"Just when I finally got a MySpace page, they all switch to Facebook!" That was the frustrated comment of a kind but overwhelmed gentleman in his fifties who was trying to figure out how to connect to the kids he worked with. He had attended a luncheon for youthworkers' I recently spoke at and was ready to give up. Just when he thought he had learned something--that he had finally made some progress, he finds out he's too late. His young people were gone--gone to another online social networking site with all new rules and new software paste-ins. And, for many young people, it's true. There's been a change a takin' place on the social networking horizon. For the past year, I have been watching as, first college students, then high school students, have migrated to Facebook.
The college students I talk with say that Facebook feels a little more controlled, they feel a little safer. And, because the college kids have been using it, it feels more mature and classy for high school kids to log on to. And, if that weren't enough, guess who the new target market is for Facebook? Adults aged 25-50. Can you imagine? A student works so hard to build their social network away from their parents' prying eyes and suddenly its located in the exact same place where their mom connects with all of her girlfriends?! Something's gotta give. Many of my students are predicting Facebook may have made enough greedy decisions that their base market of college students may soon be looking for something better.
Still wondering where that leaves you as you wander in the social networking wildnerness? Let me clear up a few misperceptions. First, Facebook may look more controlled and safer than MySpace, but future employers, stalkers, old boyfriends, and your mom can find you just as easily on Facebook as they could on MySpace. Second, MySpace is not on its' last legs. According to a study that just came out in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, race, parental income, even whether or not someone lives at home with the folks, are all predictors of which site they visit to connect to their social network. For instance, Asian and Asian-American students tend to use Xanga more than Facebook or MySpace. Hispanic students tend to use MySpace more often. Students whose parents' highest education level is high school or below tend to use MySpace. Those whose parents have graduate education usually use Facebook and Xanga. Women tend to use any social networking site more than men and college-aged students who live with their parents are much less likely to use Facebook. In fact, those who are college-age and live at home and probably need online networking to more easily connect them with their friends are actually less likely to use any online social networking site at all.
So, what does that all mean? Kids are all over the place. There isn't one social networking site that will catch every kid you work with. And, keep in mind, over 44% of teens don't use any site at all. My guess is that the days of one big, bad social networking site are gone. That makes our job a little more difficult, but also opens up some opportunities. For instance, it means that you have to listen to your kids and ask them where they hang out online. That requires we open the conversation. And that's a good thing. Second, it means that kids may be more willing to change sites. One of the youth groups I worked with had persuaded a number of guys to move their profiles to a specific Christian site. It wasn't long before a bunch of the girls were using the same site. Much to the parents pleasure, the site was more easily monitored and cleaner. And before the kids knew it, the entire group was connecting, sharing pictures, posting blogs, and socially networking just like they could on Facebook or MySpace, but in a place that was probably better suited for high school kids.
The bottom-line? Technology is changing faster than we are. That doesn't mean we should quit and go back to fill in the blank Bible studies on Sunday nights. It means we need to keep talking with our kids about their technology and figure out how to make the technology work for us. With a little work, we can find our kids and their friends, and become part of their very important social networks that are such a very important part of their teenage experience.