“I’ll just meet kids online!”
“I text kids… it’s the best way to keep contact with them.”
These both sound current and efficient… but is technology really the future of connecting with kids?
A few months ago I turned in the manuscript of my newest book to YS/Zondervan, a book titled CONNECT, all about adults connecting with kids face-to-face. As I penned the book, my publisher and I quickly resolved that we would need to include a chapter about “the dangers” and in essence “the precautions” we need to take engaging in one-on-one relationships with kids.
Here’s the dilemma. Adults who care for kids realize the effectiveness of mentor relationships, but the world has become a pretty “creepy” place. If you turn on the news and hear about adults contacting kids… it raises red flags. Something good has turned into something bad because of a few “sickos” out there who have developed inappropriate relationships. If you don’t believe me, just jump onto BadBadTeacher.com and take a look at which teachers, adults, pastors or coaches got in trouble this week for texting kids inappropriately, or for talking inappropriately online, or even hooking up after school.
Youth workers seem a little bit in the dark about these dangers- or maybe they just “don’t want to know.” Every time I teach my CONNECT seminar and ask the crowd to brainstorm effective methods to connect with kids, the number one answers are always cell phones and social networking.
I understand that these are good tools. But they are not the only tools. The question I have for youth workers is this: are these tools even going to be available (or legal) for us in the next few years? Because right now this is a huge discussion with lawmakers. Just a few weeks ago New York Times had an article about protecting children on the internet by providing age verification to “confirm the identities and ages of minors and then allow the young web surfers to talk only with other children, or with adults approved by parents.”
This is a pretty good idea. One, it would force youth workers and caring adults to dialogue more with parents. Two, it would obviously make it much more difficult for predators! And predators are making our job as youth workers much more difficult.
Here’s just a snippet of my “One-on-one Precautions/Boundaries” chapter from my new CONNECT book:
I just read a CNN article about a sudden increase of student-teacher sexual relationships that initiated crackdowns on social-networking friendships. According to this article, the state of Missouri has had enough. As I write this book, eleven teachers from Missouri have been disciplined, arrested and convicted of inappropriate behavior with students in the last two years. “State legislator Jane Cunningham is sponsoring a bill in the Missouri House of Representatives that would ban elementary school teachers from having social-networking friendships with their students.” (Online Student-teacher Friendships Can be Tricky, by Mallory Simon, CNN.com, 8/12, 2008)
Texting is also being targeted as inappropriate. The same article sited an example where a mom thought a teacher was giving her child some needed extra attention, helping the child overcome shyness. The parents eventually checked the child’s phone bill and found 4,200 text messages between the teacher and student.
It’s sad to see some of these technologies abused. Last year I had a small group of junior high boys and I found that texting was by far the best way to keep in touch with them throughout the week. I used texting as a bridge to get me to face-to-face communication. Texting would help me check in with them throughout the week, and plan face-to-face meetings. It will be sad if texting becomes ultimately taboo between adult and teenager.
Social networking sites were similarly helpful. I didn’t make them the primary source of my communication by any means, but it helped me keep current with my small group and plan a time together with the click of a button. Facebook or similar sites are simply springboards I use to get face-to-face with my kids.
Even as this book is being published we are seeing legislation turn their attention to this subject more each day. We need to keep our eyes on the news and see what becomes of some of these decisions.
As you can see. Technology can be a great tool for connecting with kids. Unfortunately, it’s a tool in danger of becoming extinct, or at least heavily regulated.
So what do we do?
1. The most important things youth workers can do is take precautions to protect ourselves and the kids we minister too. Realize that the world is NOT a big fan of adult kid relationships. Make sure that we meet parents and keep open channels of communication with them. And NEVER text, IM, or chat with a kid about something that you wouldn’t want printed out in front of their parents, your head pastor and your spouse! David talked about this in our Youth Culture Window article about texting just a few weeks ago.
2. Secondly, DON’T give up on one-on-one relationships. One of the most powerful influences in the life of a kid is an adult who cares. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water on this one. We still need to be hanging out with kids and communicating with them. Just follow the rules as you do this. Our face time with kids is far more effective than any program or any lesson we’ll ever plan.
3. Segue from technology to “face-to-face.” Technology might be a great tool, just make it one of many tools. If kids seem more comfortable typing to a screen (as many do), use that as an open door to create more face to face conversations. In Chapter 1 of my book, THE NEW BREED, I discussed the seismic shift of Isolation: from Community to individualism. People have fewer close relationships than even a decade ago. Social network “friends” are not meeting the relational needs kids have. This has resulted in a need for more quality “face to face” relationships. Caring adults should use this. Slowly introduce more face to face time (safe public places, small groups, etc.) to connect with kids and be a listening ear.