wired but dis-connected: helping kids establish genuine relationships in a networked world

This post was originally posted at youthworkerjournal.com and in their january / february print journal. A couple of weeks ago, I experienced the "Twilight Zone" in Sunday School. Even though the room was full of students, there was this strange silence. At first, I couldn't tell what was happening. I know Sunday School is early, but as I looked around at the group, I could tell it wasn't that everyone was tired or bored. Friends were sitting next to friends and everyone seemed fine, except for me. As I looked around the room again, I realized everyone had his or her phone out and was texting away, many of them texting each other!

I experienced a similar phenomenon while I was with some family friends for their daughter's wedding. Their daughter, who had just graduated from college, had all her bridesmaids together at the house to hangout before the rehearsal. This group of girls had been great friends throughout college and loved being with each other. Now that these girls were together, reunited, instead of laughing and telling stories, the room was quiet with just the soft sound of typing while they updated their Facebook pages with their laptops and phones in front of them.

These are just two antidotal encounters of groups of friends who are together, and instead of relating in human-to-human contact, they chose to connect through texting and Facebook. Technology always changes how we communicate, but this new development is changing the ways in which we communicate and connect, as well as changing the definition of friend.

is the sky falling?

I don't want to be an alarmist, proclaiming the sky is falling. I know we never are going to get back to the days of handwritten letters. In fact, we might never get back to the days of email; but this continued evolution in communication and social networking brings with it some pitfalls of which those of us who love and work with students should be aware. In doing so, we can help them navigate their world and develop socially in a way that reflects their God-given nature.

The 1990s were amazing in the advancement of electronic communication. Car phones and email first showed up on the radar in the early 90s; the World Wide Web became a viable tool by the mid-90s; and by the end of the decade, email, websites and cell phones had become part of our everyday experience. In August 2003, MySpace entered the scene and the social networking phenomenon was underway. MySpace rose in prominence through the 2000s until Facebook took over in 2008. For the past two years, Facebook has been the number one place for students to connect, share life and communicate the large and small parts of their lives with each other.

This incredible rise of social networking is an astonishing thing all by itself, but alongside this development is the rise and proliferation of cell phones. When I talked to the students I work with, many of them have had cell phones since middle school (around 2006) and our middle schoolers have had cell phones since fourth or fifth grade. From the moment they got their cell phones, they have been texting—and at an amazing rate. Many students are texting in the 3,000- to 5000-per-month range and some much higher. When I asked some of them about how many cell phone minutes they use, the overwhelming response was "hardly any."

it is a new world:

Gone are the days of sitting on the phone and talking for hours, staying up late and talking with friends about anything and everything. Now everything is communicated is snippets, 140-180 characters at a time, disconnected from real face time or contact. The big question is, "What does this sort of disconnected contact and lack of conversation do to social development?"

The upside is that students have all the space in the world to try on new personas. They can expand their friend base with many people as they have time to request. This allows potentially hundreds more in their lives then their predecessors had even a decade before. Another positive is that students can find people with similar interests and values with just a click of a button.

The downside is that all of this communication is happening with very little connection. All of these interactions are done in isolation, separate from human contact. At the very moment adolescents need community and connection to work out their identities and help develop social cues, they are becoming increasingly isolated.

our students are developing their social skills in complete isolation:

Our students are having so many experiences, yet processing them in compete isolation. When bullying happens; when depression is overwhelming them; when they engage in risky behavior; when they try to figure out romantic relationships, feelings and expressions…all of this is done in seclusion from the adult world and often without the knowledge of their peers around them.

This isolation at such a vital time in their social, emotional and spiritual development is dangerous. The ways in which experiences are shaped or not shaped are vital for healthy development. As adults who love students, we must be aware of the hidden life where students are communicating and help them connect in healthy and genuine ways.

In the very fabric of who God is, the Trinity, there is community and connectedness. God is community; God created humans to be in community with each other and with Him. In Christ we are connected; we are family; we are one body. It is in our very core to be connected with other humans and God. When we provide space and opportunities for this to happen, transformation occurs.

It is similar to taking a group of students, who have lived only in an urban context, camping for the weekend. Away from their normal environment, these students are surprised and amazed by the new sights of brilliant stars, towering mountains or the powerful ocean. When these students experience the awesome power and richness of creation, they get a taste of who they were created to be by interacting with nature and reality in a different way than what technology allows. In a similar way, when students experience true connection in human-to-human contact, there is a realization that there is a superficiality to the typical connections they know.

some simple tools to help connect our students:

There are many simple things one can do to accomplish the goal of genuine connection, and many of us are already doing them. If we can get our heads around some of the added benefits of these activities and use them more purposefully for connection, students will develop a taste for community and crave more and more of it.

Youth group games and mixers, sports, and board games are all designed for fun. But on a very basic level these games are tools of social development. These games and mixers teach students appropriate ways of interaction and how to communicate with one another. And the best part is that none of this is done in private. All this interaction and awkwardness happens in plain sight where other students and adults can help give shape and define social cues so that we actually get to walk alongside students to help them love and connect in ways that honor God.

Many student ministries have some form of small groups. And these small groups are our ministries’ bread and butter when it comes to helping students actually connect. There is space in these groups for students to share their stories to get support and prayer. And while most of the time we are content with students sharing their stories and the rest of the group listening and waiting for their turn to share, we can give our small group a larger purpose. We can make these groups a place of true connection. We can help our students learn how to really listen, how to ask follow up questions, and how to remember details and check in later. As adult leaders we have the privilege of hearing these stories, and we also have the responsibility to help shape these experiences. Instead of working these experiences and issues out in isolation, we can walk alongside them encouraging them to work it out using the wisdom and care of their community and scripture.

It is true that texting and Facebook are here to stay and for the foreseeable future will be the norm in communication. While we can’t turn back the clock, we can use our piece of the pie, our place of influence, to draw students out of isolation and a false sense of connection and into a warm community with true connection. We have the opportunity to take these students out of the city and into the forest and give them a taste of true community. And once you have experienced true connection with other humans and even more with God, texting and Facebook will become just the tools they were created to be, avenues for connecting, but not replacements for true connection.