Is it Okay to Text with Youth?

April 20th, 2011

There are two things to realize in the area of Internet relationships between ministers and youth. First, the Internet is a public place that doesn't feel public because individuals use it while alone. Second, the informality of the Internet can lead to inappropriate dealings no matter how well-intentioned a minister may be. With these two large points in mind, here are a few suggestions.

1. Treat everything you say online to a young person as if you were saying it to him or her at coffee hour. If you wouldn't say something that you'd be comfortable for a coffee drinker to overhear, don't type it in a Facebook message.

2. If you are e-mailing a lone young person, always CC or BCC someone else. If at all possible, make e-mails to youth mass e-mails (that is, non-specific messages that go out to a whole youth group).

3. Do not answer text messages from youth at inappropriate times. For example, if a youth texts you at 1 a.m., wait until after school the next day to respond. Don’t respond during school hours. As in the case of Facebook, if you wouldn’t say it at coffee hour, don’t text it. Furthermore, only respond to texts that have some substance or ask a direct question. If a text simply says, “Hey,” then ignore it.

4. Keep a log of all texts with youth. You can usually export messages to a word processor or Google program.

5. If you begin to get the sense that a Facebook, text, or e-mail chain is heading into more private “counseling” territory, cease the Internet contact and meet in person. Young people today can have trouble expressing themselves in a face-to-face manner outside their preferred virtual mode, so be patient with them.

6. During your youth group meetings, have a hat or basket to collect all cell phones, Nintendo DS units, and whatever other devices they might be carrying. They can go an hour without answering their texts. Make sure to toss your own mobile in there as well.

7. Do not send friend requests to your youth on Facebook. This puts them in an awkward position; they might not want you to see their profile, but they also won’t want to “decline” you. On the flip side, always accept friend requests from your youth. But put them on a “limited profile” so they can only see the things on your page that you personally post.

8. It can be a good idea to have two Facebook profiles: one for your personal use and one for your church use. If you have two, direct youth that attempt to friend you to the church profile. You can keep the personal one more private by writing your name in a way that is more difficult to search. For example, I might be “A.P. Thomas” rather than “Adam Thomas.”

9. If you visit the Facebook profiles of your youth, be aware that you might see things there that you will have to address; a picture of him holding a beer or a recent photo with the boyfriend that her parents don’t know about, for example. Have a plan about how you will deal with this eventuality before it ever comes up.

10. Most denominations tell their ministers to sever all connections with parishes when they move on to a new place. This is extraordinarily difficult in today’s tech-driven society. Before you leave, explain to your youth that you will have to de-friend them on Facebook and that it’s not personal. Make sure to prepare them for this reality because they won’t understand otherwise. That being said, they will still have half a dozen other ways to connect with you. Use your best judgment in these matters. If you have a blog or Twitter account, there's no need to tell people to stop checking those things. These are wide-spectrum communications from you to the Internet at large. This is akin to an old parishioner reading an article by you in a magazine, which is perfectly fine.

Read more from Adam Thomas at his blog, Where the Wind, and be sure to pick up a copy of his new book Digital Disciple.

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