It’s summer and your junior high and high school students are out of school, getting ready to go on vacations. Some are getting jobs. Others are at home because their parents work. While the summer typically seems like a time for youth group to disengage and disperse, it’s actually a time when youth leaders need to be more aware.
Multitudes of news outlets and research groups have shared numbers about tweens, teens and social media/phone use. But as a refresher, here are some numbers from a recent study by Stanford Universtiy:
—Teens spend nine hours a day using media (laptops, phones, TV) for entertainment purposes (using media for homework or school was not factored in).
—Tweens check social media more than 100 times a day.
—A study of 400 teens found that teens who text compulsively are more likely to have poor academic performance and trouble sleeping.
—Researchers were surprised at the level of profanity, explicit sexual language and references to drugs used by 8th graders in their media communications.
With summer almost in full swing, kids not only have more free time but they are increasingly sedentary. There is an ever-growing dependence on their phones and tablets for communication and entertainment. It’s important for parents and youth leaders to be aware of new trends and applications that their kids are probably using—and how they’re using them.
Snapchat launched its blink-and-that-picture-is-gone app in 2011. Since then, it’s grown to more than 100 million daily users. With its wacky filters, creation of micro stories and ease of use, Snapchat has become popular with teens and tweens alike. Indeed, 30 percent of young millennials admit to using the platform because their parents aren’t on it.
There are many creative ways that youth pastors could use this to connect with the teens that attend youth groups. However, there are a few pitfalls that parents and leaders need to be aware of:
—There is a false sense of security in sending content to friends and strangers because the photos and videos disappear after you view them. However, viewers can screenshot and save content.
—With this false sense of security, tweens and teens can move beyond sharing goofy and silly photos to the world of sexting and videos that cross boundaries.
—In its early beginnings, Snapchat claimed that it was not storing content shared. However, after the social media platform had its servers hacked, several news stories emerged in 2013 revealing that Snapchat was saving everything shared on their servers. The company now says that they routinely scrub their servers of content.
Facebook Live Video/Periscope
In March 2015, Twitter rolled out their live video app called Periscope to all platform users. In late 2015, the social media platform giant Facebook announced that they would be rolling out the ability to do live video for business pages. In April 2016, they announced that live video would be accessible for personal pages as well. Mark Zuckerberg heralded the new tool as a “new, raw way to communicate.”
That statement is as exciting as it is terrifying. As with Snapchat, there are many ways that live video can be used to enhance experiences and connection on social media. However, there are disturbing trends emerging:
—Opening live streaming to all pages also gives teens and tweens the opportunity to create their own live videos. This can expand the issue of cyberbullying, sexual videos being shared with older audiences and other traumatic events being shared in real time. For instance, a teen girl Periscoped her 17-year-old friend being raped.
—These platforms rely on users to report negative/violent/sexual video being shown. This means reports of violent or provocative videos lag as people consume the content. And because one only has to be 13 or older to join both platforms, teens and tweens risk being exposed to content that they shouldn’t be seeing.
—Both Facebook and Periscope are just now rolling out teams for moderation of live video based on keywords like “violent” or “self-harm.”
Hashtags are a fun way to participate in conversations on different social media channels. They are routinely used to measure chatter, engage with people and brands, and create commentary around different topics and events.
But as we continue to grow increasingly visual in nature with photos and videos, hashtags emerge that focus on body shaming and bullying. Different platforms have different hashtags, however, it’s the fact that teens are contributing content to these hashtags that is troubling. Here are a few hashtags to look out for and be aware of:
—#Annie refers to anorexia. A search pulled up several posts where girls were fat-shaming themselves, talking about how depressed they were because they couldn’t lose weight and other factors related to the eating disorder.
—#deb is usually correlated to depression but is also a frequent hashtag used for sexually explicit pictures and videos
—A quick search of the hashtag #ehtilb (blithe spelled backward) brought up a warning on Instagram that the content was explicit and encouraged anyone who was suicidal or engaging in self-harm to seek help.
—#secretsociety1234 features pictures, tweets, posts and more of kids who cut themselves, inflict other kinds of self-harm and tag friends in their pictures
In doing research for this article, I have seen things that are difficult, sad, sick, heartbreaking. Our next generation seems to be in a tailspin of media—using it in ways that not only highlight but approve of behaviors and attitudes that are destroying them.
Clearly, the key to monitoring teen and tween activity online is relationships in real life—both with the kids and with their parents. It’s being present, available and ready to have hard conversations. It’s ministering the Gospel of Jesus, His truth, grace and love to kids who so desperately need Him. Coupled with that, in a world where the primary means of communication in the younger generation are held in their hands, youth leaders have a responsibility to learn about the platforms they’re using.
By arming themselves with knowledge and information, youth pastors and leaders can uniquely minister to a generation who heavily relies on technology to express what they’re feeling, thinking and struggling with in their lives. And they can serve as a bridge with parents to help them understand what their kids are using, make them aware of the positives and the pitfalls, and help our kids navigate this digital age with wisdom and discernment.