Help Parents Peek Behind the Curtain on How Teens Use Social Media

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Mother And Teenage Son Arguing On Sofa

“What do I do to help my kid navigate social media?” We’ve been getting some form of that question a lot recently.  In response, like good Methodists, we bought a book. The book was, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Dana Boyd.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Adults are doing their best to keep up with their teenagers and often feel like they are failing.  Something as simple as a tutorial on how their teens use social media can be soothing and empowering.  With this in mind we set out to do a parent’s seminar on teens and social media, featuring teenagers, research from Ms. Boyd’s book, as well as blogger Andrew Watts’ viral post, “A Teenager’s View on Social Media”.

On a Wednesday night over dinner, the traditional tables were turned as parents listened to their teens present.  I hosted, inviting students to the front app, by app.  We started with Facebook.

“Hi, I’m Elaina, I’m fourteen and my friends and I don’t really use Facebook,” the first student said.

“You have accounts” an adult from the audience pointed out.

“Yes, but that’s just for news.  We don’t use it to tell our stories” Elaina responded.

The adults asked a few questions and Elaina sat down. We discussed Instagram, SnapChat, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Twitter in this way, one student representing each form of social media.  Two students ran the power point with adaptations of Andrew Watt’s description and links for further information.

I said a few linking sentences in between each student, using material from It’s Complicated to highlight the differences in parental and student perception. This was an outreach event, and some of the students who had never been to church before but were in the audience that night raised their hands and added to the conversation.

At its core, that’s what this panel was.  A guided conversation between adults and teenagers facilitated by a youth minister, on a highly controversial subject.

“You want intergenerational engagement,” a youth volunteer in his 50’s said afterwards, “that was it!”

A few notes for replication we gleaned along the way:

  1.       A conversation like this MUST be structured.  Especially when we got to the SnapChat discussion things got heated. Parents are fearful, students want to defend themselves.  Structure helps everyone have a voice.  Set expectations from the beginning and take your job as a host and moderator seriously.
  2.       Select students for presenters who will not use inflammatory language or try to shock the adults.  We selected a range of students: girls and guys, ages 14-21.
  1.       Instruct your students on their specific role.  No oversharing in this context. “You don’t have to be the expert” I told them.  “Just share how you use ___.” This was a relief to them, and allowed the students simply to share a part of their life with no added pressure to defend it.
  1.       This is much easier with a small group of students as a one-off event, then an all-youth event with a large group.
  1.       Be clear from the beginning that your goal is to “peek behind the curtain” on how teens use social media. This is not so much a discussion on parenting as it is a time of teenagers sharing what their social landscapes look like.
  1.       Provide some follow-up questions for parents and teens to discuss at home.

If prepared well and done thoughtfully, this experience has the potential to be very meaningful to those involved.  Social media is a confusing, ever-shifting landscape. How powerful then if we can begin to make sense of it in the context of the church!

It is complicated indeed. So let’s go there together.  

For further reading check out the following:

https://medium.com/backchannel/a-teenagers-view-on-social-media-1df945c09ac6

https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/articles/using-social-media-to-strengthen-family-bonds

https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/articles/viamedia-danahboyd

https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/blog/via-media-my-own-space

https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/blog/5-ways-catholic-leaders-win-at-social-media

Image attribution: Mark Bowden / Thinkstock

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Rebekah got her start in youth ministry at Christ Church in Montevideo, Uruguay and is now the Minister of Youth Discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Tulsa, OK. She earned her B.S. in Organizational Management and Ethics from Oklahoma Wesleyan University. Rebekah is married to her soulmate, Philippe. Together they like to drink mate, play soccer with their dogs, and dream of traveling the world. Rebekah has read Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy six times.

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