In Norway, as in the other Nordic countries, youth clubs were offered to young people as an alternative place for socializing outside often overcrowded urban flats and facilitating simple leisure activities like board games (Forkby, 2014; Lindström, 2012).
The main purpose of the clubs, however, was to keep young people occupied and off the streets, ultimately to prevent them from turning to drugs, crime and gangs (Forkby & Kiilakoski, 2014). The original concept of youth clubs has been more or less maintained in the representation of activities and the presence of adults offering guidance and opportunities for a chat (Vestel & Smette, 2009). The current 670 youth clubs in Norway (Statistics Norway, 2019) charge no or only symbolic fees and place no demands on regular attendance or parents’ time or effort.
Therefore, youth clubs are often described as alternatives to organized leisure activities like sports (Gjertsen & Olsen, 2011), and they are popular among Norwegian youths: One-third of the pupils in lower secondary school attend a youth club at least once a month (Seland & Andersen, 2020).
Although the prevention of problem behaviour is still an important rationale for youth clubs in Norway, a shift in reasoning has emerged in the last decade, in parallel with a new worry about the young. In much of the West, there has been a steep increase in loneliness and self-reported emotional distress, such as depression and anxiety, among young people (Collishaw, 2015; von Soest & Wichstrøm, 2014). Much of this increase may be seen in relation to increased achievement pressure in areas such as education and body image (Bakken et al., 2018; Eriksen, 2020; Pedersen & Eriksen, 2019).
Conflicts between the generations and worries about youth crime and drug use are increasingly accompanied by a new concern about their well-being, namely that young people, rather than externalizing any rebelliousness, may turn their problems inwards (Eckersley, 2011).
In Norway, clubs are now seen as possible arenas for the prevention of mental health issues among youth (Ministry of Health and Care Services, 2015; Norwegian directorate of health, 2017). As part of an overarching responsibility for public health, local communities are encouraged to make available social spaces where young people can meet, such as youth clubs or other drug-free environments, in order to provide social support and prevent loneliness (Ministry of Health and Care Services, 2015).
There is a considerable lack of knowledge about whether youth clubs may fulfil this task; research on how social care may enhance so-called ‘well-being’ mainly focuses on parents (Pinchover & Attar-Schwartz, 2018) and there is an over-all paucity of knowledge about youth work (Forkby & Kiilakoski, 2014). The present study investigates what mechanisms are at work in the club that may foster vulnerable young people’s well-being.
In the literature, there is also a lack of conceptualization of the term well-being, despite its proliferation in research and youth policy (McLeod & Wright, 2016). In investigating youth clubs’ potential for well-being in youth, we elaborate a theoretical framework for how we may conceptualize well-being for young people.
Drawing on individual interviews with youth workers and focus group interviews with frequent club attenders in Norway, we use this framework to identify some key mechanisms at work in the club for fostering young people’s well-being. We suggest that youth clubs may function as an institutionalized moratorium (Erikson, 1968) providing marginalized youths with shelter from adult demands and responsibilities.