“We are just talking,” a young girl said to me recently.
“Talking” as many of you know, simply refers to a series of texts, back and forth between she and a boy that she liked. She had labored over every word she typed and worried over every lapse in his response. Did this boy really like her? What was their status? It reminded me of my first boyfriend in fourth grade. The boy and I experienced minimal physical interaction by passing scribbled notes on paper or verbal messages through friends. I didn’t really know him. But my heart would race as I got those little notes. Eventually, in high school boys would ask you out on a date if they wanted to get to know you. Having 24 hour access to you at their fingertips was not an option.
As youth leaders we know that social media is a powerful tool and can be used for lots of good—and the not so good. In this device-driven culture, students are often tempted to pre-judge the character of a person before having really spent any significant time interacting with that person.
Alone, in front of their screens, they often think they discover so much about a person from Facebook-stalking, Instagram, and texting. We know that a real human is always more complex than written words, a profile, or a series of pictures. Students can write on someone’s wall and flirt and avoid any clarity in a relationship. Connecting with the opposite sex, in person, allows all of us to observe nuances in social cues, and body language.
It seems to me that there are basically two camps of kids that have grown out of this digital atmosphere: “The Great Hesitancy” and “The Free For All.”
The Great Hesitancy Camp
These are Christian kids who seem to be afraid to interact with the opposite sex. They are convinced that their purity is at stake. The girls I know are so guarded and unapproachable that they have little experience or skills in communicating face-to-face with guys. The guys in this camp tend to be anxious & cautious towards initiating or clarifying their intentions with girls. Texting and messaging create a buffer that can go on for extended periods of time because they are plagued with “The Great Hesitancy.”
I wish this whole group could learn to relax with God and enjoy the process of being friends with the opposite sex, learn to date appropriately, and perhaps prepare for marriage someday.
The Free For All Camp
“The Free For All” camp is where I would have landed as a student. With no boundaries, this is a scary scenario with recorded material and 24-hour access. Things are typed and pictures are snapped by both parties that would most likely never be said or done face to face. Hook-ups are discussed and planned, and hearts are shattered. “The Free For All” camp desperately needs boundaries. But what matters most about boundaries is where they come from. Are boundaries a list of rules, rules motivated by fear (for example, fear of making God mad)? Or, are they healthy guidelines motivated by love to keep students from harm’s way? (1 Corinthians 13:7). God is a loving Father who wants to protect them. I want them to know that in Christ they possess all the self-control they will ever need. Enough power all day, every day, to say “yes” or “no” to anything. Christ’s Spirit lives in His children at all times (Colossians 1:27; Galatians 2:20).
Here is how I see it…
Fear + Rules = Pride or Failure
However, by God’s Spirit,
Love + Boundaries = Protection and Peace
My Advice to Students
The teens in our youth ministries often fall into those two categories. When I talk to teenagers, I usually give them this advice about dating in the digital age:
- Don’t be available all the time. Take a few minutes, hours, or days between texts. This can be a healthy thing.
- Don’t over analyze his or her texts or posts. Remember that you can’t hear the voice of the other person, and sometimes your friends’ texts don’t mean what you think they mean.
- Try not share too much. Keep personal information personal.
- Avoid using silence as a weapon.
- For goodness sake, don’t take pictures of yourself for the other person. Snapchat (and others) has made it too easy to send all kinds of pictures to friends, who then have the ability to send that image to people you don’t know.
- Feel free to state your preferences – like saying you would rather talk on the phone, meet in a group setting, or appropriately face-to-face.
- Great text-messagers can be terrible boyfriends or girlfriends. People aren’t always who they appear to be via text.
- Know that your mom and dad love you and want to protect you.
When You’re Talking to Parents
As leaders, we know that parents are often frustrated in this digital age. They are frequently out of the loop because so much interaction occurs without ever meeting the person who might be “talking” to their kid in the intimacy of their own bedroom.
Parents should be the first line of offense in their kids’ lives. They’ve got the most important voice, they’re the ones who have seen their teen since birth. When I’m talking to parents about their kids, I typically say:
- It is normal for your child to want to connect with the opposite sex. Social media creates a space for teens to take time to get to know each other minus the physical component of a relationship. Give them boundaries as they explore this territory.
- Find a way to respectfully spy on your kid. If a parent is cool, kind and calm about it, knowing what is going on in their child’s social media account is a form of protection and love.
- It is best to start intervening in your child’s social media world early. Get them accustomed to you lovingly having access to their phone. A basket during meals is a good idea. Phone curfews are wise. It is challenging, but not impossible to set guidelines at a later date. If the student resists and the device isn’t easily handed over, texting privileges are removed for a season. But remember, this is motivated by love not a legalistic regime. Over time, students should be given more freedom, as they demonstrate maturity.
- In general ask questions and listen to your child. Refrain from interrupting your kid when they are trying to share their stories. Try not to take over the conversations. The Holy Spirit is sufficiently capable of assisting us in this.
- Clarify the difference between punishment and consequences, motivated by love. Discipline and punishment are two different things. They have different goals. Discipline’s goal is to protect and teach. Punishment’s goal is to cast judgment or condemnation. God disciplines those He loves (Proverbs 3:12, Hebrews 12:6).
- Patiently help your teens understand what is undergirding every boundary and patiently work through any resistance.
Above all, encourage parents to assure their kid that they are loved, and that no matter what they have done in the past, that you believe that they are capable of making great decisions in the area of dating & this digital culture.