“Ma’am, this is Officer Peterson. We have your son, Adam, at the station. We’re investigating him for soliciting and distribution of child pornography with his cell phone. We need you here.”
The frantic mother grabs her keys and sends a panicky text to her husband. As she pulls up, she’s shocked to see a news crew already onsite. Ignoring the cameras and microphones, she hustles in. She sees her son’s soccer coach and the school counselor. Bursting into the room, she chokes out “Adam, What have you done?!”
THE NEW NIGHTMARE
This scenario is the “new nightmare” for parents who are exposed to an unending stream of news stories about teenagers and sexting. Just what is the American adolescent doing with their cell phone, anyway?
Sexting is not the norm.
Truthfully—there have been relatively few cases of teenagers charged with crimes connected to sexting. In a recent two-year span, of 40 million teenagers in America, only 121 cases of sexting were reported to police for criminal investigation. Scores of school administrators say they treat most sexting cases as internal disciplinary issues. The school handles those issues apart from law enforcement.
Research on the impact of teenagers and sexting is now emerging. Researchers found that 27% of 948 Texas teenagers reported sending a sext. The study reveals that a quarter of high schoolers (27 percent) have used their phone to send pornography to someone, which may include send pornographic photos of themselves, or of unknown persons.
Nevertheless, the media has treated sexting among teenagers as the new norm. Teenage sex sells well and the media has often seized minor news items and turned them into national headlines.
THE CAPABLE TEENAGER
Youth workers know another, rarely reported side of teenagers. Leaders see and love their youthful outlook combined with boundless energy. Through experience we know that most teenagers make good decisions, are eager to serve, and are capable of honoring Jesus in their everyday lives. Their engagement with social media is less alarming than that portrayed by the popular media.
Narrative 1: Social Media ruins society
In her breakthrough book on the digital lives of teens, It’s Complicated, author Dana Boyd frames this discussion about social media into two competing narratives. The first is that social media is undermining society. Parents often argue that social media greatly diminishes the ability of a teenager to communicate like an adult, fearing their children won’t be able to hold a normal conversation, and won’t succeed.
Parents are saying that kids who prefer to communicate in ways that are not “adult” will never survive in the corporate conference room. But kids are right now preparing to thrive in a different kind of workplace. One that will be dominated by their peers, who send an average of 3,300 text messages per month and speak the shared language of emoji.
Narrative 2: Social media improves communication
Boyd also offers the view that assumes social media is improving the lives and communication of people globally, expanding the reach of relationships by giving voice to millions. It has fueled social entrepreneurship and given traction to social justice issues. Approaches to education have been revolutionized, while conventional economics has been transformed through crowdsourcing.
Boyd’s research reveals that warnings about social media do little to impact or modify their behavior patterns. She encourages adults to avoid both extremes and help teenagers understand how social media can better reflect who they truly are.
THE TRUTH ISN’T SCARY
We must move past popular hysteria, conjecture, and assumptions about teenagers and sexting and social media. The data indicates that teenagers are actually doing the same things as adults are doing with their phones.
Social media offers kids a networked public place to hang out with their friends. At one time, teenagers gravitated to physical places for friendships. The mall, parks, the school parking lot, or even study hall were places to connect. Teenagers are now left with fewer opportunities to connect with friends without adult supervision. Social media has filled this void.
Adults use Facebook as a networked public space. Teenagers are using Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat for the same purpose. Typically a teenager will say that while online they are “chatting,” “having fun,” “sharing silly pictures,” or “talking about boys.” Overall teenagers and their parents are doing the same thing with social media—wasting time. Teenagers at school, and their parents at work!
TWO IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES
There are two important differences in the way teenagers and parents use social media…
First, kids use digital spaces that are adult-free because adults can intrude on their privacy. Facebook has become popular with parents which makes it less popular with kids. When teenagers are on the same social media spaces as the adults in their lives, they’re prone to leave those spaces, create multiple accounts to hide their presence, or use coded language to camouflage their interactions.
Second, adults tend to see social media as a way to network or promote themselves, teenagers cultivate a community of people they know.
HOW CAN YOUTH WORKERS HELP?
Join me in the effort to create healthy conversations about social media. Much of what we know and practice in youth ministry is exactly what other adults in our culture most need. Here’s how you can help…
- Join me in calling out the opposing views of social media for what they are.
Extremist views are not helpful for shaping kids’ responsible use of social media. Rather, help cultivate spaces for teachers, parents, and students to have conversations about social media. Find balance between talk about the dangers of social media and conversations about how social media is impacting relationships, especially at home.
- Be open with your students about your own digital habits.
Maintain an “open screen” policy at home and ministry. Intentionally position your screens—computer, iPad, and phone—so they’re visible to others. It demonstrates you’re okay to having open conversations about what your’re doing with the people in your life.
- Seek opportunities to learn together.
Instead of giving up in frustration, take time to ask teenagers to show you how their world works so you can learn about the latest apps and gain insights into the ways teenagers use them.
- Encourage adults to have the same rules.
Lead by example! Refuse to live in hypocrisy. You can’t tell the kids in your youth group that they can’t look at their phones during small group if you are ignoring that rule. One can’t expect a teenager to keep their phone away from the dinner table if a parent uses theirs during dinner.
We can help relieve a parent’s anxiety through our pastoral call to create an environment for conversation that promotes understanding between parents and their kids. You might not be a tech genius, but you’re an expert at sparking great conversations.
Adam is a longtime youth worker and a partner, with Mark Oestreicher, in The Youth Cartel—a youth ministry resourcing and mentoring organization. He lives in California.