When I type “Social Media and Youth” into Google, thousands of pages come up naming 5, 10, or (insert number here) ways of creating and maintaining a presence on a variety of social media platforms to compliment and further your church’s youth ministry. Indeed, having a presence on social media can be a helpful tool in connecting with youth and families, promoting events and practices, and meeting youth in their daily lives outside of youth group or Sunday worship.
And yet it's important to remember that social media is simply a communication tool and, like all tools, must be used in appropriate ways. As leaders, it is up to us to create and maintain appropriate boundaries. Some guidelines include:
- Use only publicly viewable areas to communicate. Do not use private chat functions on sites such as Facebook and Instagram.
- If you receive texts from youth, copy someone else in your reply (like another youth leader or a parent).
- Send emails as a group, and not only to an individual.
Have a conversation with youth about why you are setting these boundaries. Be sure to name the importance of respecting confidentiality. As adults we can speak with youth about what is going on in their lives while also keeping them safe. See this recent Network blog for resources on setting up a social media policy.
In addition to these considerations, we as youth leaders must pay attention to how social media is impacting the spiritual and social lives of youth. There are indeed many positive uses for social media that go beyond announcing events, including helping to build community especially among youth who often face marginalization. Teens who struggle with social skills, social anxiety, or who don’t have easy access to face-to-face socializing with other teens might benefit from connecting with other teens through social media.
Recent studies (as well as ongoing studies) are showing that over-use of social media can lead to negative body image, symptoms of depression and anxiety, less face-to-face time, and cyberbullying. As youth leaders it is good that we be aware of both the positives and the potential harms. At a recent Disability Concerns Canada Conference, a workshop on youth and social media named the importance of finding a balance in its use while being alert for signs of distress among youth. Modeling safe practices and engaging in group conversations about their experiences of social media is important in creating a safe church together.
God has made all of us to be in relationship, to live together as the Body of Christ in the world. John Wesley named three principles of living faithfully with God and with community:
- Do good.
- Do no harm.
- Stay in love with God.
Jesus modeled (and perfected) this way of life with his disciples. I often reflect on how I am living out these principles in different areas of my life, and think they provide a useful model for reflecting on our use of social media as disciples of Christ, for both youth and adult interaction. Does this picture I post do good? If so, how? Do these words I write inflict harm? If so, how, and how might they be transformed to do good? Does this interaction with that individual help us stay in love with God? If not, how am I being called to step back and find different ways of connecting with God and God’s community?
This is only a short reflection, but our hope is that you find it as a stepping out piece to engage your safe church teams, families, youth, and others in your community. And remember, social media is not inherently bad—it is a gift that can be used to build up God’s community when used in a loving way.