Digital Responsibility – Youth Culture Watch

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There is a ride at Epcot Center, Walt Disney World called “Spaceship Earth,” all about communication.  It starts off showing cave drawings and smoke signals, goes forward in time to show the invention of the printing press, then the telegraph, telephone, and eventually the internet.  Years ago, the futuristic dream they show to depict the far-off horizon of communication technology was a kid video chatting with someone in Japan.  Of course, this actually happens all the time today! I am sure they have since changed the ride to make it something more futuristic.  Think back to a time before twitter, skype, facebook, oovoo, instant messenger, instagram, texting, cell phones, computers, land lines, and even the printing press.  Every time we there has been an advance in communication technology, it has had a major impact on our culture.  Why? Because words are powerful.  This means we have to cultivate the skills of digital responsibility in our teens. 

Our teens have been granted the title of “Digital Natives.”  Unlike us, they’ve been born into a hyper-connected world filled with things like Facebook, social networking, status updates, tweets, texts, touch screens, and blogging. Technology has not only changed the landscape, it’s changing the nature of growing up, which in turn is shaping our teens, including the way they think, talk, and act.  Let me get the conversation started by listing some areas of concern for me as a youth pastor:

 

  1.  Safety Concerns – at some point every parent has shared the nightmare of their child interacting with some lecherous stranger online.  This is a very real concern, but I think the danger goes deeper than this.  Privacy is a lost reality in our culture, but it is something we need to teach our teens to treasure.  Teens are growing up in a world that encourages them to share personal things publicly, sometimes over HUGE platforms.  They can do this INSTANTLY, IRREVOCABLY, and to an INNUMERABLE number of people at a click.  For issues of safety, privacy, and for the good of others, some things should not be shared digitally, ever.  Things like your personal information, home address, cell phone numbers, details about vacation dates and who is where, etc.  Social networks and platforms like twitter and facebook often include location information via 3rd party apps.  This can lead to potentially unsafe situations, especially because it is very easy for things to be more public than our teens think.  There are ways to keep some data private on facebook, but twitter is more difficult.  Little things like screen names like hotcheerchic99 or something like that can convey information you don’t intend to share.  Passwords get hacked, teens forget to log-out, and worse.  Oversharing is a safety concern that most teens do not think about. 
  2. Relational Concerns – the digital world makes staying connected very easy, but it can also create some problems.  There is something to be said about the loss of face to face communication – why do we think it is okay to do something like break up with someone via a text? My experience with texting as the preferred method of connection is because teens can do that while they are doing something else.  They also feel like it is more private and anonymous, and easier to keep from others.  This can backfire! We recently had an issue where two people thought they were communicating privately via twitter, but they were actually blasting the tweets out everyone.  It was a very personal conversation and should not have been shared that way.  Another area that concerns me is the way that teens craft their online identity.  It is very common for teens to post provocative pictures online.  When you ask them, they aren’t doing this for sexual attention (or at least they don’t always admit it).  It often comes from a desire to look older or just to fit in.  Teens need to understand that the persona they put online will have an effect on the way other see them and treat them.  Teens are often much more bold and reckless online than they are in person.  We call this “digital courage,” but it more often looks like “digital stupidity.”  They use poor judgment and post something harsh or inappropriate that can hurt themselves and others.  Digital communication is not the best means for sensitive communication, especially conflict resolution.  This is a lesson our teens needs to learn.
  3. Reputation management – it is a fact that colleges, employers, and other authority figures in the future will be influenced by the digital personalities of our teens.  There is just too much information out there for people not to want to take advantage of it.  This could have a direct impact on our teens’ future opportunities.  Think about for instance the way that political debates are often happening via social media.  This is all going to be searchable VERY soon (facebook just announced advances in this area on 1/15/13).  Here is the bottom line: you are responsible for every bit and byte of communication that ends up out there: words, pictures, videos, blogs, sound bites, tweets, and texts.  We HAVE to talk about this with our teens.  If you teen has access to the digital world through a smartphone, laptop, or whatever – they need to understand the risks very well. 
  4. Information Available to Advertisers – I know we all hate to read the “privacy policies” of companies like Google or Facebook, but they are pretty important.  With 3rd party apps, they are sharing and accumulating data on all of us.  Claims that this data is “anonymous” might be technically true but misleading.  One cultural watchdog gave this warning about the apps marketed to children on smartphones: “The transmission of kids’ information to third parties that are invisible and unknown to parents raises concerns about privacy, particularly because the survey results show that a large number of apps are transmitting information to a relatively small number of third parties. Indeed, using the device ID and other information obtained from multiple apps, these third parties could potentially develop detailed profiles of the children using the apps, without a parent’s knowledge or consent.” This is terrifying, and I don’t think I really understand the direction things are heading.
  5. Media “Addiction” – I am talking here about the dependency and habitual use of media that teens believe they cannot live without.  This is characterized by uncontrollable and compulsive use that has negative health and or social consequences.  This is potentially serious.  If your teen resists limits that you set on media (which most will!), you need to spend time understanding “why.”  Social networking is incredibly alluring to teens, who often fear that they will miss out on something big if they disconnect.  It is where so much happens – the gossip, the flirting, the news…they don’t want to be the only one out of the loop. 

Something we always try to emphasize is to be prepared with a preventative response to keep our teens from harm, and a redemptive response to help them process their world.  The truth is that even our best efforts at prevention are going to fall short, so we need to be ready to guide them to critique, interpret, and redeem the realities of their culture.  I am sure we all have thoughts on this subject, and I’m also sure we can all share stories of how our teen has been impacted by “digital irresponsibility.”  So what do we do?

 

  1. Be digitally responsible yourself: Be a role model.  Monitor and evaluate your own use of social media and the digital world.  Your example is more powerful than you know.  Set an example by using media the way you want them to use it. Don’t bring your phone to the dinner table, and set limits on the amount of time you are online. Get off facebook, be careful of what pictures you post yourself. You can do this immediately by watching the clock and imposing limits on connection.  This should include the use of cell phones/smart phones.  It is OK to have “phone free zones,” or even to unplug for a day/week/month occasionally.
  2. Spend time in the digital world together: Be a guide. We talk often about consuming media alongside your teen.  This should be no different.  Push through the stiff arm and involve yourself in the conversations they are having online, via text, or wherever.  They need your help here, they need your wisdom.  If their friend was in your home when they had a fight with your teen, you could hear and guide your teen toward an appropriate response.  Who will remind them not to be selfish or uncaring, or to resolve conflicts with grace and maturity when these conflicts happen “secretly” by passing digital notes back and forth? They want to keep you out of it, but they need adult help to navigate the digital world.  I can always tell when a teen does not have a parent as a friend or follower on an online network by the content they are willing to share! If your momma wouldn’t be proud of it, don’t hit “send” “post” “tweet” or “reply!”
  3. Lead them toward limits.  When you teens are young, “think for them” because they aren’t wise enough yet to limit themselves.  As they get older and wiser, encourage critical thinking and processing about the digital world.  Lead them with questions and teach them to be responsible in the digital world.  The important thing to remember here is that it is much easier to give them freedom and autonomy as they demonstrate maturity and responsibility than it is to take freedom and autonomy away once they have had it.  Start young and get in their digital business.  If you see them having with maturity, you can recognize that and trust them with some freedom and independence.  You need every one of their passwords.  It is your phone, it is your computer; they get to borrow it as a privilege if you decide they are responsible enough to use it.  This isn’t because you don’t trust your teen, but because the digital world is potentially dangerous and they need some adult eyes over their shoulders until they are shrewd enough to navigate the dangers alone.  You need to be very familiar with the safety and privacy features of the digital platforms your teen is allowed to use.
  4. Establish a Family Contract – Something we have found helpful is developing a family contract for the digital world.  Something like this might work for your family, or you could modify it or develop your own.  This makes the rules clear to all and provides a talking point for the various areas of danger and concern. 

Above Reproach

In our current series, Echo High School has been walking through the book of Nehemiah. Last week we came to a point in the narrative that is particularly important right now. I shared with our students a painful story of how leaders we love and trusted deeply ended their ministry career in moral failure, and the devastating effect it had on so many people. It wasn’t shared to point fingers or to cast stones, but just as a warning and word of caution: moral authority takes a very long time to build and only a moment to destroy.

Nehemiah 6:1-16 – Nehmiah’s opponents tried to stop the construction of the wall by threatening violence. It didn’t work. The wall is almost completed, and so the opponents change their tactics: they try to assault the character of Nehemiah, attempting to ruin his reputation and damage his influence with the king, with the nobles, and even with God. It is an attack of false statements, slander, and blackmail. They threaten to accuse him of treason. They threaten him with assassination in hopes he will go into hiding. They hire a false prophet to intimidate him. Nehemiah survives this attack because he is a person of Integrity. You either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, eventually everyone will know about it. Nehemiah’s integrity puts him in a place to call their bluffs and refuse to play their games. This kind of response is only possible for those with nothing to hide. His integrity makes him above reproach – think about how rare it is to find someone in our world that is “scandal proof.” How freeing it would be to live with nothing to hide – no secrets that could tarnish your reputation or ruin your credibility. This is what Integrity is all about. If there is no false accusation that can possibly stick, you don’t need to fear slander. This story is remarkable because there is no deceit, no cover up, no counterplots, and no insincerity. This is totally different than the modern political scene! He refuses to be intimidated and answers their charges with open and direct statements. I love Nehemiah’s response in verse 8: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” We talked out with our students what it means to be a person of Integrity.

First, the price of integrity is doing more than just enough. Sometimes people mistake an attitude of “good enough” for integrity, but they are not the same thing. Integrity goes above and beyond expectations – it takes the high road even at personal cost. It never asks: “what is enough to get by?”…it asks: “how can I exceed the standard?” Here is a hard lesson about leadership, but you need to understand it if you hope to have influence. When it comes to leadership: “others may, you may not.” Others may, you may not. I often have conversations with teens about defining what exactly is a sin. What is really being asked is “how close to the line can I get without crossing it?” This is a very common attitude but it is not the attitude of integrity. “Enough” is o.k. for many, this is what makes it average. When you find someone that gives so much more than enough, it is remarkable. The exceptional will demonstrate a level of integrity that will win them influence. Leadership hinges on this principle. You can be skilled and talented and smart, but your influence can very easily be eroded by a lack of character. It takes a long time to build trust, but only a moment to destroy it. It means there is a price to pay if you want true influence. Let me show you what I am talking about from Nehemiah’s life, just to give you a window into what kind of guy he is.

Nehemiah 5:6-13 – The situation here is one of recession. The people of Jerusalem were such a mess financially, they had to take loans from people (they called them Gentiles) outside Jerusalem from surrounding nations at very high interest. The interest was so high they could not afford to pay back the loans. (Really? What do we know about that!) This causes them to give up property and land and even their wives and children as collateral. The people of Jerusalem had become slaves again to outsiders! Nehemiah shows up casting vision to rebuild the walls, and he discovers they cannot give themselves to this work because they are so busy working to pay off their debts. The government is in shambles, and the previous governors were actually a part of this problem. They took their salary, and then they used their position to take additional money and food and land. Property values have dropped and the Nobles are taking advantage of others’ hardship and turning a quick profit on the low market prices. Nehemiah comes in and he and his people offer a bailout – a financial package that tries to end the crisis. He gives his own money to buy off these loans, and he doesn’t charge interest. Not long after, Nehemiah discovers that the Jewish Nobles have again loaned the poorer people money at high interest rates and they are in the same exact crisis again! Charging interest to another Jew is against the law of that time. The people are back in debt and the crisis is back! Nehemiah is TICKED OFF. He confronts to the nobles and condemns this practice: “What you are doing is not right!” Loan to them, but stop charging interest! The interest is exploiting these people. You are taking from them the collateral they put up on loans you know they cannot repay! Stop taking advantage of your own people! He wanted to reform this practice of injustice. He charges them to give back the lands and property and money of the people. Here is the crazy thing: they agree with him without a fight. Why does this go so easy? Why can he come in and demand something so hard of them and they agree?

It is because the payoff of integrity is “moral authority.”
Nehemiah 5:14-18 – Nehemiah’s seemingly impossible ask works because he has moral authority. They trust him. He explains in v. 14. Now, understand that it might have been enough for Nehemiah to just not be corrupt and to take his fair share and no more. “Enough” is not enough for Nehemiah, because he wants to demonstrate moral authority. “Out of reverence for God I did not act this way.” He actually surrendered his salary for 12 years to see his country out of a recession. He could have taken advantage of the low market to buy up land and increase his wealth, but he didn’t. As a result, the nobles followed him. They followed not just his words, but his example. A pastor named Andy Stanley said: “Moral authority is total alignment between your creed and your deeds.” It means you do what you say. It means you are a person of your word and are trustworthy. Nehemiah motivates the rich to care for the poor – loan to them without charging interest. They were inspired to be generous because he was generous himself. Nehemiah doesn’t lead because they call him governor; he leads because he has moral authority. He gives himself to the building of the wall and to seeing his country out of the crisis. He doesn’t sit back with a cushy and luxurious job, enjoying the perks of his position. Instead, at personal cost he leverages his wealth for others. Because the demands on the people were heavy, he didn’t take what was rightfully his. He did exactly what he was asking others to do and more. The nobles took him seriously because he had earned their respect and trust by going above and beyond. He could stand in front of the rich and powerful and lead them because for 12 years he led by example, walking his talk. He won a level of influence you cannot be given with a title.

If you want to lead with moral authority, you have to be willing to do more than you expect or require from others. If people see a discrepancy between what they hear us saying and what they see us doing, we lose the ability to influence them. Are you willing to do more than other people think is enough? Keep this in mind – this level of authority takes a very long time to build, but just a moment to destroy. Don’t sell your integrity cheaply, because it is very costly!

For discussion:
*Talk about with your teen about some leaders you know whose influence was damaged by scandal or a lack of integrity. How can our choices today guide us away from a similar fate?
*Talk about the dangers of the digital age we live in and how this forces a level of accountability on people. What used to be private can easily become public on youtube or facebook. A bad choice can go viral and be viewed by thousands. How can we protect our reputations and live with integrity online?

Praxis – Watch your Mouth

Sunday night, our Echo High Schoolers continued their series called Praxis. Praxis is the practical application of a theory. When it comes to faith, it is faith in practice. It is not just believing something, but living it out. The book of James has a heavy emphasis on praxis, arguing that if your faith does not reveal itself in your priorities, your attitudes, and your lifestyle it is not genuine faith.

One of the areas that true faith is revealed, according to James, is in the way we speak. James takes an entire chapter to talk about the significance of our words. James understands that words have power. Proverbs says that “the power of life and death in the in the tongue.” In a culture where people are always getting in trouble for speaking too soon or too sloppy, this truth should give us pause. Your words can add worth or subtract it, build up or tear down; but they can never be taken back once they are spoken. This reality makes communication dangerous in the digital age, when every status update, photo upload, tweet, text or sound bite can live forever in cyberspace. Now more than ever, people need to learn to harness the power of the tongue.

We talked about the words we speak that subtract worth from others and tear down: gossip, discouragement, criticism, sarcasm, complaining, and bad attitudes. Life is hard enough without having to endure the negative and hurtful words of others. We can wound the people around us, deflate their dreams, and crush their spirit with harsh or critical words. We can drain the joy out of any situation with enough complaining. Teens sometimes believe they can say anything they want, regardless of how cutting or insensitive it is, and cover it over by saying: “I was just kidding.” Joking or not, your words can wound. James compares the destructive potential of words to a consuming fire. We are dealing with a real danger.

Words also have the power to build others up, lend them courage, or ascribe great value to others. Encouragement, genuine compliments, sincerity, and laughter are just a few of the ways you can give life through communication. We challenged our teenagers to ADD to others and not SUBTRACT from them through the way they talk. We have already seen a response from our students in this area. As I type this, there is affirmation being poured out from teen to teen on facebook. One youth leader commented this morning that an “epidemic of niceness” has been started. This will have a more lasting impact than the usual complaining and sarcasm for sure.

Our words are significant because they reveal something about our character. Jesus said: “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Jesus taught that what comes out of a person’s mouth was direct evidence of the contents of his or her heart. If there is evil in your heart, your words will reflect it. It there is love in your heart, your words will reflect it. We live in a culture that is very free with expression, and we need to understand that we are responsible for every bit of communication we release into the world, good or bad.

***Food for thought:
-How are you using words to communicate life to your teenager?
-If you kept track of your words, weighing the negative against the positive, which would win the majority?
-Do you model positive communication to your teenager?
-Do you think that negative words or positive words have more power? Which comes most naturally?

From Cooties to Booties

One of the clear requests from parents at our Echo Parent Summits last spring was for some age appropriate teaching on sexuality and God’s plan for our Middle School students. This is something we talk about often in Echo High School, but it is not something we openly address in Echo Middle School. Consistently, the parents of our Middle Schoolers asked us to rethink that approach.

So, starting this Sunday, we will begin a two week teaching series on God’s plan for sexuality for Echo Middle School. The series is called “From Cooties to Booties.” We are going to be careful to be age-appropriate, focusing on God’s plan for sexuality in a funny and light hearted way. This is not going to a “health class” talk, it is not going to be a “birds and the bees” talk, and it will not replace what should happen early and often at home with mom and dad. We will focus on what the Bible says and what Christ-following young teen should think and practice on this subject.

August 8th – From Cooties to Booties – Justin will teach with guys and gals together. This message will address some of the negative/false messages that are sent every day to our students from a sex-obsessed and misinformed culture. We will talk about what God has to say about it and see what our response to the truth should be. You can be sure that we will talk about these issues with honesty and grace, never guilt.

August 15th – Guy Talk/Girl Talk – The guys and gals will meet in separate groups to talk about some gender specific issues. Justin will teach the guys and Jamie will teach the ladies. Here we talk about treating the opposite sex with immeasurable value, as well as recognizing our own immeasurable value in the eyes of God.

Topics we will include: Crushes and middle school romances, the hurry some students are in to grow up or to appear “mature,” the best places to go when you have questions, the dangers of pornography, what is appropriate affection for a middle schooler and what is not, etc. God’s plan in a sentence: God gave us sex as something wonderful that build intimacy between a husband and a wife: purity now paves the way to intimacy later, while experimenting now erodes and damages that intimacy someday.

If you are not comfortable with your student attending these services, please feel free to hold them out (you know your child better than anyone). If you have any questions for me, feel free to email me or call me this week or next.

One last thing: this is a great opportunity to bring up some tough topics that parents often find uncomfortable. Leverage this at home! Talk about this with your kids, even if it isn’t comfortable.

Words – Resposible Communication in the Facebook era

Words-1We are getting close to back to school – so we decided to address some issues for the upcoming year with Echo. We did a short 2 part series called “words” with our middle schoolers this month to address the issue of responsible communication. Think back to a time before twitter, skype, facebook, myspace, instant messenger, texting, cell phones, computers, land lines, and even the printing press. It is hard for me remember that I lived in a time when I was not INSTANTLY reachable through multiple streams of communication all the time. Every time we there has been an advance in communication technology, it has had a major impact on our culture. Why? Because words are powerful. The communication of ideas and opinions is power!

All over the bible, you will find writers pleading with people to recognize the power of words and to be careful with it. James 3 is a great example. James understood that words have power. He cautions people to recognize that what comes out of their mouths can have a dramatic impact on the world, for good or for evil. The playground proverb: “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” has never been true. The bible teaches people to watch carefully what they say. This is such good advice. Once something is spoken, it is out there. It cannot be taken back. In our technologically connected culture, this is even more important. One youth leader told me a story of a work related online discussion forum post he had made 8 YEARS ago that was still available through a google search. Colleges and prospective employers are getting good at checking out facebook pages and other social networks. How can we help our students be safe and responsible with their words, virtual and actual?

Our students need to know that some things should not be shared. Proverbs 10:19 says “Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut.” For issues of safety, privacy, and for the good of others, some things should be kept private. A facebook status update that informs the world that your family is going on vacation for a week and leaving an empty house might as well be an invitation for trouble. Those pictures of teens in their bathing suits they so readily post do not help much in our quest to protect them from becoming objectified. Argument between friends can hurt a lot of people and cause a lot of collateral social damage when it is handled through public wall posts. The fact is, you can find out a load of personal information (pet’s names, school, grade, friends names), right down to the times and places where people are through the internet. If you have not talked with your student to make sure they have the right privacy settings on their social networking pages or to make sure they know what is appropriate to share online, do so right now. One of the things that always impresses me is how poor teens do at choosing chat handles and email addresses. “Dancingcutie94” is not a good screen name. It tells me you are 15 years old and it encourages every creep to imagine you dancing. Check out http://www.safeteens.com/ for more tips.

Questions for parents of teenagers:

*Do you know if your teen uses facebook, myspace, twitter, aim, etc? Do you visit their pages often? Do you have their passwords and account info?
*If your teen has their own cell phone, have you talked about appropriate texting and media use?
*Is the family computer in a “high traffic” area of the house, or do students have access to computers in private locations?