Youth and Social Media: Identity, Relationship, and Shared Discovery

Earlier this year, I handed down my old iPhone to our twelve year-old daughter. She is our eldest, and, as with every first born child, her portion in life is to be a human parenting experiment. Parents in a digital age face new choices about what devices, which platforms and setting levels of Internet access. At the moment, our daughter isn’t on social media, and web browsing is just for school work. So, she mainly texts and listens to music on iTunes and Spotify.

As I watch her on her iPhone, wrapped in its hot pink case, listening to music on her oversized white headphones, I am reminded just how much our tweens and teens are shaped by music and, of course, relationships. I’ve been transported back in time more than once to my days of recording songs off the radio onto cassette tapes on my boom box—songs that I felt captured the very essence of my adolescent soul. And I remember waiting my turn to call friends on the black rotary phone in our basement. (Am I sounding old yet?)

The day we placed that iPhone in our daughter’s hands we realized that we were not just gifting her a new device, but placing the entire world in her hands. All of a sudden, she had her friends, music, information, and, it should be noted, countless silly apps right at her fingertips. The whole thing conjured in us great excitement as well as serious trepidation. (We found Janell Burley Hoffman’s post on Gregory’s iPhone contract to be a helpful way to have conversation about our mutual responsibilities and appropriate behavior.)

In A Digital World

Part of our responsibility as parents—and as ministry leaders—is to help youth navigate this digital world, a world that can seem as foreign to us as it seems completely natural to them.

In her book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, youth and technology researcher danah boyd (intentionally stylized in lower case) reassures her readers that “by and large, the kids are alright.” But her findings range far beyond just teen’s use of social media. She observes how much of the world that was once available for teens to explore has been closed off to them. In my childhood, for example, we’d explore our neighborhood and play for hours at a time with no phones to check-in. Those days are gone. Instead, youth explore the world through digital gathering spaces, what boyd calls “networked publics.” She writes:

Teens simply have far fewer places to be together in public than they once did. … Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace are not only new public spaces: they are in many cases the only ‘public’ spaces in which teens can easily congregate with large groups of their peers.

The social media tools that teens use are direct descendants of the hangouts and other public places in which teens have been congregating for decades. What the drive-in was to teens in the 1950s and the mall in the 1980s, Facebook, texting, Twitter, instant messaging, and other social media are to teens now.

Digital Ministry

Much of the conversation in the church about teens and social media is driven by fear. The vast majority of the top Google search results on the topic are about setting boundaries, and just as IRL (in real life) ministry boundaries are vital. However, it also speaks to our anxiety over teens moving into the public sphere, be it physical or digital, and how best to accompany them. To minister effectively in a digital age, we must move beyond fear and help youth navigate the world, these “networked publics,” not just safely, but faithfully. boyd’s work invites us to respond with compassion and understanding for our teens—and perhaps also for our own once-upon-a-time awkward teenage selves.

It can be tough out there both online and IRL. boyd writes:

Teens are struggling to make sense of who they are and how they fit into society in an environment in which contexts are networked and collapsed, audiences are invisible, and anything they say and do can easily be taken out of context. They are grappling with battles adults face, but they are doing so while under constant surveillance and without a firm grasp of who they are. In short, they’re navigating one heck of a cultural labyrinth.

Ministry leaders have an important role to place in this digital time. Three areas seem particularly important: identity, right relationship, and shared discovery.

Identity

Identity is in constant flux during one’s teenage years, which is what can make it such an awkward time, but also so filled with promise and potentiality. Our identities are shaped by relationships and the feedback of our peers, which, in a digital world, can sometimes become reduced into how many likes, retweets, and comments we get. (It’s worth noting that the same can for go for adults too.)

Ministry leaders should be present in these digital spaces not in order to police behavior, nor to lurk, but to befriend and come alongside, to companion our youth. To be what a colleague of mine calls a “God person” in this digital landscape is vitally important.

We need to continually remind them that their identity is rooted primarily in their relationship with God. In a recent conversation with our youth about the first commandment, we talked about all the things that can become gods in our lives, including friends, achievement, money, body image, and even ourselves, which can have the effect disorder our desires and twisting our identities so that we don’t hardly recognize ourselves. We can remind them, simply by our consistent and gracious presence, that God who created them as they are and loves them as they are. They’ll fall, they’ll fail, they’ll do amazing things, but above all, they belong to God.

Right Relationship

Social media can be brutal, even among adults. It’s important that we encourage and cultivate a love for our digital neighbors—not only to refrain from piling on and bullying, but to be positive and express care for others. We can help model what it means in digital spaces “to love our neighbors as ourselves,” to “not bear false witness.” The formation of good, positive, healthy friendships, which today are also digitally mediated, are vital for teens development and well-being.

Shared Discovery

The digital revolution has empowered youth and amplified voices from the margins. It has flipped many of our assumptions about the roles of teacher and student, mentor and learner, minister and parishioner. Teens are often more knowledgable and savvy than their elders and so lead us in these digital spaces—just as our daughter helps me figure out how to use emojis. ? Today, knowledge is not as much transmitted as it is discovered, negotiated, and shaped in relationships. We need to be willing to listen first, understanding that we, too, have much to learn. A ministry stance toward shared discovery will lead us into deeper relationships and truth.

Together, we can find new ways and rediscover ancient practices to be faithful at any age in this new digital world. As boyd concludes, “Collaboratively, adults and youth can create a networked world that we all want to live in.”

 

Additional Resources

Listen to danah boyd’s interview with Krista Tippet for On Being

Anderson’s blog post Helping Our Youth Become Digital Disciples

Pew Research Report: Teens, Technology and Friendships

Pew Research Report Technology and Romantic Relationships

 

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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