Popular culture has long been associated with youth. TV and movie producers, as well as celebrities and their agents, frequently market their wares specifically to young people. Teens find extreme sports appealing and love to try trends. But pop culture has gone beyond reality TV and bungee jumping. It’s become more about making a personal connection with teens and having them interact with popular culture and each other. In the same way, we as youth leaders can use those influences from pop culture to connect with young people in a way they respond positively to. By reaching out to them through means that they are used to with their peers, we can communicate important lessons about faith, service and community.
Many of the same categories that influence young people today, such as TV, movies and celebrities, were popular with previous generations. However, the way that teens access and interact with popular culture has been revolutionized by technology and specialization. They don’t just experience popular culture and react to it; they interact with it and affect it in real time. They’re using technology to do it, and youth leaders can utilize these same technologies to establish relationships between our teens, their views of culture and their faith.
Kids as young as 8 and 9 often have smart phones, but young people rarely make calls on them. Texting, along with using social media, has become the way to communicate for young people. While leaders and parents are used to emailing each other, teens use texting to find out about homework assignments, make plans for the weekend and spread information among their peer groups. Laptops and tablets still have their places, but the smartphone is the access point for teens to get and send information. Texting meeting times, activity ideas or even discussion topics is a great way to be sure your messages reach your youth. Most phones will even let you know if your message has been read. You can text multiple people at a time, and will get much quicker responses than you would through email or phone calls.
When young people aren’t texting on their phones, they are often checking in on social media sites. Social media is a key part of teen culture, from Facebook (though that’s now often seen as being for older people) to SnapChat, teens are sharing what they’re doing, what they’re interested in and what they think about culture, current events and the world in general. According to a Pew Research poll, 67% of young people get their news about current events from Facebook, rather than traditional news sources. Young people are looking for quick videos that explain things as they happen. They’re not waiting for the six o’clock news. In the social media Information Age, instant gratification is king.
A good start to reaching out to young people through social media is to start a Youth Group Facebook page. Let the teens know at meetings that information will be posted there. Then go beyond just posting calendar information. Make it interactive by linking to interesting videos. Create discussion threads. Let them know that if they have questions about faith, they can private message you through Facebook messenger. Then, with permission, post that topic anonymously and have the group discuss that particular cultural issue and how faith applies to it.
Twitter has created a microcosm of culture where people from around the world can comment on something as benign as Taylor Swift’s latest outfit, or start a revolution, as happened in Egypt, and youth of America are a part of that. They’re watching, reading, commenting and considering their place in these worldwide events. Having a Twitter Feed to make regular comments on current popular culture is a great way to start a discussion with your group.
With Instagram, teens can create their own scrapbook of images that document their many activities. With snapshots and selfies, they share their lives and comment on each other’s worlds. They follow each other’s feeds and favorite the ones they like. They can follow their favorite celebrities, TV shows and movies. They can also browse random content that is funny or sometimes provocative. Give them a safe space on Instagram to find pictures from youth and church events. Tag them in pictures (with their permission), and share access information to the feed in the church bulletin or youth news. Doing so can help create a bond between generations in the church.
These platforms of expression come with some risks, such as cyber-bullying or inappropriate content posting, but teens flock to them to communicate about their lives and create identities for themselves. One important aspect of social media culture is posting selfies. Many teens find there is pressure to post attractive, even sexy-looking pictures to gain more friends, a bigger following or even to seem cooler. However, when asked, teens, especially girls, react to such pictures often in a negative way. Studies even show that teens themselves, while feeling pressure to be “sexy” online, often rate such profiles negatively. According to an article on the Huffington Post, Drs. Eileen Zurbriggen and Elizabeth Daniels, both psychology professors at the University of California at Santa Cruz, conducted a study and asked 118 young women (13-25) to rate two fictionalized Facebook profiles of a young woman on her competence, friendliness and attractiveness. One profile contained “sexy” looking selfies, while the other did not. The person in the non-sexy profile rated higher in all three categories. Having discussions about peer pressure on social media sites, and showing them research like the study noted here, can open teens’ minds to how they are perceived online.
There is a lot of potential in utilizing social media in your work with young people. You can use social media feeds not just to connect with your youth, but also to model what a healthy social media presence looks like. Show them how people can discuss a controversial social issue and its faith implications in a positive way. Make your feeds a safe place for kids to come and share, and to express themselves.
YouTube and Netflix
YouTube is a major player in teen self-expression and conversation. Many teens make YouTube videos to express a particular talent or point of view, then others can subscribe and follow the videos. Videos often go “viral” and texts and conversation center around popular feeds. The interactive nature of YouTube gives both the poster of the video and those who view it a voice. YouTube feeds about popular shows, video games and celebrities are also gathering places for teen fans, where they can share their thoughts about plotlines or game features, and get feedback about what others think as well. They can then use that information to assess where they “fit” into a certain aspect of culture. Linking to YouTube videos, such as “Falling Plates,” on your social media sites, or within a text, can guide young people to interesting and uplifting content.
While teens are watching lots of YouTube videos, they are also using Netflix to binge-watch their favorite television shows. No longer do they tune in to network channels each week to see a new episode, then discuss what will happen next week. Now, they simply sit down with the remote and some snacks and watch hours of episodes in a row. They don’t have to wait months to see what happens after a season finale. They simply flip to the next season on the playlist and find out right away. Binge-watching feeds into the instant gratification teens crave. Try tuning in to some of the programs your youth are discussing. Not only does it give you a connection to popular culture that teens are interested in, it can also help start important discussions about faith and culture.
Before you start thinking that teens are only connecting through screens, it’s good to know that they are getting out in the fresh air and exercising, too. Most teens are involved in at least one school sport, if not more. Many are starting to specialize in one sport at an early age, and play in recreational leagues and travel club teams.
Teens spend a great deal of their time outside of school on the field or the court, and when they’re not playing them, they’re often watching them. Sports are cross-cultural activities, and there’s something for everyone. Teens today tend to be drawn more toward watching college sports than professional sports, unless they’re in a city where they can go to a professional game. Teens are also used to more interactive elements when watching a game. NCAA basketball brackets get posted all over the Internet each March, and teens are watching their sports heroes on YouTube replays and advertising videos.
So how can you integrate sports into your youth ministry? Consider including not just an open gym, but discussions about sports and faith in your youth nights. There are many sports-focused Bible studies and devotions available. Players’ actions on and off the court often generate a lot of discussion, so it’s a good idea to bring that discussion and how our faith applies to those topics to our youth nights and social media feeds.
Popular culture changes for each generation, but its implications on faith and society particularly affect the young. They are processing all the information they receive from the thousands of sources that are out there, and they need guidance from the inside to help them navigate it all. Youth leaders can be those guides and can use technology, sports, and other popular culture influences to help young people consider where their place, and their faith, fits in this world.