentorship which forms the basis of the app. This framework is founded upon the aim to create a safe and healthy relationship between mentors and mentees. It embodies four critical stages that every mentor and mentee will undergo in the mentoring journey. These four stages are outlined below.
CONNECT: This initial stage of mentor-mentee relationship stage aims to help them establish trust, consistency and reliability. By the end of this stage, it is hoped that mentors and mentees will be comfortable with each other.
EMPOWER: In this stage, mentees will be empowered with different life skills that will help them achieve their life goals.
LEVEL: This stage seeks to level the power differences between mentors and mentees. It aims to help mentors and mentees develop a mutual relationship, where both can contribute to and learn from the relationship.
EVOLVE: In this final stage, mentees focus and work towards their future life choices. Mentors facilitate mentees in their decision-making. Both mentors and mentees also reflect on their mentoring journey and decide on the next stage of their journey.
THE WAY FORWARD: RECOMMENDATIONS
Covid 19 has expedited the use of digital tools in youths mentoring. With consideration and incorporation of the ubiquitous learning of the young generation, these digital tools can be effective in helping them chart their mentoring journey independently and equip them with the necessary life and work skills. Digitalisation also enables mentors and mentees to connect globally, creating the potential for a vast amount of cross-cultural learning and exchange of experiences. However, we need to be cognizant that this is only the initial stage of digital mentoring, although a significant one.
Various recommendations are suggested to improve on existing digital tools and collaboration among app developers.
1. Improve on the privacy, security and control of apps for mentoring. There needs to be a clear policy on the issues of privacy, security and control and this must be accessible and transparent to users and youths mentoring agencies. This policy should align with the government ministries that oversee youths mentoring in the various countries. There should also be a clear action plan that shows how such a policy will be implemented so that trust can be created among users of the mentoring apps.
2. A community of app developers, youths agencies leaders and mentors should be created globally to facilitate conversations, exchange of ideas and technology. This community can also work towards sharing of apps worldwide to create a culture of mentoring in different countries, especially the less advantaged countries. The community can discuss fund-raising issues regarding the creation of apps and work towards raising funds to support development of these apps. This community can also lead to sharing of resources, especially human talents, which can ultimately reduce the time and financial resources needed to create apps. In addition, it can lead to an uplifting of profiles of the youths mentoring organisations as well as the apps they create.
3. App designers, youths mentors and educators should work together in the design of the apps. This is because youths mentors have an understanding of the psychological and social development of youths and activities which attract them, while educators possess the knowledge of pedagogy, especially about how youths learn in the digital space. All of these spheres of knowledge can combine to assist app designers to create apps that maximize youths learning and development.
4. Ongoing research should be carried out on the youths’ learning approaches in using digital mentoring apps and how these apps can be improved. International seminars and conferences should be organized to allow various stakeholders to share knowledge and best practices.
5. Since developed countries like Singapore are promoting digital learning, especially in this pandemic period, governments should set aside a national fund to promote digital mentoring among youths. This fund should also include blended mentoring, meaning a combination of physical mentoring activities for youths and digital mentoring.
6. Since mobile gaming is so popular among youths, games can be developed which incorporates the principles and values of youths mentoring. Such games can also counteract the harmful effects of existing violent games and gear youths’ attention towards positive values of personal growth.
Lim, P. and Parker, A. (2020), ‘Mentoring Millennials in an Asian Context’, Talent Management Insights from Singapore. Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited.
Mentor Together, https://mentortogether.org/
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Proudfoot , J., Clarke, J., Birch, M-R., Whitton, A.E., Parker, G., Manicavasagar, V., Harrison, V., Christensen, H., Hadzi-Pavlovic, D. (2013), ‘Impact of a Mobile Phone and Web Program on Symptom and Functional Outcomes for People with Mild-to-Moderate Depression, Anxiety and Stress: a Randomised Controlled Trial.’, MC Psychiatry, Nov 18;13:312. doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-13-312.
Radlick, R.L., Mirkovic, J., Przedpelska, S., Brendmo, E.H., Gammon D. (2020), ‘Experiences and Needs of Multicultural Youths and Their Mentors, and Implications for Digital Mentoring Platforms: Qualitative Exploratory Study’. JMIR Formative Research, JMIR Form Res 4(2):e15500) doi: 10.2196/15500.
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Stiles-Shields, C., Montague, E., Lattie, E.G., Kwasny, M.J. and Mohr, D.C. (2017), ‘What Might Get in the Way: Barriers to the Use of Apps for Depression’. Digit Health. Jan-Dec; 3: 2055207617713827.