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A teenager’s online world has its own standards – many of which can strike us as alarmingly detached from acceptable off-line behaviour. Youthwork’s journalist Phoebe Thompson examines the internet code of honour, and offers some practical suggestions for your engagement with teens online.
The Victorians had it easy. Perhaps not when it came to the lack of equality, or the incredibly tight bustiers – but as far as etiquette was concerned, everyone knew what to expect. Countless guides were written for young women and men about how to behave, exactly what would be required of them in different scenarios, and how to exit a carriage successfully. For better or worse, we have lost this uniformity in our behaviour and expectations. What is more, as the digital generation, we have been thrown into the online world with no comprehensive guide about how to navigate ourselves around. As youth workers we have the additional responsibility of discipling our young people in their own use of the internet, and ensuring our interaction with them online is appropriate. To attempt to create a comprehensive ‘digital etiquette’ alone is too great a task; I have enlisted the support of my fellow digital disciples, to pave a path through the minefield of the online world.
1. Why be online?
I admit it: I am a cautious media user. I reluctantly joined Facebook at the age of 18 on a mission trip when my grandparents (yes, my grandparents) wanted to see pictures of my time away. Twitter was a late addition for me too; when adopted into the Youthwork family, I soon discovered that I would miss half of the picture if I wasn’t involved in the constant conversation between colleagues and youth workers online. I resisted buying an internet enabled phone for years (I did of course have the completely un-useable WAP) and still resent my emails popping up as soon as my alarm goes off in the morning. Ultimately, this stems from a deep-set belief that the internet is a ‘distraction’. That there is a ‘real’ world and an ‘online’ world, and that it is my duty to belong fully in the former. That one of the characteristics of a holy life is a separation from the world which enables full connectedness and attention to God.
The more I have investigated these issues for the purpose of this feature, the more I have been challenged to re-think them. Listening to Al Gordon’s talk on Digital Disciples at the HTB leadership conference, I was struck by the importance of engaging fully with social media. Al – one of the founders of Worship Central – sits, like me, in the ‘cynical camp’. He admitted: ‘I think what happens online isn’t ‘real’. But I feel challenged about this. Social media is about people – and that’s important for us to hang on to as people who are passionate about people. If we really disagree with the stuff, we still have to process it because God wants us to engage with people.
‘The Church has managed to reach 2 billion people in the past 2,000 years. Facebook has reached 1 billion in seven. There are seven million regular churchgoers in the UK, and 30 million Facebook users. Facebook users have an average of 229 friends, and most users engage every day. We therefore have an instant reach as a Church. Social media is not just a social revolution; it’s a gospel revolution. What would Paul use today? What would Luther use today? We’ve got a duty to think about how this is going to impact the Church – how we pastor, how we do church, how we reach people with the gospel. My challenge to myself is that I don’t want to miss it. I want to be mindful of what God is doing. If we are serious about the gospel, we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I don’t have the answers yet because the science is young. We are the pioneers of this movement. You and I are the founding fathers and mothers of this new thing.’ (Al’s full talk is available to listen to on the HTB Leadership Conference website.)
As the founding fathers and mothers, we are bound to make mistakes. We already have. It is therefore up to us to set the tone and blueprint for how we - and future generations - should engage with young people online, and how to role model good online practice for the young people we work with.
2. Engaging with young people online
Every youth worker is aware of this thing called the internet and would probably agree that we need to engage with it. But how on earth do we go about it?
CEO of CCPAS (The Churches Child Protection Advisory Service), Simon Bass, is asked regularly by youth workers about good online practice when it comes to young people. ‘We are often asked whether youth workers should have young people as Facebook friends. In order to navigate safely through all of this, a youth worker needs to set boundaries. A parent would be upset if a youth worker knocked on the door of the house and said: “I’m just going to go and talk to your 15 year-old daughter in her bedroom. I know it’s ten o’ clock at night but I’ll be finished by midnight”. No parent in their right mind would say, “Come on in, I’ll make you a cup of tea”! Young people have mobile devices, and they are likely to be in their bedrooms when they use them. So there ought to be a cut off, if nothing else to preserve a bit of sanity for the youth worker. It’s these sorts of boundaries that put some kind of control into the interaction.’
Simon went on to explain that written communication is more easily misconstrued than verbal communication. ‘There needs to be a higher level of clarity. Young people may also disclose things online, so youth workers need to talk to their young people about the levels of confidentiality online. Youth workers could put riders on their emails or settings to ensure that their young people are clear. Again, it’s about boundaries and boundary setting. If you send a text message of encouragement, don’t just send it to the one child. Send it to them all! And have a work phone and a private phone – so that you and your young people can draw the distinction between the two.’
Another key area is accountability. Editor of Catholicyouthwork.com, Jack Regan, suggests that any non-public online communication should be used sparingly. ‘Live-chat is a big no-no as far as I’m concerned - mainly because it’s less transparent and accountable, but also because it can lead to young people forming unhealthy attachments and dependencies with particular youth workers. Private messaging (DMs etc.) should also be avoided where possible. I rarely answer Facebook DMs, and I have long since disabled Facebook live-chat. If I get Facebook private messages from young people, I normally give a very short answer or even a “let’s talk when we see each other tomorrow!”
Jack went on to explain that, ‘One common practice for youth workers is to have a separate ‘work account’ distinct from your personal account. A lot have these accounts and make sure they are clearly identifiable as a tool of their work rather than as a part of their personal life - usually by calling themselves ‘Joe Blogs the youth worker’ or whatever. It is then highly advisable to give your line manager the password for the account, letting him or her know that he or she is welcome to log in at any time and check what you are up to. Obviously then, you only connect with young people using the work account and you only use this account to administrate work-related pages, events, groups.’
We may already be friends with our young people on Facebook, or following them on Twitter. An important question for youth workers to consider then is: what level of responsibility do youth workers have for young people’s social media profiles? Richard Passmore, team leader of the detached youth work organisation Streetspace, feels uncomfortable with the idea that youth workers should ‘monitor’ young people’s wall posts and pictures. ‘There’s an issue about making sure young people still have their own space in social media. I don’t think it’s appropriate for youth workers to monitor the Facebook feeds of young people – they still need their own space to use it in their own way. Young people are digital natives, and they therefore use social media in a very different way to how we do. I think we can raise questions about that and encourage young people to be safe online, and need to educate them about it. But I don’t think it’s about monitoring young people’s feeds – that to me seems a bit inappropriate.’
Similarly, chief executive of Urban Saints, and organiser of the Totally Wired tour, Matt Summerfield, said, ‘I don’t like the idea of youth workers becoming Facebook friends with their young people just to look at their pictures and posts on the sly and challenge them about it later. I wouldn’t have so much of a problem of them doing it in a face to face context – a youth leader and a young person sitting down together to look at their Facebook wall – but very much together and open handed. It doesn’t feel right, even from a child protection stance, for youth workers to be looking at what young people are posting. We have to be really careful. You can imagine a young person who doesn’t appreciate this saying to their parents: “The youth worker’s been looking at all of my Facebook stuff”. The parents might think it’s a bit strange that a 35 year-old man is looking at their 12 year-old son’s profile in such depth. I’d prefer to engender some peer led accountability, and encourage the young people to challenge each other on these issues.’
Perhaps more important than all of these details combined is to have a social media policy that is agreed upon by all members of staff and voluntary youth workers (see page 33 for how to write your own social media policy). For Matt, this is the first and most important place to start. ‘Any church must have a policy around its social media and technology usage. It must have thought this through. I have seen what happens when there isn’t one in place, and youth leaders have been accused of inappropriate behaviour because they have been involved in conversations that they shouldn’t be. If you have a policy that says we will be friends with young people on Facebook then set the policy, if you decide they shouldn’t be – then set the policy. If you have a policy which says that you will engage in mentoring with young people – sometimes online – then all the basic things hold true. I don’t think guys should be mentoring girls and vice versa. And I don’t think that the mentoring relationship should happen predominantly online. If a young person says I’ll only ever be honest with you online – that’s a great starting point but it’s a rubbish end point. I think the whole mystery of the incarnation is that God takes on flesh, he doesn’t take on email. True mentoring, true discipleship is flesh and blood – it’s not virtual. It’s real. It’s hugs and high fives. It’s laughter and tears. It’s all of that stuff. And you can only do that with real physical connections with people – face to face, eyeball to eyeball. It’s only then that you can pick up things like body language. The danger with it is that it is just convenience. Young people and youth leaders just say, “My life is so full, let’s just grab half an hour online.” That’s not bad, but that’s not where most of our energy should be put. I genuinely don’t believe that Jesus would spend a lot of time on Facebook.’
3. Modelling good online practice
As youth workers we are role models to the young people we work with; this translates into our online lives. If we are in communication with our young people online – then what does our Twitter feed, Facebook profile, YouTube channel or Pinterest board say about us? How can we role model good digital etiquette?
The first thing is to be genuine. Blogger, social media expert and worship leader Vicky Beeching told me that, ‘the lines between online and offline are quickly dissolving. Soon there won’t be an “online” and “offline”. Being present online isn’t any different to living and breathing in the physical world.’ She continued: ‘It makes me cringe to see Christians only active online for the purposes of evangelism. To me, that feels too calculated and reminds me of “friendship evangelism” where it often feels like people create relationships solely to pitch the gospel at them. We need to see the internet and blogging as a part of life, not as a “mission field”. If we do we are likely to use it rather than genuinely inhabit it. I’m keen for us not to see cyberspace primarily as a “good opportunity” for being “salt and light” or “evangelising”. We need to be normal human people who simply live authentically and genuinely online as well as offline.’
We also need to be balanced. How much time do we spend on the internet? Youth work practitioner and champion of the spiritual disciplines, Mark Yaconelli, feels that the Church needs to be the forerunner in creating space for stillness and solitude. He writes: ‘I’ve encountered many youth ministers who brag about their ability to move at the speed of the culture. (“We do all of our announcements through Twitter!”) Maybe we should go forward by going backward, back to our roots. Solitude, silence, prayer, meditation, retreat – these are practices that are well known within the Christian community – why don’t we begin to trust them? Why don’t we meet the growing desire of young people for quiet, for stillness, for withdrawal from all the distracting data?’ (The link to the full blog is available at www.youthwork.co.uk/internetissue.) Are we providing young people with the space for stillness?
We also, finally, must remember that despite the avatars and the spatio-temporal distance to other internet surfers – the internet is used by real people. That even if we are tweeting an organisation with an angry comment, it is a real person picking up our offensive tweet at the other end. We must therefore be loving. It’s amazing how one negative comment can deflate the sails of the person receiving it. If we are digital disciples, and are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, then let’s be a positive presence online, encouraging the real people at the receiving end of our wall posts or blog comments. As the digital nun, Sister Catherine, commented in her talk at the Christian New Media Conference (the full talk is available via www.youthwork.co.uk/internetissue): ‘It’s very important that we don’t think of our online relationships as any less real than they are online. They are real relationships with real people, and as such they deserve the respect that we accord people in our life offline.’
I could never hope to sum up the whole of the digital realm in one short feature. This has been a whistle-stop tour, assisted by some friends along the way. I hope that something in here is of use to you – let’s continue the conversation on Twitter: #ywinternetissue.
Phoebe Thompson is the journalist at Youthwork.