There have been a number of articles, (here, here, and here) and news stories about how young people are leaving Facebook in droves. I get that part of it has to do that it is because parents are there and they want autonomy. And while I will not disagree with this theory, I think there is something else going on. What if students departure from Facebook was not just about autonomy, but about developmental stagnation.
Facebook made its name by connecting college students through a social network. College students were able to connect with friends, classmates, and people with like minded passions. College students by where age are more mature and socially developed than students in high school and middle school. Especially in the beginning back when college students still actually talked face to face with one another.
To survive and thrive on the Facebook platform takes some social chops. You have to know what to post, how to present yourself, what to reveal about yourself and at every turn there is an opportunity for feedback. You can like something and comment on something and all these interactions are visible to your entire network. Managing this actually takes skill, humor, wisdom, and discernment. Oh, and most importantly, this takes actually knowing how to maintain friendships. Hence, "friends."
I think students are departing Facebook in droves because students don't know how to have "friends."
Students know how to follow and how to have followers, but this is dramatically different than having friends. Because our students increasingly don't know how to have friends, they are settling into a shadow experience of friendships. Posting pictures on Instagram, or tweets through Twitter are about as base level social interaction as you can get. Here is a thought or a picture. The end. At best you will get it liked, favorited, or even retreated. The rare exception you might get a comment. But have you noticed, comments are not really part of the Instagram culture. It is simply about collecting "likes."
And one step lower on the social developmental scale is Snap Chat. It is the simplicity of Instagram, but with absolutely no opportunity for feedback. Just a picture to be enjoyed or shocked for a few seconds. These are the preferred modes of student interaction.
I am not saying that students don't know how to be friends. . . Ok, actually I am. Students don't know how to be friends. At best a student will have a tiny cluster of one or maybe two other people who are their true friends, their true social network. They talk, share stories, do activities together, live life together. But add in another two or three people and watch it spiral out of control.
Students don't know how to manage social networks in real life, and because of that they can not manage them online. And it is for this reason that students are fleeing Facebook!
Where do we go from here?
1) We need to understand that students are connected to their phones, but are not connected to people. They are simply broadcasting information and being voyeuristic in the lives of others. Just because you can use social media and maintain social networks, doesn't mean that the 15 year olds in your group can.
2) Part of our mandate as youth workers is not to just connect students to Jesus, but help them connect to each other. It is lame that manners, eye contact, kindness, squelching gossip, teaching the art of question asking, and the masters level course of follow up questions is part of our job. But if we assume this is happening, or pretend our students don't need this education as well, then our efforts to connect them to Jesus will ultimately fail, because they will not know how to connect to God's people and to the church.
3) Find ways to shut down their phones. Phones are now the ultimate distraction and escape. When students have their phones they are not engaged. The truth is when I have my phone I am not engaged. So find opportunities to limit them. Have camp where there isn't service, make sure you travel internationally so they won't get service, buy a jammer so cell phones won't work in the youth room. Ok, most of these ideas aren't really practical, but we must start to find ways to limit this sort of screen time so students can actually learn to connect with other humans and connect with God.
4) Small group leaders are the key! In most ministries it is the small group time where adults and students can actually interact. Let's give our small group leaders the tools and the guts to collect phones, teach manners, and help students actually connect to each other. Most students are satisfied with their shallow friendships they experience on the fringes of their life. They don't even have a taste for what deep relationships can bring. And maybe when they experience true friendship, true communion the will not settle for simple interactions that their social media experience currently brings.
May we too not settle for a broadcasted version of relationships, but one of true interaction, true communion one where we share each others joys and burdens and model to this fragmented world that love can only be experienced in true relationship. And how cool that the church is actually the only place on this planet that offers true community and friendship with people across all socio-economic and ethnic lines and even more so offers friendship with God through Jesus Christ.