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.