It is no surprise that today’s teenagers are digital natives. Most cannot imagine a time or place without a device constantly in hand, and they rely on technology to stay connected with those around them. According to the Pew Research Center, 95% of youth today (ages 13-17) own or have access to a smartphone. Naturally, this leads to ubiquitous social media interaction. Teens use social media platforms to relate to one another, express themselves, and find entertainment. While Facebook has become less prevalent for younger audiences (less than half of teenagers have accounts), a majority of youth students are hooked on outlets like Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube.
What does this mean for youth leaders? Church workers must of course recognize the prevalence of social media, and more than likely they are engaged on one or more platforms themselves. However, it is critical to consider the risks inherent with using social media. Modern technology presents youth workers with an extra layer of challenge to their service. There is an understanding of essential church policies regarding how to work with teenagers in person, in order to maintain privacy and propriety. However, the boundary lines get somewhat blurry when it comes to online presence.
Youth workers should use caution in how they interact with teens (if they choose to) and should also bear in mind how profiles and posts reflect on them as representatives of Christ. Social media can be a fun and helpful way to maintain positive connections, but it can also lead to misunderstandings, frustrations, and privacy violations. While there are no precise black and white rules for navigating this new territory, there are certainly critical elements to consider when using social media.
Blessings and Dangers of Social Media
Social media, when used wisely, can offer helpful advantages. It can assist youth leaders in connecting and communicating with students. It can enhance the relationships leaders have with teens and make them more aware of what is happening in their lives. Often youth leaders who are observant can see issues and changes happening with a teen online before they see it at church. It can provide a method to make groups aware of upcoming activities.
However, it is important to remain aware of the dangers that accompany social media engagement. Depending on the platform, it can present issues of privacy and propriety if leaders and teens become too familiar in an online setting. Social media also bears the risk of easily hurt feelings, through pictures and comments that might be posted. It’s all too tempting to hide behind a screen and say or do things that would be offensive in a face to face setting. It’s also easy to misinterpret intentions in such settings. Certain accounts can even be hacked into or disturbed.
Regardless of how leaders choose to interact with students, they certainly ought to remain mindful of their role as ambassadors of Jesus Christ. As we are reminded in Scripture, all that we do and say should be done with a mindset that focuses on the Lord’s presence: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Colossians 3:17
Questions to Consider
There is no universal statement regarding approach to the use of social media with youth groups. Every church body is unique, and every place should develop its own policy regarding engagement with teens. However, there are common elements that ought to be considered in the development of such regulations. Youth leaders can contemplate risk management questions that will lead to discerning decisions and avoid potential pitfalls when it comes to social media.
Some helpful questions to review as leaders approach social media include, but are not limited to the following issues.
- Who will be able to view my personal social media account? This is a question any church worker should consider. For instance, if posting a lot of personal information on a Facebook account, it might be best to adjust privacy settings. If the account is open to viewing, use careful judgment in selecting what photos and words are published.
- Will I follow the pages or accounts of teenagers? Younger students are less likely to be active on Facebook, but might have Instagram, Tiktok, or Snapchat accounts. If youth workers do choose to “friend” or “follow” teens, it is highly advisable to obtain official parent permission prior to doing so. It is also essential to keep comments appropriate and minimal.
- Why do I want to engage on social media? If social media accounts are for personal or family purposes, it might be best to maintain a definite separation from church-related work. If the goal of online interaction is to connect with kids or make announcements, consider doing so via a specific account or another method.
- Should I engage with students on Snapchat? The nature of Snapchat is such that engaging with students involves a great deal of risk. Pictures posted through this platform disappear after a limited time, which means a lack of available documentation. If a student were to present some sort of accusation against a leader, there would be no way to prove the truth or falsehood of the claim. Just as leaders should avoid being the only adult in a room with a teen, it is prudent to avoid pictures that are shared with a limited audience and then vanish.
- Will I post pictures of teens on social media? If you do choose to create a social media account specifically for a youth group, be sure to gather parent permission before publicly posting any sort of images of students.
Suggested Social Media Use
It might be advisable, considering the risks, to avoid social media interaction between youth leaders and teens. However, there are still methods of staying connected to students and communicating ideas with families. Leaders can create a Facebook or Instagram account that is specific to the youth group. A Facebook page would likely be more for parents but could still be a great method of communicating reminders and providing pictures. For either platform, it is best to keep the page closed or private, and to require participants to request viewing before they join. Again, it is also important to verify permission before posting photos or name information of any kind.
Adult leaders can also use messaging apps such as “GroupMe” or “Whatsapp” to keep in touch with student groups in a way that keeps records of communication. Whenever youth workers and teens interact over text, it is wise to have a church policy in place and to verify that parents provide permission for communication to occur. As with any practice, every congregation and every youth group is unique, so consider what will be most beneficial for the needs of the group.
Navigating social media risks is a relatively new concern for youth leaders. With teenagers so constantly connected to their phones, it can seem like social media platforms provide a positive way to connect and interact, and in a sense they do. However, it’s important to recognize the potential dangers that accompany an online presence, and to adjust engagement accordingly. There are many safe ways to keep youth group fellowship relevant and beneficial, both in person and over a screen.
When in doubt, air on the side of caution, and never hesitate to bring any matter, large or small, to God.