Digital Wisdom and Teens

Sam TotmanLeadership, Ministry Tools, Sam Totman

I recently lead a small gathering of 50 or so youth ministers on the topic of technology and its influence on teen behavior. The number one question on everyone’s mind was “How can we help teenagers when it seems like they seem to know more than we do on this topic?” It’s a valid question but it need not be a paralyzing one. The good news is that God did not design you to know every detail of every area in life. It’s easy to preach about the church functioning as a body, but at the end of the day, it’s not always easy to flesh out in our own ministries. We’ve deceived ourselves into thinking that the leader of the group has to be the best of the group. The truth is teenagers aren’t looking to any of you to be the expert in technology, so you can relax. What teenagers want, what all people want from their pastor is a someone who can offer biblically grounded wisdom. Seek God’s wisdom through prayer and the reading of scripture, and you will find that while our tools and gadgets change, the biblical wisdom by which we live our lives and lead our ministries remains relevant to every generation.

Three Healthy Responses to Teens and Tech

1. You were a teenager once, don’t just criticize, empathize.

It’s easy to point to all the selfies online as evidence that online life is making our students self-centered. The reality is that teenagers (and adults too) have always been a little ego-centric, a little too concerned about what other people think of them. They do not always have an accurate picture of their online audience. At times, they imagine that the whole world is staring at them. Those with higher self-esteem are filled with pride, those who are with lower self-esteems with despair. Social Media did not create that phenomenon. It does, however, amplify it. Social media encourages us to give our opinion on everything, even if we have no business doing so. As adults, it is easy to look at teens differently than we look at ourselves. Matthew 7 comes to mind here. It’s easier to see their faults while ignoring our own. We face many of the same challenges and struggles they face even as adults. Criticizing teens without acknowledging our own weakness and unhealthy behaviors is counterproductive. Instead, remember our own insecurities and offer wisdom and grace. Let’s be honest with ourselves and transparent with them.

2. Realize there’s no need for insecurity.

We are alike in many ways, but there are marked differences between you and the teenagers you lead. You come from entirely different contexts. They may have certain advantages when it comes to understanding technology, but having knowledge is not the same as having wisdom.1 Much of the challenges teens face online are very similar to the challenges you have faced in the real world.2 You may not know much about Snapchat, but scripture has given you everything you need to talk about prudence and modesty. The Bible doesn’t say anything about Facebook, but it has much to say on what makes up a genuine community. Those principles are just as relevant in the digital realm as they are in the physical world. If you have built trust with teenagers and they know your heart, they will be open to your guidance. It will make a difference in their lives. Bonus: Teenagers like to talk about the things that interest them. Ask them which types of tech/social media teenagers like most. A follow-up question, ask why so many of their peers like using said technology. You might be surprised by their openness and insight. The benefit of being a body of believers is that each member has a purpose and a contribution to bring to the table.

3. Discern the difference between emotional reactions and reality.

Do you know what types of social media your teenagers are using? lets you engage your audience or class in real time. Once you create your poll question, audience members can use their smartphones to submit their answers which are then projected onto your screens in real time.
There is a lot to fear about the Internet. There’s pornography, there are sexual predators, and cyber bullying, and Russian hackers. Actually, there are hackers in every country. The media stir up our fears when it comes to the Internet because fear and sex make for good ratings. The reality is that the world is dangerous. It doesn’t mean that we refuse to explore it, to speak wisdom into it, or otherwise influence it to the best of our abilities. Without the light of the gospel and people of God, the world will continue to be a dark place. If parents simply talk with their kids about the dangers of online activity, they can significantly reduce the chances of harm. Asking their children about social media platforms is a good place to start a healthy conversation and at the same time build trust.

There is a lot to fear about the Internet, but there is also a lot of good there too. Don’t just share the dangers without highlighting effective uses as well. People feared the invention of writing. People feared the invention of the printing press. In some cases, raising valid concerns. With that said, we are better off because of those inventions. Help your parents develop a balance between protecting their children and encouraging healthy expression even online. The digital world needs missionaries and our young people are going to be the ones who traverse it.

1danah boyd (2014) It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press, p. 176.
2 John Palfrey and Urs Gasser (2016). Born digital. Basic Books, p. 112.
The modified header image was provided by Viktor Hanacek