"Nowadays, you’ll specifically notice a universal ‘third thing’ into which teenagers channel this anxiety: their phones... these actions help calm their social anxieties enough to pay attention to the people that are right in front of them."
The Confiscation Model...
When I was in college, I volunteered for a youth ministry in my college town. Every time we met for youth group on Sunday nights, after some designated amount of time to talk and congregate, we transitioned into the worship space. Each week when this happened a couple of the volunteers would stand with offering baskets at the doors of the worship space, mandating the youth turn over their cell phones or similar devices.
Since then, technology use among teens has continued to increase, posing a challenge to those who are tasked with breaking into their world - socially, emotionally, educationally, or spiritually. In order to engage, we must better understand why teenagers are drawn to this technology, both as it is integrated into their lives for online socialization, and integrated into their lives when they encounter people in real life.
Why Youth are so Connected to their Phones
Through his research on teens and technology, Dr. Andrew Zirschky concludes that teenagers engage technology not primarily for how flashy or entertaining it might be, but because of its ability to foster a “presence-in-absence” - the ability to be with friends even with physical distance. In other words, more than a shallow form of entertainment, teenagers are using social media to enhance, develop, and maintain the real life relationships they already have.
Additionally, if you’ve ever had the chance to observe teenagers in their natural habitats, you’ll notice how hard it can be to navigate their social waters. In their conversations with each other, you may notice a number of nervous ticks start to present themselves as teenagers work to keep social anxiety in check. Nowadays, you’ll specifically notice a universal ‘third thing’ into which teenagers channel this anxiety: their phones. They will incessantly check the time, fiddle with the sound switch, and absent-mindedly cycle through apps. While onlookers might see these as signs of disinterest, for teenagers these actions help calm their social anxieties enough to pay attention to the people that are right in front of them.
Tips for Tech and Youth Ministry
Because every youth group context is different, every youth group needs to ultimately decide what their technology and social media rules of life will be. Below are three guidelines to help youth leaders pragmatically implement good technology practices with their youth communities.
1. Set the Discourse
Whatever the governing rules and principles are for your group, they need to be established and communicated early. Youth ministers should set a discourse of respect and honesty in their youth communities, whereby people covenant to use technology in good, positive, and respectful ways.
2. Tighten the Web…of People
Teenagers are already using technology to enhance face-to-face relationships online; youth ministers have a unique opportunity to guide that communication. Youth ministers can encourage their youth to use social media to stay in touch with one another other outside of youth group meetings.
3. Provide Alternative ‘Third Things’…playdoh and pipe cleaners
For those times that we do ask youth to put away their phones, we can provide them with something else to do with their hands. Personally, I’m a huge fan of playdoh and pipe cleaners. I keep them available whenever my youth gather. I have noticed that when a teenager has two hands on a piece of playdoh, they have zero hands on their phone. And I as the leader don't need to create a negative association between the two.
Connecting the Sacred
Jesus had an impressive knack for taking the common - bread, wine, oil, water - and transforming it into a sacred reminder of his presence in our midst. As technology continues to shape and transform the world around us, ministry leaders have the unique opportunity to take what has become the new common in our culture and use it to be a reminder of Christ’s presence with us.
Examples might include: formational social media posts, a text message checking in with a youth that’s not been around, an inspirational video to share the story of God at work in the church, or a break from technology all together to focus on community and stillness. God’s presence is the same yesterday, today and forever. I pray we continue to communicate that truth first and foremost, allowing our appropriation of technology to fill in the rest.
Tina Boyd is the Youth Minister at St. James Episcopal Church. She recently completed a graduate residency through the Center for Youth Ministry Training, earning a Master’s of Arts in Youth Ministry from Memphis Theological Seminary. Tina loves the color purple, running and hiking, reading, and coffee. She currently lives in Taylors, SC with her friendly and energetic black lab, Kaki.