I’m sure this issue of YouthWorker Journal will be filled with amazing ideas and reflections on the use of social media in youth ministry. As a youth ministry trainer, I’ve often talked about the amazing ministry tools of Facebook and text messaging, the power of social networking and other rah-rah techno-encouragements.
I’ve also cautioned that online contact can supplement effectively, but not fully replace face-to-face contact. Like most of you, I’ve leveraged Facebook and other social networking tools in order to reconnect with scores of former students, lengthening the years of ministry and input I’m able to have in the lives of teenagers and young adults.
However, when it comes to the day-to-day ministry work I do with middle schoolers, I have to face up to something about this hoopla: Most of the techno-wonder pertains to ministry with high school ministry.
Caught in the Middle
Yes, some of my middle school students have cell phones, but certainly not all of them do. Even those who do are often on somewhat limited texting plans. I’m not naïve enough to think there aren’t middle schoolers who text hundreds of times per day. I just think it’s a fallacy to suggest that all the buzz about teens and texting applies to every seventh grader.
As for Facebook—well, it is a rule of Facebook’s that you have to be at least 13 years old to join. (It was 14 until recently, and the same age change occurred on MySpace.) That means any sixth grader and many seventh graders who are on Facebook have lied about their age to join. Plenty of parents are either oblivious to this or even support it and have thoughts such as, “It’s just a stupid rule to protect them from litigation.” That doesn’t mean it’s OK.
As a middle school youth worker, I have to live with this tension: If I talk about Facebook with my young teens—particularly if I remotely project the notion that actively using Facebook is normative for all teenagers on the face of the Earth—then really, I’m suggesting that kids lie.
I can’t go there. How can I encourage middle school students to live honestly in all their relationships if I chalk this one up to a little white lie that doesn’t hurt anyone? We all know that middle schoolers have very little insight into how that lie would be any different than any other lie.
Again, I am not living in a cave. I know that many of my young teens are on Facebook, and certainly most of the now 13-year-old eighth graders. So I use Facebook with those who are on it, and never promote it; I never suggest to a young teen that we connect on Facebook unless I’m confident he or she is already on there. Even then, I don’t talk about it in front of other kids, whose parents might have drawn that line (as I have for my own children).
A Rule to Live By
Here’s a rule I try to live with as a middle school youth worker: I never want to join the cultural juggernaut rushing young teens into adolescence. I want them to be content being immature for a while longer. I need to continue to be pleasantly surprised by kids who are naïve in the ways of the world. I aspire to be an incarnational youth worker who meets young teens where they are, not an attractional youth worker who posits lies about coolness and growing up.
Join me, would you? Let’s commit to being super-thoughtful about how we utilize, talk about, promote or off-handedly assume social media usage with our young teens. Innocence is a good thing. Waiting isn’t so bad, either.