Youth and Social Media: Lessons from a 15 Passenger Van

In the first post of this series, we looked at how youth enact identity, relationship, and shared discovery through social media.


Each year our congregation takes about twenty-five high school youth on a mission trip to volunteer at the Appalachian Service Project (ASP), a program that helps families in need by making their homes warmer, safer, and dryer. We repair roofs, install siding, rebuild decks, replace windows, and much more. However, at the heart of our ASP experience is relationships—with the families we serve, our work teams, with volunteers from other churches, and with God. We describe it as “relational ministry with home construction on the side.” These days, this relationality is mediated and extended by digital social media, as youth and adults alike share their experiences with friends and family back home and followers around the world.

Each year that I’ve gone to ASP, I have learned more about social media and how teens use them. There’s nothing quite like spending a week with that many teens to teach you “what the kids are doing on social media these days.”

Three years ago our kids taught me about the still emerging photo sharing app, Instagram. They documented and shared their experiences by posting photos of their work site, completed projects, group photos with other volunteers and the families they served—and countless pictures of themselves using power tools. Throughout the week, they used photos to tell the story of their trip and God’s work in the world. Kids who might have been reluctant to share their faith with someone face-to-face offered a profound witness through social media.

The following year, they introduced me to Snapchat—a photo messaging app in which pictures only appear to select recipients for up to ten seconds and then disappear. On the nine-hour van ride home from southwestern Virginia, the youth in our van snapchatted for hours (between naps) with each other and the kids in the other three vans in our caravan. Their uproarious laughter at the fleeting pictures, or “snaps,” sped along the long ride home.

These mission trips— along with a great post I read around that same time by Josh Miller called Tenth Grade Tech Trends, inspired by his fifteen year-old sister—spurred me to explore Instagram, Snapchat, and other emerging social media platforms, and not to remain content just using Facebook and dabbling on Twitter. (Today, I love Instagram and use it often, though I’m still learning the ropes on Snapchat.) What I’ve learned is that the old financial investment advice, “Diversify!” goes for social media too, especially when it comes to teens.

That anecdotal evidence is confirmed in the April 2015 Pew Research report, “Teens, Social Media, and Technology” that shows that among teens 13-17 years old the most popular platforms are: Facebook 71%, Instagram 53%, Snapchat 41%, Twitter 33%, Vine 24%, Tumblr 14%. The numbers also show that Facebook’s demise among teens has been somewhat exaggerated. Teens reported that the platforms they used most often were Facebook 41%, Instagram 20%, Snapchat 11%, Twitter 6%.

(By comparison, Pew reports that while adults are on par with teens in being on Facebook at 71%, they are well behind on Instagram—only 26%—and Twitter—23%. Data for Snapchat use among adults was not available, which itself seems rather telling.)

Ministry leaders who work with teens need to pay attention to emerging social media platforms and continually be looking for authentic and appropriate ways to connect, specifically on Instagram and Snapchat, which have outstripped Twitter among teens. I encourage people new to social media or these specific platforms to learn to use them using the “buddy system”—practice with a friend, follow people that already use the platforms well and understand what they do, and experiment. When it comes to social media, we are all learning as we go. And sometimes, as the old prophecy goes, “a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

Visual Languages

Another thing that Instagram and Snapchat have in common, along with Pinterest, is that they are visually driven. Pictures are primary while text takes a supporting role. The rapid growth of these platforms—and the higher levels of engagement on pictures and videos on Facebook and Twitter—reflects a shift toward visual content. This seems to function as a kind of visual language system in the same way that stained glass, church architecture, and iconography have done for centuries in the Church. (This shift may also account for the exploding popularity of emoji—the little visual characters used in texting. For a good laugh, check out the brilliant Emoji Theology account on Twitter.) ?

Reformation traditions, including my own Lutheran tribe, tend to be far more comfortable with text than images. Blogging and tweeting tend to play to our strengths, but today putting the Gospel in the vernacular doesn’t mean translating from Latin to German as Luther once did. Instead, it requires a recovery of the ancient Christian tradition of visual languages, not only online, but in our preaching and teaching.

Digital Spiritual Practice

Furthermore, what if we were to see the activity taking place on these platforms as a form of spiritual practice where joy, peace, wonder, curiosity, and faith are captured and shared—where evangelism, stewardship, and love of neighbor are communicated to the ends of the earth? Where relationships with others and God are at the heart of life, no matter the content we share or the platforms we use? How can we help teens see the divine through the capturing of everyday moments?

To start, we need to find meaningful ways to inhabit these digital gathering spaces and enter them with the expectation of encountering the divine. And don’t be surprised if you’re the one being evangelized by your teens.

 

Keith new smallKeith Anderson serves as pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a new book on ministry leadership in a digital age, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World, and co-author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. Connect with Keith at pastorkeithanderson.net and on Twitter @prkanderson.

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