By: Beth Thaxton
If you see sixth graders jumping up and down, it’s because they just got their first cell phone. Or more appropriately, they’re not jumping… because you really can’t jump and Snapchat at the same time. Too dangerous.
The youth in my congregation often get their first cell phone close to sixth grade. They’re in middle school, they have after school sports now, they’ve got places to be… and their parents finally caved. The parents, for the most part, are ecstatic as well. This gives their kids some much-anticipated independence, but they can also put some limits in place. And this is even a carrot to dangle when grades could use a little nudge.
Growing up as a 90s kid, my friends and I tried to convince our parents that we needed a cell phone when we started driving. They were flip phones, text messaging wasn’t “a thing” and the phones didn’t really even do anything. Not anything cool anyways. Except call people. The only way to Snapchat someone was to get sassy while chatting and then snap in a “z formation.”
Today, communication changes in an instant, keeping us on our toes to stay relevant in the lives of young people… and to make our own ministry work easier. In a youth ministry setting, no longer do I call the family’s land line and ask to speak to the kid. Apps like Remind have made it possible to wrangle all the youth for a leaf-raking party just by sending a singular text… but not through Cingular. They’re long gone.
Our youth are much more connected and in ways that their parents never were. It also means that the same hurtful behavior that can happen in middle school cafeterias still happens in those cafeterias, but it also happens through subtweets on Twitter, DM’s on Instagram, Snapchat, and just blink while it happens on any number of new apps that will come out in the next hot second! Our work with young people and their parents, at the root, does not change: You are loved by God. You are loved by us. Love God. Love others. But as technology changes, so do our methods of communicating this message. It comes to young people through texts from their youth advisors checking in on them after a big day, Instagram photos with information about upcoming events, and the Snapchat stories of members of the youth group. The ever-presence of cell phones also means that young people have an outlet to connect pastorally. A girl who doesn’t feel welcome at youth group due to bullying is much more likely to respond to a text than a voicemail on her family land line. In fact, she’s even more likely to receive that message! Technology opens up a whole new avenue of pastoral care for young people, if we do it right.
Parents in 2002 were warned to keep their computers in the common areas of their homes so that young people could always be observed while online. Today our kids are using their cell phones like tiny computers, inspiring parents to use apps like TeenSafe to monitor content like snaps sent, texts deleted, and the location of their child’s phone. Parents are adept at having conversations with their kids about proper cell phone use. Several parents in our congregation follow these guidelines:
- Phones must be left downstairs at night to charge. This allows kids to sleep and when their friends get upset that they haven’t replied at 2 a.m. (yep, that happens), they can (happily) blame the parents.
- Privacy is not a right. When you pay for your own phone (and data!) in your own house, you can have privacy. This allows kids to make the small mistakes when consequences are not so large.
- Don’t go over your data limit. What better way to teach your kid about balance and financial health by having them pony up if they go over the limit. Sorry, when they go over the limit!
Parents are ready and willing to be the “bad guys” so that their kids can blame them when they didn’t answer that late night snap, text back right away, or can’t sneak off somewhere because they know their parents can find them.
In our congregation’s youth ministry, we’re also teaching our young people where the boundaries are by modeling healthy cell phone use. We don’t have technology-free retreats/trips, because we want to be able to model using technology to connect rather than isolate. That means creating playlists together for dance parties, using Snapchat filters to send snaps to the youth who aren’t with us, and even creating apps for our events so that everyone can upload photos. There are boundaries, of course, and all the kids know it. If you’re using your phone for things that distract, hurt, or are inappropriate, you’ll be the one without a phone!
As far as milestones go, this is a huge one for young people. When we celebrate with them we reinforce what we hope for them to know all along: You are loved by God. You are loved by us. Love God. Love others.
Beth Thaxton is the Director of Youth Ministries and Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church, Raleigh. She loves hanging with FPC’s young people and is quite fond of her own cell phone!