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Practicing "presence" in an age of Facebook and cell phones

As the school year begins, I can't help but wonder how this year's college freshmen have been changed by their technology.  One thing I have noticed is how new students resort to the relative comfort and safety of Facebook.  At a time when there are lots of changes and lots of new people to meet, many retreat to their rooms to login to the social networking site that connects them with their old friends.  And I guess it makes sense.  Facebooking is so second nature, it doesn't require a lot of energy, its comfortable, and its familiar.  Clearly, keeping those old friendships going is a good thing.  Choosing a virtual conversation with a friend back home over a real "live" conversation with a potential friend sitting on a bunk next to them may not be such a good thing. 

You may have seen it in your youth group meetings.  Kids are sitting and standing right next to one another while they have conversations with friends miles away. They substitute virtual conversations for conversations that happen in real-time and in real life.  I wonder if our kids are missing out on "presence" or the act of being truly " in the moment". Quentin Schultz contemplates the issue by noting "we spend more and more time in front of technological screens and less and less time in face to face interaction with others" (p. 169).  Walter Ong argues that true presence, the kind that comes with face to face interaction, captures "our ongoing activities, our sense of who we are, where we are, and what we are currently thinking, feeling, hoping and fearing.  When we speak we invite another person to exist with us, to associate with us, to reciprocate in affirming mutual presence in real time" (p. 175).

Maybe thats a little philosophical, but I wonder what the impact is of sacrificing complex, real-life interactions with more controllable, virtual ones. You might want to challenge students when they spend more time texting during youth group than in actually enjoying being present within your group.  Ask them what kinds of things they might be missing by being online or what the group might be missing from their virtual absence. You might even have a great discussion about why we tend to detach from the here and now so easily--what the benefits and drawbacks are.  Although the idea of "presence" may be a bit developmentally advanced for students, it makes sense to get them to make intentional choices about the sacrifices they make when they pick up their cell phone. We just may be helping them make clearer and more real connections with the friends they value so much.




True Friendship: Moving Beyond Facebook

Last semester my senior research students conducted a survey. They found that someone with more friends on Facebook was regarded as more attractive, a better potential friend, more competent, and more intelligent than someone with a small amount of friends. The thing that really floored me was that the Facebook profile they used for the “small amount of friends” category had 50 friends!!! They were convinced that anything less than 50 friends would be too unbelievable. They also overheard comments from survey participants about the 50-friender like “what a loser!” and “This person needs to get a life!”. As I look at my 15 Facebook friends—the ones I was feeling so proud of, so close to—I can’t help but feel a little “out of it”. Clearly, the concept of “friendship” is changing.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that students don’t differentiate between Facebook friends and real friends. They know the difference. The more time they spend online, however, the more they may find their view of “how to be a good friend” is changing. It’s important to help our students understand how technology may change both how friendships work and the role they play in valuing, building and maintaining friends.

First, a few theoretical comments. As mentioned in an earlier blog, research has shown technology actually helps enhance friendships, especially those that are managed both on and off line. There is, however, a new category of friends that my students refer to as "helicopter friends".  These are the kind you might be close to, but don't have the time to keep up with.  Facebook makes it easy to fly in, take a look at whats new, and fly away--all without ever having to take the time to actually engage.  In a way, technology makes it easier to  keep in touch.  While many of my students think thats a good thing, a few have already seen the potential negative impact.

Communication researchers refer to these types of friendships as "weak ties". While we all have weak-tie friendships, we have also figured out how important the strong-tie friendships are--they are the ones that take time, energy and committment. They are also the ones that allow us to both demonstrate and receive God's grace, forgiveness, and Agape love.  Here is my concern.  As our students get older and busier, I wonder if they will be more apt to substitute weak ties for the strong ones.  I wonder if, slowly but surely, our students are "re-valuing" the importance of strong-tie friendships, experiencing how easy and fun it is to have lots and lots of "friends" who are nothing more than helicopter acquaintances.

Friendship is an important topic because it is through friendships that students learn so many valuable lessons.  From my perspective, we need to do everything we can to make sure strong, committed friendships remain valued.  We also need to reinforce important friendship skills like empathy, forgiveness, committment, support, and conflict management. In an age of quick Facebook "hellos" and IM conversations with little emphasis on two-way, give and take and all too easy ways out, it only makes sense to talk about friendship.  It might take the form of a Bible study, a youth group discussion, examples, even informal conversations that highlight the importance of true friendship.  With a little input from us, let's hope our students won't confuse the hundreds of friends on their Facebook page with the handful of true-blue friends in real life.

(Check out the Bible Study on Friendship in the "Bible Study" area.) 


Searching for a listening ear: Is technology making this skill outdated?

Think about the last time you had a conversation where you felt like the person you were talking to was really listening. It feels so good! They show caring, respect, openness, commitment--all through the nod of a head or a paraphrase of your ideas. Listening is an important skill that not only builds friendships, but is an important part of humility and wisdom—all those good qualities we try and build into our lives.

As I was reading through James the other day, I was reminded of the value of listening in James 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak….” Then I began to think about how this important skill is being impacted by today’s communication technology. I have to conclude that the more time our kids spend online, the less real listening they do and the more they seek someone who will care enough to really listen and understand what they have to say.

Let’s face it, shared meaning—understanding what a friend or buddy is REALLY saying—is not a high priority for most IM’ers, texters, and social networkers. The emphasis is placed on getting the message out there—not making sure someone else understands it. At the same time, good listening is hard to do online. Think about how you show someone you are listening—a nod, eye contact, “mm,hm”, a forward lean—rich nonverbals that suddenly disappear in a virtual world.  Online listening is tough. Too often we have kids spilling their guts online with no one there to respond. Most teens report that while they sometimes put long, meaningful blogs on their MySpace or Facebook page, they rarely read the long blogs their friends write. Students often get into deep conversations on IM, but often multi-task and ego-cast their way through.

The result is we are potentially raising a generation of young people who are not skilled at and do not value listening. At the same time, we’ve seen plenty of clues that our young people are desperate to have someone take the time to hear what they have to say. That’s where we come in. We need to help our students value good listening at the same time we teach and role model good listening skills.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Do a Bible study on listening. There are a ton of passages that talk about how important it is. As you are preparing, think through why God clearly calls us to be good listeners—truly a good topic for a youth group discussion.
  2. Teach your kids listening skills. I know its sort of a “duh” topic, but we can’t assume they know how. For the past 20 years I’ve been teaching college freshman in Basic Communication and am always amazed at how excited they get when we talk about listening.
  3. Talk about how you show you are listening online. Its different, it takes more effort, and it is not something most users think of. Talk about what it looks like and why its so important. Help them value the skill.
  4. Role model good online listening. When you are online with your kids, paraphrase what they are writing. Do things to show you actually understand and care about what they are typing.
  5. Provide spaces for true, face to face listening. As you put together programs, figure out how you can include one on one, face to face time with your students. Then, when you are together, fight the urge to talk, ask a few questions, look them in the eye and listen.

Today’s kids communicate in a whole new way. While we can get excited about the cool, new trends, we need to make sure we help them value the most important skills. After all, without listening, all we have is a bunch of resounding gongs and clanging cymbals that are just as annoying online as they are in a noisy market square.

 (Make sure to check out the Bible Study on "Listening")


Good Friends or a Figment of their Imagination?: How is Technology Impacting the Quality of Friendships?

I'll be honest.  Sometimes I get worried when my teen spends so much time chatting on the computer.  I worry that, because she is developing relationships using so much technology, that those relationships may in some way be "warped".  Because they are missing the face to face, non-verbal element of relationship-building, it is possible  these friendships are missing a certain depth of understanding or shared meaning. 

Never fear, Communication researchers are here!  According to a recent study in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, it was found that technology, specifically IM, actually improves the quality of teenage friendships.   According to some theorists, online communication actually causes friendships to be more shallow--allowing teens to flit through conversations with no real committment to shared meaning.  "Because online contacts are seen as superficial weak-tie relationships that lack feelings of affection and commitment, the Internet is believed to reduce the quality of adolescents' existing friendships and, thereby, their well-being.." 

According to the 2005 survey of over 1,200 teens, however, online comunication actually enhances friendships.  Teens report spending more time with their friends, often talking about things in a way that is even deeper than they would if they were face to face.  

So, if you are worried your teens are spending too much time online with one another, you may want to think again.  While the technology may be impacting them in lots of other ways, it may actually be enhancing their interpersonal relationships.  Encouraging them to spend online time with other kids in the youth group--especially new kids--may actually build cohesiveness in your group.  Similarly, if you are worried that hopping online and chatting with your kids using IM may somehow cheapen your relationship with them, you may want to reconsider.  Technology may very well be a terrific way to broaden and deepen those very relationships.

Clearly, online communication is not as effective and important as real presence and face to face relationship-building.  This study, however, provides further evidence that technology can provide a positive addition to those important ministry relationships. 


Facebook "Yikes!": What do I do when I see kids' crud?

Facebook (and its wild cousin, MySpace) can be such a great way to connect with kids.  Its easy, they love it...what could be better? Well, consider this.  You are perusing along, checking out your kids' sites.  Oh, what a fun picture of some of the girls in the youth group. And there, under a funny joke of the day, is a very sweet testimony of what God has been teaching one of the guys from the group.  A quick click and there is another youth kid with a cute...oh, wait..."yikes!"

So what do you do? What do you do when you find your very sweet youth kids swearing online, lying, and sharing pictures of all sorts of things you'd rather not see? Do you put on your police hat and call their parents?  Do you quick sign them up for rehab? Or do you quick turn off the computer and hope no one saw you looking?

If you have used Facebook or MySpace to connect with your kids, you have undoubtedly run into the dilemma. What used to be hidden from parents and parent-like adults is now hanging out there for all the world to see. Unfortunately, you as a youth worker may be the only adult looking. So what do you do when you find something on a youth kid's site that represents some cruddy choices?

To begin with, there are a few things you should probably keep in mind. First, even though we all know these social networking sites are very public, they don't feel very public to our kids.  In fact, they feel very private.   While it may be accurate to say "well of course I showed your parents because, after all, the site is a public space", I'm not sure this really takes into account your student's perspective.   Approaching online  postings with the same type of sensitivity you would if you found a student's personal diary will ensure you aren't sacrificing a relationship to make a point about public space. Second, remember, if you decide to be a policeman, you may end up being a lonely law enforcement officer.  Yes, parents may love you, but catching and reporting offenses won't do a lot to help you connect with the real issues kids are dealing with.  And if that wasn't enough, you could spend your entire ministry time just patroling your kids' sites.  Lying is part of the MySpace/Facebook culture and there's plenty of it out there.  It could keep you quite busy--for a while that is. A few run-ins and it won't take long for kids to start blocking you from their sites.

So maybe we should just turn off the computer and hope it will go away?  Well, maybe not.  Chances are pretty good that your kids know you are out there looking.  Sometimes they may actually put things on their sites because they hope you will see it. In fact, you may be one of the only people in their lives who is willing to talk to them about what is important to them.

So, what to do. The first thing I would suggest is think through your response. There are a lot of implications to what you do, so think and pray through it.  Second, keep it measured.  As one dad who has dealt with a lot of tough things with his kids told me, "you can't freak out about the little stuff if you want them to come to you about the big stuff" .  Pick and choose which things are important. Third, don't confront someone online.  Online text can come across pretty stark and harsh.  Take the opportunity to talk with the student face to face.  Fourth, use the problem as an opportunity to open a conversation with your student.  Ask questions instead of demand answers. Tell your student what you saw and ask what is going on in their lives.  A great opening to an excellent conversation may be awaiting a Facebook "yikes!"  Finally, if your student is listed as one of your friends and links to your Facebook or MySpace page, you need to let them know, after an open conversation, that if their site doesn't change, you can no longer have them as your Facebook friend.  You will still be their friend in real life, but because you are using your site to bring other kids closer to Christ, you just can't have those kinds of links to your site. It's amazing how important those connections are to the kids you work with and how quickly you will see change. It just may be the first time your kids are challenged to think through how connected their online and real-life personas really are.

As frustrating as it is to come across kids' crud online, it is all part of the deal. The cool thing is that these Facebook "Yikes!" may just provide the real-life relational openings you have been looking for.