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Does It Happen Online or Offline?
An article from Jonathan McKee and David R. Smith at TheSource4YM.com

Just how important is social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) to young people? Well, new research has answered that question, revealing that over 50% of young people would give up one of their five senses before they gave up their social network.

Sounds like connecting via tech rules, right?

Actually, no. Believe it or not, the lure of connecting to their friends on glowing screens still comes second to good ol’ fashioned face-to-face communication.

So which medium should we use when connecting with today’s teenagers? Does this have to be an either/or question?

First, let’s take a quick peek at the lure of social networking.

Social Media Passes the Sniff Test
A relatively new study, both in date and methodology, asked 7,000 young people from various countries just how strong their dependence upon social media was. Their answer wrinkled a few noses…because 53% of the young people surveyed from the US, the UK, Spain, China, Brazil, India, and Mexico said they would rather give up their sense of smell than their social networks.

The study, performed by McCann Worldgroup, found that many young people would feel “isolated and out of the loop” if they lost their social networking. But they do have a reason for “feeling” this way about social networking.

The current speculation is that Facebook, the world’s undisputed social media giant, will reach 1 billion users in August of 2012. (Keep in mind that while Facebook is the heavyweight, there are many other online networks, such as Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and even MySpace.) With the global population nearing 7 billion, to think that 1-in-7 human beings will have a Facebook profile in common is a bit mind-blowing! But that reality may explain young people’s preference for Facebook over their ability to smell: they just don’t want to miss out on the biggest network in the world.

So that means that if adults want to connect with young people, it will have to be online, right?

Not so fast.

Teens Favorite Way to Connect
Ericsson, the tech titan behind communications and cell phone manufacturing, recently endeavored to discover how teenagers communicate and socialize with each other. The findings in their online report may surprise those who believe teenagers are wholly dependent on technology to touch base with others.

Ericsson’s researchers cut to the chase with a tough question: Which method of communication would you miss the most? What they found should give parents and youth workers lots of hope. “Meeting in person” was the form of communication teenagers would miss most.

Of course, some form of technology dominated the rest of the list; cell phones took second place (“texting”) and third place (“talking on mobile phone”), while “Facebook” came in fourth on the list.

That’s why the “highlights” section of their report included these three points:

  • Texting on the phone is great, but nothing beats meeting face-to-face
  • Facebook gets lots of “likes” – but it’s just a tool
  • Video chat is growing

Side note: Let it be said that we do note that mobile phone maker Ericsson, who just showed a $265 Million loss in their last quarter, is the one who did this study revealing that phones are more popular than Facebook. So to do a little fact checking here, let’s look at how much time teenagers are really spending on their phones.

Nielsen always provides good insight as to what young people are doing with their mobile devices. Nielsen, in their December report on Mobile Obsession, analyzed data from 65,000+ mobile subscribers. This report contends that messaging remains “the centerpiece of mobile teen behavior.” The average number of messages exchanged monthly went up to 3,417 text messages per teen in the third quarter last year. That’s an average of 7 texts per waking hour. (Teenage females averaged 3,952 text messages per month.)

According to the same report, teenage “voice usage” has declined recently, moving from an average of 685 minutes of talk time per month, to 572 minutes, or roughly 19 minutes a day. Compare this with young people’s time on the Internet. Nielson’s most recent consumer usage report reveals that the average 12-17 year old spends just 1 hour and 25 minutes per week on the internet on their computer (approx. 12 minutes a day) and 18-24 year olds spend 4 hours and 2 minutes per week on the internet on their computer (approx. 35 minutes a day).

There you have it from Nielson:

  • Teenagers average 7 texts per waking hour
  • Teenagers average 19 minutes a day talking on the phone
  • 12-17 year olds average 12 minutes a day on the internet on their computer
  • 18-34 year olds average 35 minutes a day on the internet on their computer

Do these numbers trump the number of minutes teenagers hang out with each other day to day? How do you think teens prefer to communicate?

In my (Jonathan) book, Connect, I raised that very question. Teenagers are growing more and more comfortable communicating through technology, while at the same time they show a desire to get together and just “hang out” with each other. Sometimes these social times are full of paradoxes. I’ve seen my daughters sitting on the couch texting friends sitting just 20 feet away. Digital communication is sometimes easier for today’s generation, but I don’t know many teenagers that would choose it to completely replace face-to-face.

Ericsson’s report says teens prefer face-to-face. A bold finding to publish when you’re a mobile company losing mobile phone profits. We found it interesting that their report also revealed that the average teenage phone call was just 4 minutes long. How does a 4-minute phone call compare with a face-to-face conversation in a coffee shop?

So, for parents and youth workers, which is the best way to connect with teenagers?

Meeting Online and IRL
This may sound like a no-brainer, but we’ve seen our fair share of adults fail when it comes to connecting with kids. When trying to influence teenagers, why do we think we have to choose between meeting them online or IRL (in real life)?

Teens use both. Why don’t we?SIDE NOTE: There are a lot of precautions adults need to take and boundaries that organizations need to set to protect young people and adult mentors. I spend a whole chapter in my book discussing boundaries and precautions that I encourage adult mentors to consider.Teenagers initiate relationships with other teens online and off. Teens further develop those relationships online and off. In short, no teen wants to be without either form of connection. Online communication and actual face time are both important to them. They should be to us, too.

From a parenting perspective, (hopefully) none of us limit our connection to our kids to just an online relationship. That would make for lots of really awkward meals (a kid texts his dad, “please pass the potatoes). The best parents are those who seek to connect face-to-face with their kids as often as possible, while maintaining influence in their teens’ online lives, as well. By the way, here’s a helpful list of six ways to be a media-savvy parent. (That short article covers ALL forms of media, not just social media.)

Likewise, youth workers realize that face time is the best way to impact teens, although many youth workers can’t realistically connect with every kid every week. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. But these youth workers don’t throw up their hands. They log on, or tweet, or “like,” or whatever the particular social network calls for. In other words, they make an impact online.

Here’s a two-part strategy we’ve developed in our youth ministries that applies to parents and youth leaders connecting with kids.

  1. Connect online frequently. These days, no relationship with teens is complete unless some account is taken of their online lives. We think it’s good for youth workers and adult mentors to connect with teenagers technologically at least twice per week. That’s usually done through Facebook and texting, but the choice is theirs. This means that our parents and volunteers must keep a close eye on our teens’ online lives. That’s a good thing, because frequently connecting with teens online always helps them…
  2. Connect offline meaningfully. This kind of connection is the most powerful, but it’s also the most demanding. We like for our volunteers to connect with our kids away from church at least once per month. I manage the 7th grade boys group with a seminary student, so that means we regularly meet up at the local rec center for some ultimate Frisbee, or play Laser Tag down the street, or grill burgers at my house while we watch Captain America (again). To quote Steve Rogers, “I can do this all day.”

The bottom line is simple. We don’t have to choose one or the other when it comes to connecting with teens online and offline. We can – and should – do both! It looks like that’s what kids want, anyhow.


Jonathan McKee Jonathan McKee, president of The Source for Youth Ministry, is the author of numerous books including the brand new Candid Confessions of an Imperfect Parent, Ministry By Teenagers, Connect: Real Relationships in a World of Isolation, and the award winning book Do They Run When They See You Coming? He speaks and trains at camps, conferences, and events across North America, and provides free resources for youth workers internationally on his website, TheSource4YM.com.





David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org. David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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