Best Practices for Youth Group Use without Abuse
We have all likely seen it: adolescents going about daily routines with backs hunched, heads down and hands seemingly attached to electronic devices. They text and tap and tweet fluidly, as if the cell phone was an eleventh finger. Let’s face it: teens in this day and age are increasingly attached to technology. This is truly an ever-booming era in which information is instant and desire for gratification and communication grows to be the same. Kids from toddler to teen are glued to screens, swiping and staring with ease. Like it or not, this is the way of the future.
I was shocked in a recent conversation with a few of my youth group students: we were discussing trials and persecution, and as example of being persecuted one high school senior piped up that not having a phone until her junior year was trying. Perhaps she was referring to the way others addressed the issue or how pervasive it seemed in her school, but let me add that we were discussing the apostle Paul and modern-day pastors who were imprisoned and tortured for their faith. And not having a cell phone was a travesty? I felt suddenly ancient and old-fashioned. Yet I also began to wonder at this development in teen lifestyle…if technology is the way of the future, what does that mean for adult/youth connections? As a ministry leader, is it appropriate to keep in touch with students through text messages and social media, or should the relationship be more professional? How can modern-day attachment to technology be used as a helpful asset but not distract or hinder students from the Word of God?
Teens today are definitely more than ever connected through cyber space and cell signals. Sometimes friends message one another while sitting in the same room, or even on the same couch. According to pewinternet.org, 78% of kids ages 12-17 have cell phones, and over half of those are smart phones. 74% of teens use the internet via cell phones, and most send or receive about thirty text messages a day on average. About 71% of teens are on Facebook, with 52% on Instagram, 41% on Snap Chat and 33% on Twitter. Google Plus, Vine and Tumblr are other popular media outlets (the latter two I admit I had never heard of before working with youth). Students in middle and high school who are not equipped with a cell phone are often teased as out of touch or aloof.
Now, for keeping in touch with friends, providing safety notification for parents or doing homework or research, cell phones can be wonderful tools. There is a downside as well, of course. The constant use of auto-correct and texting can lead to poor spelling, handwriting and posture, not to mention lack of human connection. Then, of course, there are always to be considered the dangers of texting while driving (or even while walking). And where there is mass information there is also risk for cyberbullying or cyber-stalking, as impressionable and naïve youngsters fail to appreciate the gravity of creep-os that roam the internet.
I consider my role as youth leader to be multi-faceted, as anyone working with young people must prove to be. We are mentors and coaches, teachers and counselors, guides and friends. There must be a healthy level of respect tempered with a flexible readiness for diversion and hilarity. Working with youth also requires a certain level of borderline insanity. It is my strong belief that the best way to build relationships and connect with people is to do so on the most human level possible. We grow as we commune with one another, looking people in the eye and talking face to face. Call me old-fashioned, but tone and intent are much easier to interpret through body language and voice rather than error-riddled typing.
The rule at most of our youth events, with some exceptions and allotted appropriate opportunities, is to check cell phones at the door, so to speak. If it can stay in a pocket or purse and not be a temptation, fine, but normally a physical separation is necessary to ensure adherence to the rule. Now, sometimes the use of a smart phone comes in handy for looking up a fast fact on the internet or even to find a Bible verse. But something about flipping the pages of the Word, knowing and practicing the books in order, and reading the print just seems to cement the point in a little more solidly. There are some students for whom this may be the longest time of the week that they are away from phones, and sadly perhaps also the most face-to-face connection and conversation in which they engage. Yet it makes the time and community more genuine and meaningful, ultimately.
And what of the other question, regarding propriety of youth texting or social media involvement? With wisdom and discernment, I think technology can be healthily and beneficially used. As with anything, it is best to pray and think before acting (or typing, or talking…). But using media demonstrates a connection that enters the world of young students today. It comes to a personal level that teens understand and have grown readily accustomed to using. It sometimes is required to catch or maintain attention, in all honesty.
So what are the best methods to employ? Send out a mass text announcement to remind teens of an upcoming event, or just to check in and make sure they have done their Bible reading for the day. Or perhaps you might send a personal message to a student just to say that you care or that you’re thinking of her. Use Facebook to start a group for youth members, or post pictures from a recent activity. As a general rule, I think it is important to opt for in-person contact first when it is possible. As a supplement, however, using messaging or media should be fine. Just remember to keep things simple and safe. Leave out anything that might even be remotely interpreted as questionable. When in doubt, save it for a face to face conversation. With teens so driven to connect via screen, use technology to your advantage in reaching out. But never neglect the impact and importance of human touch. Somehow the Son of God managed to serve those in need, train followers and establish solid relationships without ever touching an Otter box. Hopefully we as modern-day servants can find a way to do so, also.