The author, a pastor and self-proclaimed geek, offers technologically savvy advice for making the best use of the Internet for building relationships with and among youth while avoiding potential pitfalls.
I am among the oldest of those raised around computers. In December 1983 our family got our first computer, a Texas Instruments 99/4A that hooked up to the television. As a sixth grader, I had eagerly anticipated this purchase, and I was the predominate computer user, for everything from programming in BASIC to an early version of desktop publishing to playing video games.
About a year later, we got a peripheral device called a modem, which is short for “modulator-demodulator,” and allowed the computer to communicate using the phone line. Our first modem was the kind I remember from the movie WarGames; you would first dial a phone number and then, after hearing the answering tone, you’d place the handset onto the modem. (To gain a little current perspective, the average broadband connection today is at least 2,500 times faster than this device!)
Using this modem, I could connect to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and communicate with people around the world. Unlike today, messages could take a few days to be routed because the BBS software only called the larger network once a day. I also discovered chat systems and would call into them and talk with people from my high school and beyond. As a student worker at Wartburg College, I had a hand in hooking up the campus to this new thing called the Internet and setting up a news server for the campus. After I left campus, I was able to use this new technology to stay in touch with my girlfriend, who is now my wife.
I began to see ways to blend my passions for ministry and technology during my time in seminary at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. While there, I worked part time in the Information Technology department of the ELCA churchwide office and began to see even more clearly ways that technology could support ministry. As a pastor who has spent more than 10 years working with young people in congregations, through synodical youth ministry, and with the ELCA Youth Gathering, I am excited about the benefits that new technologies bring to ministry. We can sustain and support our relationships with the young people we care about in ways that weren’t even dreamed of a few years ago.
New technologies can sustain and support our relationships with the young people we care about in ways that weren’t even dreamed of a few years ago.
The Internet is a fantastic tool. It gives us access to vast amounts of information in the blink of an eye. For example, instead of depending on the snow report from the public relations department at the local ski area, I can pull up some Web cams and look at the weather myself. We can listen to news and music from far away radio stations; we can download applications to run on our computers; we can share pictures from our adventures; and we can even have video conversations with our families and friends. Like a giant and easily searchable library, the Internet connects us to information and to one another.
When I started my adventure into what we now call cyberspace, there were very few of us there. At first, mostly government workers and students, as well as a few hobbyists, experimented with online communication. The people I communicated with were folks I knew in person or folks who shared some common interest. These days, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s December 2008 survey, just under three out of every four Americans use the Internet regularly.1
Public and Private
Cyberspace is no longer the domain of college students and hobbyists, it is now part of the public space. One of the big challenges of raising kids in this time is being sure that they understand that once something is on the Internet, it’s public. Once something is on the Internet, even if it’s removed from where it was originally posted, it could have been copied by others and posted in other places. Even if you restrict who can see something that you post originally, it might go farther than you ever intended.
In July 2008, 18-year-old Jesse Logan committed suicide after a nude picture of herself that she had sent to her then-boyfriend was shared with other girls in her school. The harassment that she faced in school drove her to stop attending and, eventually, ended her life.2
This isn’t asking to read their diary, it’s asking to look at the front of their locker.
The practice she engaged in is known as “sexting.” Sending nude or seminude pictures or videos is a widespread practice among young people. According to a survey commissioned by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com, one in five teens has sent such an image, with just over one in ten girls ages 13 to 16 having sent such an image. The results of the survey “Sex and Tech” 3 also suggest that many of these images are then shared with people other than the intended recipient. (See sidebar, “Tech Tips.”)
Sending sexually suggestive texts, e-mails, and instant messages is even more common, with almost one out of four teens admitting to sending such messages and almost one out of five teens saying they have received such messages.
Does this mean we should stop letting young people use modern technology? I don’t see this as a practical response. The Internet, along with cell phones and other modern technologies, are key ways that young people build and sustain relationships with both their peers and adults who are part of their lives. It fills in the time between face-to-face interaction and helps people keep in touch. We want to raise kids that have strong positive relationships with one another and with their parents and other caring adults.
Our kids need to be constantly reminded that once something is shared, it can be shared again, and passed along indefinitely. The consequences of posting something embarrassing, or something personal, can follow young people the rest of their life. Perhaps a good rule of thumb to share with them is to think about whether they would send the message or picture to their grandparents and then decide if it should be sent or posted.
Youth ministry, and all ministry, is fundamentally about relationships.
The social networking Web sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, also allow pictures and messages to be shared. Although you can restrict who can view your profile, once something is posted, it’s very easy to copy and paste it and share it with others. While these sites can be a good method to share aspects of daily life, they should not be thought of as a private diary.
Some young people in my congregation prefer to communicate through social networking sites and don’t use text messages or e-mail, so I have created an account so that I can keep in touch with them. Not only do I keep in touch, but I also get a general sense of what is going on in their lives. I have called people up based on their status message and helped keep them connected to their church family. I see this as meeting them on their turf, just as I see them at school activities and coffee shops.
I recommend that if your kids, and by that I mean both your biological kids and the members of your youth group, have a social networking site, you should too. As a pastor or adult who works with youth, you can’t force the issue and you can’t fake it if it’s not something you would normally do. If it fits your personality to have a membership, I think it’s a good idea to connect to, or “friend,” the young people in your congregation. If it’s not something you as a parent would normally do, I recommend that you learn how to do it. Ask your kids for help and discuss with them why you think it is part of your responsibility as a parent. You need to know what your child is posting in this public space so that you can talk with them about it. This isn’t asking to read their diary, it’s asking to look at the front of their locker.
Youth ministry, and all ministry, is fundamentally about relationships. It’s about our relationship to God and our relationships to other people, both those in our congregation or youth group and those outside. Like the handwritten letter or the telephone, the tools of new technologies don’t create relationships or community, they just make communication easier and faster.
- See www.pewinternet.org/Data-Tools/Download-Data/~/media/Infographics/Trend%20Data/January%202009%20updates/Demographics%20of%20Internet%20Users%201%206%2009.jpg.
- Jesse Logan’s story can be found at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29546030/
- Available at www.thenationalcampaign.org/sextech
Andy Arnold is associate pastor at Northridge Lutheran Church, Kalispell, Montana and is responsible for youth and family ministries. He is also involved with youth ministry at the synodical and churchwide levels. He writes a blog for the ELCA Youth Ministry Network at www.elcaymnet.org/_blog/Tech_Geek.