Reaching Youth Across the Digital Divide

#Connect_title_c_stroke

Mason Wallace Park was across a road that became busier as the years of my childhood passed. The worst of it did not arrive until after those key years when my friends and I spent countless hours riding our bikes on the trails, chasing balls on the outfield grass, and cooling off in the concrete wading pool. We almost always had our parents’ permission to go there. When we were children, a parent was always with us. As tweens, we checked in before going there. And when we became teens, before we had driver’s licenses, we simply went to the park. By then it was okay for us to be there on our own—without our parents.

I remember a few things about that park. The first was how many people we met there from other neighborhoods, some who went to school with us and some who didn’t. We were never at a loss for finding new friends, whether for the day or for years to come. We rarely felt at risk at Mason Wallace Park. When we did feel that something wasn’t right, we either found a parent or crossed the road to our horseshoe-shaped neighborhood.

The second thing I vividly remember is the playground. The swings were monumental. You could swing out, looking down the hillside that ran to a creek a few hundred yards away. I have never been on swings that gave me the same feeling of freedom and flight. Then there was the wading pool. An eight-foot obelisk spouted water into the air and kept the foot-deep water circulating. It was never a neighborhood pool, but it was certainly a popular spot after impromptu games of softball and soccer in the heat of summer. There was also the park’s gigantic metal slide. You flew down this slide, which was important because the sun heated it during the summer, and seared legs was the first sign of hot weather. Finally, the park had a merry-go-round. When we were young, parents spun us, taking turns to keep us entertained. Once adolescence arrived, the merry-go-round became a test of endurance and attrition. We challenged one another to endure the speed and not throw up, or to run 100 feet after getting off the whirling dervish. No longer content to enjoy the gentle spin of the parent’s pace, we sought adventure and speed.

I visited the playground at Mason Wallace recently. All the things from my childhood are gone, most replaced by far safer versions. The swings are entirely absent. A plastic playground now sits where the slide used to be. In place of the merry-go-round is a push-up station for a park-wide running and exercise trail. The concrete wading pool has become parking spaces. And something else is missing as well. While my daughter played on the playground, other parents watched one another warily. No one returned my efforts to talk. Many of the children played alongside one another as they might at an indoor fast-food playground—but not with one another the way we did when I was small. The only tweens and teens present were participating in carefully orchestrated league games, arriving in time to play and then leaving after a word from their coach reminding them of their next practice.

Today, our family lives next door to an elementary school with two playgrounds where there are no swings, no tall slides, no jungle gyms from which to hang upside down. During the day, the playgrounds provide boisterous sounds of children exploding from their classrooms. After school, some parents picking up their children gather to watch the kids play, all departing at some predetermined time. And the playgrounds are quiet. Children rarely just show up to play with the intention of meeting new friends.

Playgrounds have changed. The play equipment for my children creates a carefully regulated environment, by manufacturer, school system, and parents. And other new playgrounds have emerged. These new playgrounds are digital. Children, teens, and parents gather to play around screens. The new digital playgrounds are exciting and entertaining, interactive and connective. They are a part of our community fabric.

These new playgrounds give parents other reasons to worry, though. While conflicts of our youth were often forgotten the next day, on the new playground they are widely and immediately broadcast. When suspicious strangers showed up on my childhood playgrounds, we could easily identify them and were prepared to deal with the situation by departing or alerting someone else of their presence. On the new digital playground, strangers can take any identity that they want. On our old playgrounds, we learned how to socialize and relate to one another. The new digital playground does not offer that. Instead, we expect schools, churches, sports teams, and play dates to provide an arena where our children can learn social skills.

You know that we should not allow our teenagers to educate one another without adult experience and wisdom providing input and guidance. You also know that people of faith have a responsibility to be the presence of Christ to those with whom they interact. This should happen on the digital playground as well. For teenagers who are victims of poor behavior on this playground, aware and alert adults can provide healing and redemptive actions through real-life relationships.

Children are growing up in a world where the playground is digital. It is not new to them. It is normal. As usual, teenagers are early adopters of the new toys in the playground. Parents are left to play catch-up. As soon as we think we understand one new toy, another emerges. Try to imagine the way parents have felt in the past. In the 1950s, television replaced radio as a form of entertainment. TV was a new playground. Then came the rise of videogames in the 1980s, when Atari and Nintendo created a new playground. More recently, the Internet seemed like the ultimate playground.

Today, though, there is yet another new playground. That playground is social media. Just as I marveled at my parents’ inability to program the VCR in 1986, I now marvel at my children who can negotiate the Internet through their Wii U. (Wii U and other gaming consoles—such as Xbox and PlayStation—are more than video game systems. They connect to the Internet, play DVDs, and even act as universal remotes for your home theater system.) Frequently I hear parents talk about teenagers and their cell phones or computers. They lament all the texting, tweeting, liking, and picture taking. If you listen to them, it seems that parents are left with limited options. We can ignore this new media. We can dismiss it as a fad. We can try to hide from it out of fear. We can embrace it.

I will take this a step further and suggest that we have two options. The first is to be present and aware of the new digital playground on which our teenagers are playing. The second is to use ignorance, dismissal, or fear as an excuse not to engage, leaving our teenagers to navigate the playground alone.

The playground is full, and more attractions and teenagers are joining it every day. There is an opportunity and a need to be present with our teenagers on the digital playground, helping them understand their increased projection into the world through social media and how it affects them as young Christians called to be people of faith. This new playground challenges not only teenagers but also our understandings of community and our sense of self. My childhood playground never saw parents accompanying their teenagers at the frequency with which they did at a younger age. The digital playground is different. Adults need to be there, participating in the new means of communicating and building relationships, and teaching teenagers how to move the conversation from digital to analog.

Our teenagers are already on the playground. Are we going to be there with them? How can we choose not to be?

Make no mistake: the digital playground of social media has its own language. There are tweets, hashtags, likes, shares, pins, pheeds, and vines. The language is slowly making its way into our spoken vocabulary. Consider the first time you heard someone say “I need to process this,” or “Let’s take this conversation offline.” The language of computers is already a part of our daily lives. Social media terms are entering our conversation as well.

A former youth, Matti, was telling me a story one day. After giving me the resolution of the story, she concluded with “hashtag, not thinking.” Let’s take a step back. A hashtag (#) is a symbol used in Twitter to denote a category for the tweet being posted. For instance, while watching the Grammys, you can follow a running Twitter conversation by searching #grammys. All tweets with that hashtag will show up in your timeline. Over time, the hashtag has also become a way to make a quick quip about the subject of the tweet. For instance, a picture is posted on Twitter of the user’s dad in his 1980s MC Hammer pants. The poster might give it this hashtag: “#canttouchthis #dontwantto.” In our conversation, Matti used a verbal hashtag to make a snarky editorial comment about the person in her story.

Ruth, a minister to college students, took this a step further. She has seen college students hold up two fingers, reminiscent of the peace sign, and swipe them vertically and then horizontally, thus drawing the hashtag symbol in the air. While making this gesture, they say the verbal hashtag. In Ruth’s example, a young woman showed up for church after missing Sunday school. She saw Ruth and said, “I overslept and missed Sunday school.” Then the young woman made the hashtag gesture and added in a deadpan vocal inflection, “sorry, not sorry.”

The language is changing. Some individuals indicate that technology is changing and evolving too fast for most people to care. Those who work with teenagers or have teenagers in their homes do not have the luxury of not caring. There is no shortage of fears regarding social media and the digital playground, but perhaps the biggest concern is not being able to know what is going on in the lives of teens and young adults. This lack of knowledge is an intentional choice for those who dismiss social media and refuse to engage young people through it. Teenagers have a remarkable chance to influence those who are in contact with them on the digital playground. They also have the chance to be influenced. Who will teach them and walk alongside them, seeking to be the presence of Christ on the digital playground (#you)?

This post originally appeared in the Introduction of #Connect: Reaching Youth Across the Digital Divide by Brian Foreman.

Brian Foreman has worked for more than twenty years with teenagers and their families as a youth minister and coach. Brian teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in youth ministry and leads workshops about social media and social media marketing.

Brian can be found at both b4manconsulting.com and thedigitalcongregation.com where he writes about communication tips for parents and trends in youth ministry, social media, and new apps. Perhaps his greatest obsession though is coffee, which is the fuel behind his writing. Brian and his wife, Denise, have two children.

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