Fuller Youth Institute

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Just in time for your spring break service trips, The Sticky Faith Service Guide offers practical and field-tested exercises on how to translate short-term work into long-term change. Whether it’s a half-day local service project or a two-week trip overseas this summer, this resource will benefit both your students and the communities you serve. 


 “Do no harm.”

We at the Fuller Youth Institute wish that mantra was a reality in short-term mission trips.

We are well-intentioned. We want to do good. But often without realizing it, we sabotage our short-term mission trips by not thinking through how our work affects the locals hosting us.

Consider this haunting account from a leader in a Latin American country:

The indigenous staff in my organization lead weekly Bible studies with children to low-income communities … After a short-term team conducts a Bible study in one of these communities, the children stop attending the Bible studies of my organization. Our indigenous staff tell me that the children stop coming because we do not have all the fancy materials and crafts that the short-term teams have, and we do not give away things like these teams do. The children have also come to believe that our staff are not as interesting or as creative as the Americans that come on these teams.[1]

Ouch.

I have been that leader passing out candy, clothes, and soccer balls. I have been with students as people in Mexico and Guatemala crowded around our vans, eager for anything we had to give away.

Rarely did I think about what our giveaways were doing to the local leaders. The leaders who will be there not 7 days a year like us, but all 365.

Is it possible that we are well intentioned, but actually hindering God’s work globally because we don’t think about the locals affected by our work?

Having studied the research and had conversations with global leaders, my unfortunate answer is: Sometimes.

That’s why I am so inspired by a Texas youth leader whose church has decided to view their work through the lens of this question: How does this affect the locals? When this church was building a handful of houses in the Dominican Republic, they realized that some of the locals who work construction would not be working that week because they as Americans were working. So they figured out the wages of the construction workers and paid them for the time they lost.

That. Gives. Me. Chills.

On your next short-term mission trip, ask these questions:

  1. What locals could we partner with (and listen to ahead of time!) to make sure the work we do sets up the local church to win year-round?
  2. Who is being positively affected by our work?
  3. Who is being negatively affected by our work? As in the example above, it could be construction laborers, or food service providers, childcare workers, or teachers (to name a few).
  4. What can we do to compensate (whether it be financially or through another means) those who are negatively affected?

What else do you do to make sure that your short-term mission work “does no harm?”

 

[1] Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, When Helping Hurts (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 169.

Anyone who serves teenagers today knows that more and more young people are eager to make a difference in the world. When students participate in short-term missions, service, and justice causes, parents and youth leaders hope these experiences will lead to real transformation. But research shows that our efforts don’t always stick.

If we truly want short-term work to translate into long-term change, leaders and students must spend more time before, during, and after service projects preparing for and processing their experiences. The sessions in this Guide will help you create experiences that stick—both for the students you take and the communities you serve. This guidebook offers a host of practical and field-tested exercises for each phase of your experience, whether it’s a half-day local service project or a two-week trip overseas.

Participants will engage in hands-on experiences to gain new insights about themselves, their relationship with God, their teammates, and the world we’re called to love and serve. Each of these steps is a catalyst in helping students apply what they have learned in the field to their own lives back at home. Also included are ideas to help get parents and the whole church engaged in service together. A companion Student Journal is also available to boost the potential for personal application throughout the journey.
 

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This post is part of a series celebrating our newest parent resource, Right Click. Feel like your kids are drowning in a sea of new questions, apps, and devices? Want to talk about digital media more with your kids, but aren’t sure how? Focused on helping parents think and talk differently about digital media, Right Click equips families like yours to approach this new connected world like a team. What’s your #rightclick?


“Someday, someday soon, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn to have a conversation.”[1]

This is just one of a number of eye-opening statements made by high school and college-aged students in the new book by renowned MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Turkle provides a sprawling and insightful analysis of how digital media are reshaping our lives as individuals, in relationships, and as a broader society. But unlike other commentators who have explored these same trends, Turkle builds a compelling case for what really seems to be at stake: as we lose conversation, we lose community.

Turkle addresses this crucial connection between conversation and community by describing how “We have moved from being in community to having a sense of community.” A digital “sense” of connectedness is replacing or impeding our ways of “being” incarnate (“in the flesh”) with one another.[2]

The result adds up to something we might call phantom community.

Like the phenomenon known as a phantom limb, Turkle describes digital media as producing a sensation of attachment and connection that dully feels like the real thing but is not. It is something that persists as a person acclimates his or herself to living without what had once been taken for granted as always available.

For adults, digital media has disruptively demanded our attention away, like a stubborn toddler tugging at a sleeve and crying, “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” But what is fascinating about Turkle’s latest research is how she sees this adult distractedness having an increasingly noxious effect on today’s young people. Whereas digital media seems to have damaged the way adults interact with one another, it is now making it seemingly impossible for young people to learn how to have relationships in the first place.

Perhaps most importantly, Turkle argues, we are in the midst of a “crisis of empathy.” Middle schools are now adapting their curricula to try to teach emotional intelligence at a very basic level. As one teacher describes it, “[student] friendships seem based on what students think someone else can do for them … kids have a sense that friendships are one-sided. It is a place for them to broadcast. It is not a place for them to listen. And there isn’t an emotional level.”[3]

Similarly, Turkle describes a study that found “a 40 percent drop in empathy among college students in the past twenty years … a decline its authors suggested was due to students having less direct face-to-face contact with each other.”[4]

This is important because—as scientific research, the arts, and philosophy all agree—empathy functions as the fundamental distinction between a group of people and a community. We form into communities not by means of proximity or mere connectedness but rather because we know each other and care about one another. We have done the self-reflective work of deciding that we belong and are invested in the lives of a particular group of others. Riding on a public transit bus is belonging to a group of people; riding in a bus on the way to a church youth group retreat is belonging to a community.

Reclaiming Conversation presents us with both an invitation and a challenge as Christians who place special value on the importance of community and communion with one another. The type of phantom community described throughout the book is an alluring but ultimately unsatisfying (not to mention unhealthy) substitute for the kind of table fellowship we find in scripture—and that so many of us have experienced and enjoyed together. Turkle’s research and reflections challenge us to consider how we might safeguard our church communities from weakening or decaying like so many other facets of life addressed by the book, including education, work, romance, and even family relationships. That is our challenge.

Our invitation comes from the many young people interviewed as part of Turkle’s research. Summarizing these conversations, she writes: “Recently I see an encouraging sign: young people’s discontent.”[5]

As staples like authentic community and invigorating conversation seem to become more and more elusive, young people are beginning to crave, if not covet, these remnants from a pre-digital world. One 2015 study on young people’s digital media usage found that just 36 percent of teens enjoy using social media “a lot,” which was significantly lower than listening to music or watching television.[6] There is an increasingly noticeable disconnect between how much young people are using digital media and how much they actually enjoy using digital media. 

So often our approach in churches, particularly in youth ministry, is to grasp at the latest trends in an attempt to be relevant. But what seems abundantly clear in Reclaiming Conversation is that today’s young people are searching and yearning for something radically countercultural against their world of phantom community. They want to feel and experience true community for themselves.

As a group of fourteen-year-old girls explains: “memories don’t happen when you get a text. It’s the stories you can tell … the best stuff is friends making mistakes together. That’s how people bond. … It’s not like everything is made to be perfect. It’s like you should make mistakes and you should—well, with friends, it’s good to see their faces.”[7]
 


[2] p. 173

[3] p. 8

[4] p. 171 (See also: Sara Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing, “Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 15, no. 2 (May 1, 2011): 180-98, doi:10.1177/1088868310377395.)

[5] p. 110

[7] p. 174

Photo by blindbeth67

I’m a hard-core goal setter. Perhaps to a fault. Note that I don’t necessarily accomplish all my goals, but I do relish in setting them.

So Dave and I huddle together with our kids on January 1st every year (often during the handful of hours after the Rose Bowl Parade and before the football game) and set family goals. Some missionary friends staying at our house over the holidays wondered more about our family goal setting process so I thought I’d explain what works best for us.

We provide treats for our kids. This year it was Starbucks. Sometimes I make brownies. The youth leader in me finds that treats create a more positive environment. As our kids have become teenagers, they sometimes groan at our attempts at family intentionality. Sugar helps.

We review last year’s goals. Which is adorable. My favorite from 2015 was fourth grade Jessica’s desire to “stop creasing my papers at school.” You’ll be glad to know that goal was accomplished.

We talk about why we set goals. That it helps us be more thoughtful. And mindful. And prayerful. And support each other.

We spend a few minutes thinking individually about our goals. A few of our family members are introverts. They need time.

We each write or draw our goals on a sheet of paper. Dave’s a drawer. I’m a writer but use colorful crayons. The kids vacillate. But markers and crayons let each of us personalize our own sheets of paper.

We each share our goals, explaining why we chose those goals. I think it’s especially valuable for our kids to hear Dave and me explain why we’re choosing to read the Bible, work less, or work out more.

We close in prayer.

Afterward, we make copies of the goals so I keep a copy in my prayer journal, and each person gets a copy of their own goals. To be honest, the kids often misplace their own copies of the goals. I often lose sight of them also. One of my hopes (maybe it’s a goal) this year is to take a few minutes every few months to review our goals together.

There are other flaws in the process, or areas we’d like to improve. Perhaps one year we’ll set collective goals as a family, instead of only individual goals for each family member. Maybe 12 months is too long for our kids and we should think in terms of smaller chunks.

But in the meantime, it’s a new year ritual that we dig. And it’s not too late in 2016 to try this with your own family!

This post is part of a series celebrating our newest parent resource, Right Click. Feel like your kids are drowning in a sea of new questions, apps, and devices? Want to talk about digital media more with your kids, but aren’t sure how? Focused on helping parents think and talk differently about digital media, Right Click equips families like yours to approach this new connected world like a team. What’s your #rightclick?


If your families are anything like ours, the first few weeks of January can be a brutal awakening. Kids are heading back to school, parents are back at work. And while it was great to let your kids indulge in some extra hours watching movies, playing games, and poking around on devices over the holidays, the game changes quickly.

This post-holiday season can be a little disorienting and headache-inducing, but don’t worry. We have a few free tools and ideas you can put to use this month to help get your family rebalanced and back on track for the new year. Here are five quick resources you can access right now:

1. Set screentime boundaries … together. Families everywhere are wondering, “How do I know how much time to allow my kids to be on their devices when they’re at home?” The new year is a great time to establish (or re-establish) healthy family media practices. We’ve created a free handy downloadable tool you can use to have a fresh conversation with your family this week.

2. Learn how to review apps. Or better yet, require your kids to complete this handy Request for App form and give you at least 24 hours to make a decision before they download anything. This brief form pushes them to do a little research on things like privacy, sharing, and personal information the app will collect. If you don’t like forms, the questions themselves can help guide a less formal conversation with your teenager.

3. Don’t let gaming game you. Wringing your hands about the new games your kids acquired this Christmas—or about how much time they’re sinking into playing? Here are ten things every parent should know about gaming to give you a leg up in this game.

4. Draw the age line. Have a kid under 13 asking to use social media? Here’s an easy way to say no: the law. Read more about why, plus a handful of other tips on making age determinations.

5. Have a good answer to the retort, “That’s not fair!” Not all kids are ready for the same things at the same time, and that’s doubly true with technology. As your kids are using new technology in this post-holiday season, you might find that one takes care of their device while another is careless, or one makes good choices while another struggles. Here are some tips for navigating this dilemma.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about the insights and strategies we’ve shared in Right Click, go ahead and download a free chapter now. We’d love to help!

What tips have you found helpful to navigate the post-holiday digital tech hangover?

Our team at the Fuller Youth Institute is always dreaming about new research that can be translated into timely and important resources for leaders, young people, and families. Today, we're particularly excited to make this formal public announcement about our next wave of research and resources.

Fuller Youth Institute Receives $810,000 in Grants for Innovative Ministry Research


The Fuller Youth Institute and Fuller Theological Seminary are excited to announce the launch of a new wave of research designed to strengthen churches’ ministry to teenagers and young adults. Lilly Endowment Inc., an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation, and the Sacred Harvest Foundation have awarded grants in support of projects totaling $810,000.

This research builds on the Fuller Youth Institute’s three-year “Churches Engaging Young People Project,” which studied best practices of churches nationwide excelling in ministry with young people ages 15 to 29.  More than 250 churches participated in the study, including surveys and interviews with 474 young people and 799 adults. The new additional funding will continue the study of a diverse group of outstanding churches and aid the development of a vast toolkit of contextually sensitive ministry resources that will be released publicly beginning in fall 2016.

In addition, Fuller’s new Youth Ministry Innovations project aims to leverage the relationships, research, and resources from the Churches Engaging Young People Project in order to blaze new paths in youth ministry. Its goal is to truly experiment in order to reframe common ministry approaches and reimagine the spiritual practices that have animated the church throughout history.

Serving as director and principal investigator of both projects is Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (see fulleryouthinstitute.org) and assistant professor in Youth and Family Ministry at Fuller. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women to Watch,” Dr. Powell’s decade of leadership at FYI has produced a host of books and research-based training, most notably around the best-selling Sticky Faith line of resources (see stickyfaith.org).

“While past research and ministry efforts have helped young people journey toward adulthood, there is widespread agreement that new, more mature, and more systemic strategies are needed to help them navigate an increasingly challenging world,” Powell said. “These projects are poised to help guide today’s young people by weaving together two of our highest values and missional priorities - innovation and collaboration.”

Youth Ministry Innovations will be executed through four phases of research conducted during a three-year period. Phase One aims to understand and empathize with young people’s deepest questions of identity, belonging, and purpose. Phase Two will gather creative church leaders to ideate and test new ministry forms that will help teenagers and emerging adults experience God’s grace, love, and mission. Phase Three will refine the ministry forms deemed most effective, which will be shared in Phase Four through collaboratively developed and contextually sensitive resources.

The new grants were announced publicly at Fuller’s recent Engaging Young People Summit, which gathered key national leaders from 15 denominations as well as scholars and heads of church training organizations to focus on the challenges and opportunities of ministry to young people. The denominations in attendance represented over 63 percent of the adult Christian population in the United States.

“There's no way to describe the importance of the Fuller Youth Institute’s future research and how it will impact young people for years to come,” said Tyler Reagin, director of Catalyst, which trains more than 30,000 Christian leaders each year. “I'm honored to collaborate with Kara, the FYI team, and an incredible network of influencers who are actually DOING something to change the game for churches nationwide."

The initial findings of this research have already greatly challenged and served the church, according to Soong-Chan Rah, Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park University. “I look forward to ongoing efforts by FYI that will continue to provide important roadmaps and guidelines for churches seeking guidance in these important areas,” Rah added.

The Fuller Youth Institute and Fuller Theological Seminary are thrilled to utilize these grants to build on their proven research ability, and use that research to form global leaders for kingdom vocations who are faithful, courageous, innovative, collaborative, and fruitful.

ABOUT FULLER

Fuller Theological Seminary is one of the world’s most influential evangelical institutions and the largest multidenominational seminary. We offer 18 graduate degree programs—with Spanish, Korean, and online options—through our Schools of Theology, Psychology, and Intercultural Studies as well as 20 centers, institutes, and initiatives. Approximately 4,000 students from 90 countries and 110 denominations enroll annually, and our 41,000 alumni have been called to serve as ministers, counselors, teachers, artists, nonprofit leaders, businesspersons, and in a multitude of other vocations around the world.

ABOUT LILLY ENDOWMENT INC.

Lilly Endowment Inc. is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation created in 1937 by three members of the Lilly family—J. K. Lilly Sr. and sons J. K. Jr. and Eli—through gifts of stock in their pharmaceutical business, Eli Lilly & Company.  The Endowment exists to support the causes of religion, education, and community development.  Lilly Endowment’s religion grantmaking is designed to deepen and enrich the religious lives of American Christians.  It does this largely through initiatives to enhance and sustain the quality of ministry in American congregations and parishes.  

Photo by Ben The Man

While 2016 is shaping up to be one of our most exciting years yet here at FYI, there has been a lot to celebrate THIS year as we look back at 2015. Here’s what you liked most, or what you might have missed that others thought was worth reading.
 

5. Ten things EVERY parent should know about gaming – Struggling with how much your kids or students in your youth ministry play video games? Here’s a practical article from our new parent resource Right Click to help.

4.  Naming and navigating teen depression – How do you know if a teenager is depressed, or if this is normal adolescent behavior? A family therapist weighs in with solid insight.

3.  How to help your kids build Sticky Faith by showing your own – The first blog in our #stickyfaithfamily series back in August. Click through the hashtag to see all the posts!

2. How to talk to boys...and get them to talk back – 7 practical tips that will help you as a youth leader or parent to get adolescent boys to talk.

1. Four surprises in a year of talking about LGBT issues in a Baptist church – Learn how Can I Ask That? sparked Fuller Alum Matt to lead a series about issues surrounding lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning people, the Bible, and the Church.
 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! See you in 2016!

The FYI Team
Brian, Johanna, Meghan, Jake, Irene, Tyler, Matthew, Quinn, Steve, Macy, Brad, and Kara

This post is part of a series celebrating our newest parent resource, Right Click. Feel like your kids are drowning in a sea of new questions, apps, and devices? Want to talk about digital media more with your kids, but aren’t sure how? Focused on helping parents think and talk differently about digital media, Right Click equips families like yours to approach this new connected world like a team. What’s your #rightclick?


Is an Apple Watch on your teenager’s wish list this year? Don’t be surprised.

Following an initial launch aimed at adult techies with money to burn, Apple has begun aggressively marketing their new [digital smart] Watch to a much younger audience this Christmas season. If the recent ads are any indication, Apple is intent on making this new wearable device as ubiquitous as smart phones and MP3 playing pods have become over the past few decades.

But in a world full of teens who already seem glued to digital screens, the thought of yet another glowing device, and one that is literally attached to them, has many parents wishing they could turn the clock back to when a Mickey Mouse timepiece would suffice. 

Although the Apple Watch is still way too expensive for many of us to even consider buying for our kids (not to mention ourselves), we thought it might be helpful to begin thinking about how to discuss this; with each other as adults who care about the young people in our lives, as well as with teens who might be considering, asking, or begging for an Apple Watch this Christmas.
 

1. Is it time for a watch?

Wearing a wristwatch, in and of itself, is a responsibility. Remembering to put it on each morning, being mindful to avoid scratches and damage, and knowing when to take it off all requires an adjustment period. A helpful starting point for conversations about the Apple Watch might be, “Can you handle wearing and caring for a wristwatch on a daily basis?” There are way cheaper options on the market with which to teach your kids ‘Watch Wearing 101.’

One recent study found that roughly 66% of college students currently own and wear a wristwatch; 35% reported wearing theirs’ everyday, 32% wore one on occasion, and 34% said they never wear a watch. Interestingly, when the same study asked if these young people were interested in wearable tech like an Apple Watch, just 44% said they were very interested.[1]
 

2. How many hands do you have?  

Earlier this year a friend who had been using a pre-release version of the Apple Watch told me his favorite thing about the watch was how it allowed him to put his phone away, but still casually glance down to be sure he wasn’t missing urgent messages from his spouse or kids.

Adolescents are biologically hardwired to be more hyperconnected and vigilant about checking in with peers than we are as adults. This is why, when it comes to screens, teens tend to be like an over-confident circus performer; always eager and willing to try juggling one more. The Apple Watch may help some adults with putting their phones away but it remains to be seen whether the same will be true for young people.

It is important to think about the Apple Watch as a potential new piece within the existing ecology of digital devices your teen already uses.
 

3. Is this about fashion or function?

Conversations about digital devices are often very practical and focus on how a young person will use a particular device to connect, study, or play. We tend to overlook how a new digital device has social implications, as a kind of fashion accessory, for today’s teens—which is something the Apple Watch seems to cater to even more than previous devices. It is helpful for adults to remember how, for young people, owning a new device is both a matter of what they’ll be able to do with it and how they will feel about themselves as someone who does or does not have one.

When parents use practical reasons like safety, responsibility, and cost to explain their decisions to not allow a teen to have a new device, it fails to address social and emotional aspects that may feel much more urgent for teens. It is important to talk with young people about how their sense of belonging and self-worth should not be dependent upon what they wear or which devices they use. The old argument that “all my friends have one!” is as much about a young person’s friends and peers as it is the device in question. (If this is a pressure or pain point in your home, we explore this idea in much more depth in Right Click!)
 

4. What does it do?

You probably remember the ads that helped launch Apple’s iPod. Youthful looking silhouettes dancing to upbeat music in front of vibrantly colored backgrounds. These ads instantly told us what the device did and sold many of us on the idea of buying one. By focusing on the fashion side of their watch, Apple has struggled to effectively convey what exactly their latest device actually does.

Most product reviewers have said, as either a praise or criticism of the Watch, that it is essentially a convenient accessory to the iPhone. Not quite the “phone on your wrist” that some speculated it might be, but also not the kind of fun “new toy” that smart phones and portable MP3 players were after their initial releases. Two things that caught our attention about the Watch were that: 1) It does not have a built-in camera, which is a favorite smart phone feature among younger users. 2) In order to reply to a text, or any kind of messaging, users have to either dictate (i.e., speak into the watch) or select from a list of available responses—neither of which seem like appealing alternatives to texting for teens. Plus your iPhone still has to be physically nearby.

Alongside our recognizing the social and emotional side of having a new device to fit in with their peers, it is still very important that we teach young people how to “kick the tires” and take the time to weigh the costs and benefits of purchasing an expensive device. The Apple Watch is going for roughly $350 right now, and it raises many of the same sorts of questions about usefulness, necessity, and additional recurring costs that should be considered for bigger ticket items like laptops, appliances, and automobiles.[2]

Maybe an Apple Watch is still out of the question for your kids but you’re thinking about purchasing one for yourself or your spouse this Christmas. Include kids in this decision-making process to help them learn what kinds of questions to ask, and how to make purchasing decisions that aren’t purely peer-pressure or impulse driven.

 

[1] Lauren Slome. “Most millennials are interested in wearables but only 40% own a device.” Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Research Center; University of Missouri School of Journalism. Dec. 2, 2015. Available at: https://www.rjionline.org/stories/survey-most-millennials-are-interested-in-wearables-but-only-40-percent-own

 

[2] Some Christmas sales are offering cheaper versions but, as always, Apple has a lot of add-on options and products available. Keep in mind that the Watch is tethered to an iPhone as well, so this is in addition to, rather than instead of, the cost of the phone. 

This post is part of a series celebrating our newest parent resource, Right Click. Feel like your kids are drowning in a sea of new questions, apps, and devices? Want to talk about digital media more with your kids, but aren’t sure how? Focused on helping parents think and talk differently about digital media, Right Click equips families like yours to approach this new connected world like a team. What’s your #rightclick?


Because I parent a 13-year-old every day (with two more swift on her heels), I think about questions like this pretty regularly.

To be real, let’s just say daily.

Even though we made our daughter reach the thirteen threshold before diving in (here’s why), and even though she can only post from home or on WiFi (because she’s apparently the “only” 13-year-old on earth without a smartphone, though research would suggest one out of three US teenagers join her), it doesn’t really reduce parental anxiety over what is—or could be—happening not only “out there” online, but also inside as she navigates her own identity formation.

Like me, you might be thinking about your parenting options in light of this anxiety. We can lock them down and keep them isolated from the evils of social media—and consequently isolate them from most of their friends—or we can take a deep breath, put some scaffolding in place, and go along for the ride.

Research is far from authoritative on these matters yet (the phenomena are still too new and continually evolving), but early indicators paint a picture of social media as the new “school lunchroom” of adolescence. In Right Click we explore this in more depth, but in a snapshot, a quick glance through social media serves much the same function as a glance around the school cafeteria, complete with all the social cues and nuances of evolving adolescent identity formation.

In other words, this stuff matters to our kids a lot precisely because it’s one of the environments in which they’re playing out their quest to answer the big questions of “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” Just like young people have always done. Same search, new platforms.

But knowing that doesn’t make it any less unnerving for parents. Especially when CNN reports that some 13-year-olds check social media 100 times a day. (Don’t worry, that’s not an average!)

Or Common Sense Media research finds that the average teenager spends 9 hours a day consuming digital media. Ugh.

And then experts like Sherry Turkle remind us that our devices and digital media have a way of impeding the face-to-face conversations necessary for building basic life skills like empathy, self-restraint, and emotional intimacy.

What’s a parent to do?

Rather than villainize the modalities of teenage connection, we can capture these parenting quandaries as opportunities to learn. Let’s not miss this incredible chance to coach, mentor, and journey with our kids into the world of digital media. Because if we don’t, someone else—or the mob of teen culture, or the pull of brand marketing—will pick up where we leave off.

Recently a New York Times parenting blog suggested “Seven ways parents can help 13-year-olds start their social media lives,” reflecting on the recent CNN-backed study of 200 13-year-olds and their social media interactions. Alongside those tips (with some overlap), here are five I’ve found helpful in navigating the advent of social media in my own home:
 

1. Start on one platform.
 

Easy does it. While your teenager might want to explore Snapchat, Kik, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook (to hang out with Grandma) all at once, that’s likely to be overwhelming for all of you. Start with one account on one platform, and you (the parent) get to hold the password to that account and have access to the device on which it’s used. If you’re not already using the platform yourself, get your own account too.
 

2. Go over online safety rules. Then do it again.
 

Do you remember the first time you taught your kids about the importance of wearing bike helmets? Neither do I. Why? Because we’ve had to ask over, and over, and over again that they put the darn things on. And each time we have to remind them why. As our pediatrician recently told my 7-year-old (who had confessed to wearing a helmet “sometimes”), we only get one brain, and when it breaks, it doesn’t get better very quickly.

But kids don’t really care about this kind of future-talk. They can’t predict what life with a traumatic brain injury might actually look like. So they glaze over during our lecture, then shrug it off and do what’s easier, more comfortable, or more fun in the moment.

Online safety is a lot like bike safety. You don’t think about it much until something happens. Before my daughter and I set up a first account, I talked through the importance of only accepting “follow” invitations from people you know. We talked about creepy men who pose as kids or as harmless fan accounts. We talked about social media being an extension of relationships you have in real life. She nodded and agreed.

Then a month later we had the same conversation. And a month later I scrolled through her followers to find some accounts that freaked me out a little, and we had another conversation. It’s not that my daughter is a rebel. It’s just sort of like the bike helmet.
 

3. Watch, but don’t stalk.
 

Recent research suggests that teenagers who know their parents are monitoring their social media interactions tend to be less distressed by online conflict. Having your support—and at times your help—as a safety net can be somewhat of a relief to young teens, even if they may roll their eyes at you about it in person. But try to restrain yourself from lurking every day at every move they make, and definitely refrain from mentioning in person everything you see online.
 

4. Remind them that “likes” aren’t everything. Then model it.
 

Everyone wants to be liked. But on social media, liking “likes” can have a dark side. The recent study on 13-year-olds found that they get anxious about what’s going on on their social networks when they’re not looking: 61% want to see if their posts are getting likes and comments, 36% want to see if their friends are doing things without them, and 21% want to make sure no one is saying mean things about them. In other words, the biggest motivation for posting and checking back in is to see how others are responding to what they have to say and show. For the vast majority of teenagers, these interactions are primarily with peers they know in real life, so a digital like (or the coming dislike) is an extension of what happens—or doesn’t happen—in the lunchroom or on the soccer field.

Talk with your teenager about the ways that seeking likes can drive us too much, then follow up that talk by modeling it yourself. After all, many adults compulsively check in for similar reasons.
 

5. Interact on their terms. Prepare for the terms to change at any time.
 

At thirteen, friending and following your kids is important. But keep the interaction with them about what they’re doing online offline unless you’re invited in. Among parents we’ve interviewed, the majority say they don’t like, tag, or post on their kids’ platforms, but if their kids tag, post, or interact with them online they reciprocate. It’s a bit of a dance, and the song can change midway across the floor.

The other night my daughter and I were looking at something together on social media on my phone, and she said, “Why didn’t you like that picture?” I explained that I was trying to give her space and not like or comment on her posts, and she promptly grabbed by phone and liked her own post. This week she doesn’t mind her friends seeing that I’m associated with her. Next week might be a different story. Flex and keep dancing. It’s not really about you.
 

BONUS: Tap into trusted adults.
 

One of the first things my daughter did after creating an Instagram account was scroll through my feed and follow a number of adult friends, many of them from church—adults who know her and who were happy to follow her back. Though sometimes I wince a little when someone mentions my daughter’s social media feed on a Sunday morning, truthfully there’s also some relief in knowing that I don’t have to be the only adult tracking what kinds of interactions are taking place on social media. Other adults she trusts and who can be places of honesty and grace (both digitally and face-to-face) are part of this journey too. And even if later she abandons this adult-saturated platform for something more peer-focused (as older teens tend to do), she’s starting out with a support network in place.

If you have a young teen in your life, how are you keeping your sanity about social media and digital interaction?

This post is part of a series celebrating our newest parent resource, Right Click. Feel like your kids are drowning in a sea of new questions, apps, and devices? Want to talk about digital media more with your kids, but aren’t sure how? Focused on helping parents think and talk differently about digital media, Right Click equips families like yours to approach this new connected world like a team. What’s your #rightclick?


We try to keep things “fair” among our kids. At least sort of.

Nathan started making his own lunch in second grade. When Krista and Jessica entered second grade, we expected the same of them.

Krista got her ears pierced when she was ten. When Jessica turns ten, she will have that same opportunity.

We’re not always perfect. Far from it. But we don’t want our kids to think we play favorites.

But we’ve told all our kids that technology won’t be fair.

Just because Nathan was allowed to set up a Facebook account when he turned 13 doesn’t mean the girls will get the same social media access.

Even though Nathan got a smart phone when he turned 14 (he was one of the last kids in his grade to get one), Krista shouldn’t assume one will head her way when she hits that age. Nor should Jessica.

When it comes to technology, we’ve told our kids that they need to show us they are responsible.
 

There are two types of responsibility.

 
The first is taking care of your devices.
And for our child who left their “dumb phone” (as they call it) in their shorts and it went through our washing machine, you lost some responsibility points that day. (And yes, that child had to spend their own money to replace that phone, which luckily for them, wasn’t all that expensive).

But that’s the easier type of responsibility. It’s pretty clear-cut for everyone.

The second type of responsibility—showing us you make good choices in how you use technology and digital media—is much tougher. For our kids. And for us.

Some of the questions we’re discerning as we assess their progress in that type of responsibility are:

  • Do you obey the guidelines that our family has agreed upon in terms of when, how, and where you can use your devices?
  • Do you have a history of making good decisions when new temptations or opportunities arise that we don’t have rules about?
  • Is your technology helping or hindering your relationships with our family? I love it when my two older kids text me. I hate it when I’m trying to talk to my kids and I can tell they are distracted by the presence of their devices (even if they aren’t on their devices, if those devices are nearby, they still have a strong gravitational pull).
  • Is the way you use technology affecting your homework or chores? One of our children had been skyping with friends while doing homework. Social life benefitted, but grades suffered. So the rule with that child is now “no skyping until homework is done.” We haven’t set up that rule with the other two. They haven’t seemed to need it. So far.

Parents, be fair in other areas. But you do not need to be fair with your child’s exposure to technology and digital media. The stakes are too high. Know each child and create the best support and boundaries for them individually.

What else do you do to try to assess if your kid’s ready for the social media portal or device they are begging for?