How is Christmas Comparison Robbing You of Holiday Joy?

Shares Dec 18, 2014 Kara Powell

Photo by Sarah Goldschadt.

One friend collects ornaments from all her family trips, so her memory-filled tree looks amazing. In stark contrast, most of the ornaments on the Powell family tree come from boxed sets we bought on clearance years ago.

Another friend makes multiple homemade treats for her family and friends during December. Through the month of December, we Powells continue our usual dinner routine of simple four-ingredient-or-less dinners, with leftovers on subsequent evenings.

Still another friend decorates the outside of his house to look like a winter wonderland. We Powells spend four minutes tossing some Christmas lights into our bushes and call it done.

I can’t keep up with my friends.

But here’s the good news:  I don’t have to.

As parents, we worry that the holidays will cause our kids to compare their gifts with their friends’. But if we substitute the word “experiences” for “gifts,” then we’ve named a comparison trap that we adults are prone to experience. We might not care as much about what our friends receive as gifts, but we can easily feel insecure if other families’ holidays seem more peaceful. Or more memorable. Or more homemade. Or more fill-in-the-blank-with-any-adjective-you-want.

But here’s what I know about family holidays:

  1. We often only see other people’s best, while we’re well aware of our worst.

    Families don’t always look as cheerful as on Christmas cards, and houses aren’t usually as clean as they are for holiday parties. That other shiny family has its own dull moments also.
  2. Comparison is never good. 

    If I compare myself to others who are in a particularly hard season, it’s easy to feel smug and proud. If I compare myself to others who have it “better” than me, it’s easy to feel insecure and ungrateful. There’s no good that comes from comparison.
  3. Every family does the holidays differently. Figure out how you do holidays best.

    Your holiday will look different from your neighbor’s, or your best friend’s, or mine. That’s great. You have different traditions. You have different family rhythms. You have different family members.
  4. Show yourself and your family members grace when that supposed “special moment” falters.

    Sometimes our actual experiences will fail to match our vision for what that experience could be like. People are grumpy when it’s time to decorate the Christmas tree. Your kids don’t thank others for gifts as you’d like. When (not if, but when) your family experiences fail to live up to your expectations, remind yourself that God shows us grace constantly. We can show the same to our family.

This holiday season let’s stop comparing our worst to other people’s best.

Via Media X6: Flirting, Dating & Relationships in the Cloud

Shares Dec 17, 2014 Art Bamford

Photo by Nino Ortiz.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.

In this final installment of our panel discussion, we’ll get some of the best tips and strategies our contributing leaders have concerning how to help young people navigate digital technology as they begin to date.

Fuller Youth Institute: The whole process of flirting, dating, being in relationships, and the like has changed quite a bit thanks to digital tech. As you talk with teenagers about this, how do you address the issues of what is helpful and appropriate (or not) in romantic relationships online as opposed to in “real life”?  


Annie Neufeld: Students will often tell me about having “conversations” with peers of the opposite gender when they really mean they were communicating by text. Ultimately during these “conversations” there are generally misunderstandings, mixed messages, and hurt feelings. I tend to tell students to make a general rule that they will not have important conversations over text. Wait to be in person or at least have conversations over the phone.

I also advise our young women to not put too much hope in “flirting” over text. Young people are so much less inhibited over text—they say and do things that they would never say or do in person. This gives our young women and men a false impression of the other person. It also creates a false sense of intimacy—it is often difficult to maintain the same kind of texted witty banter in real life…and then everything gets confusing.


Billy Jack Blankenship: I definitely think a good rule of thumb is to never argue or fight over text, and young people are often the worst about this. All you get from texts are the words—no tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. That makes it incredibly easy for miscommunications to happen, or for people to say things that they wouldn’t face-to-face or over the phone.


Annie: Sadly, it is simply part of our culture that young people are hard-wired to have difficult conversations in this manner. And why wouldn’t they? Why would you want to risk rejection face to face when you can do it over text? This is a difficult habit to break in our young people, but I think it is essential to their ability to learn what real connection feels like with someone of the opposite sex.


Billy Jack: I encourage young people that all digital conversations should lead to, or point to conversations in person. “I miss you, when can I see you next?” as opposed to “I miss you, let’s text for the next hour.” I try to model this behavior too—when my wife calls or texts I will call back and let her know that we will talk it through in person. We only text quick details. Similarly with students, if we text back and forth past a few minutes I tell them we need to talk in person—let’s set up a time to talk.


Brad Howell: We need to develop healthy habits when using digital tools to nurture relationships. There is a host of things we could discuss, but top of the list should be any activities that deny another person’s full humanness. In relationships I think this involves being mindful about whether we are using technology to try to control or manipulate other people for our own purposes.


Annie: We have to show students—even though it is so awkward, that you can actually love someone better in person through empathy and respect; your ability to have difficult conversations improves every time you have one. Getting in touch with difficult feelings doesn’t have to be scary and can point to Jesus—vulnerability is a good thing and is a window to God’s heart. As the adults in their lives we have to show them that there is something more valuable than avoiding awkwardness.


FYI: It might be helpful to note here that research has found that many young people worry about parents taking away digital privileges if kids share about negative experiences. As a result, young people “are unlikely to be the ones to bring up the subject.”[1] It is helpful for parents to be really clear that honesty (within reasonable limits) will not be used as an opportunity to take away their privileges. The way young people incorporate digital technology into their relationships may seem foreign or unnatural to us, but it is important that our focus remains on the who rather than only the how.


[1] Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2013). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. Basic Books. p. 101


Christmas Cards are Liars

Shares Dec 16, 2014 Kara Powell

Photo by Kasia.

The Powell family Christmas cards include a picture like this:



Cute family, right?  Love them to death.

But here’s another picture our photographer took a few moments earlier. Truly, we weren’t trying to fool around in this picture. She just captured us in a very Powell moment.



Looking back, I should have put both these pictures on our Christmas card. Because both represent all of who we are. The full spectrum of the Powell family.

I cherish every Christmas card I receive. I open them, put them in a basket on my kitchen counter, and then re-read them a second time over Christmas break. I love seeing and reading about my friends’ and family’s years. 

But let’s be honest:  No Christmas card ever tells the full truth. It’s impossible to; there just isn’t space. Plus we inevitably filter out the less pleasant parts of our family, or our year, and showcase only the highlights. (Same thing with social media. We’re prone to share our highs and hide our lows.)

It’s too late for me to re-do my Christmas card. They’re already ordered and on their way to our house for our family to stuff, stamp, and label. But as each of us opens Christmas cards and sees our friends’ and family’s smiling faces, let’s remember that life has both grins and tears. And let’s celebrate that Jesus—the Emmanuel—is with us through it all.

3 Parenting Questions for Brooklyn Lindsey

Shares Dec 16, 2014 Kara Powell

This post is part of a series celebrating the release of the new Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family. We’re interviewing parents who serve, think, and write about faith, family, and ministry.

Our latest three-question interview is with Brooklyn Lindsey. Brooklyn writes about youth ministry, parenting, and faith, serves students, and is an advocate for justice. She parents two daughters alongside her husband Coy, who is also a pastor.

So often we hear about all the negative impacts of being a pastor’s kid. How do you hope being a pastor’s kid positively shapes your children?

Last year during our youth ministry gatherings I noticed that my oldest daughter (7) was becoming more engaged in our Wednesday night group. She would sit on the front row with the teenagers who have loved taking care of her during the first years of her life. She sits in a way that reminds me of how brand new 6th graders sit on the front row. Wide-eyed, quiet, taking everything in.

I have to remember that she’s 7 and not 11, that she’s little, not yet big. The positive of this is that she is seeing herself as big before she actually is. She is imagining faith in the future as she watches kids who are older than her worship, learn, and serve. She sees what I do and wants to help. Sometimes I let her give a point of my talk or ask her to have a conversation with me on stage. I want her to know that our relationship is real life just as much as my preaching position is. Her voice is valuable just us much as mine. 

As a middle school pastor, what mistakes do you see parents of middle schoolers making?

There are two mistakes I see middle school parents making. 1) They struggle seeing their child as a becoming adult. 2) They miss the chance to lean on God in prayer more than they ever have before.

A couple of years ago I started meeting with middle school parents once a month on Sunday mornings for a parent and youth leader forum. We talked about developmental changes, the differences between guys and girls, texting and social media, spiritual formation, discipline and freedom. Every parent brings a different set of experiences because their child is the only child just like theirs.

I feel like the mistake that parents make is letting this truth—that their child is unique and different—block their vision from important steps their kids may need to take. Many believe that certain tasks and responsibilities are important to learn in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, but their feelings that their child is still a child keep them from acting on them. I may say, “it’s time to let your young teen make some mistakes on their own.” A parent may say, “yes, that’s a good idea.” But their imagination hasn’t shifted yet to their child becoming an adult, one who is going to need to know how to communicate, act, and respond like one.

Sometimes this means bringing their 11 year-old into the adult worship service, even when they feel like “they’re too young and too distracted” for it. Sometimes this means having important conversations about uncomfortable topics. Sometimes this means loosening the structure to give their kids a place to find themselves in it. And because we love our children more than life itself, we forget that God loves us like that and wants us to give our desires for ourselves and for our children to him. Parents get so busy trying to make sure that everything in their child’s life is as perfect as it can be that they forget that the perfect love of God is able to hold all of our concerns and challenges in a place of peace.

What has your own church’s children’s ministry leadership done to empower you as a parent?

The coolest thing our children’s ministry has done to empower me as a parent was to partner with us. They recently chose to implement Orange Strategy—a strategy that combines the light of the church and the heart of the family. Every week we receive what we need to share God’s love and truth with our children. They believe that we’ll be the most influential people in our kid’s lives when it comes to their faith formation so the shift to helping us do that better has been incredibly empowering and helpful.

3 Parenting Questions for Virginia Ward

Shares Dec 11, 2014 Kara Powell

This post is part of a series celebrating the release of the new Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family. We’re interviewing parents who serve, think, and write about faith, family, and ministry.

I am grateful this week to share a three-question interview with my friend Virginia Ward. Virginia is a mother of two and urban youth ministry veteran on the East Coast. Virginia serves with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship Black Campus Ministries as the New England BCM Director.

You and your husband are both in full-time ministry. In what ways has that been a blessing for your kids? In what ways has it been a burden for them?

The environment full-time ministry provides allowed for our sons to have both parents present in their formative years. We attended sporting events, took family vacations, and made sure their academic path was supported straight through college. 

My husband and I are third generation pastor's kids. We understand the pressure of living in a glass bowl with the expectation of being “perfect Christians.” At times it was difficult to provide space for them to own their faith and walk the tightrope of being a pastoring parent. Open and honest conversations about faith as a family proved to be a great tool in developing spiritually mature young men. 

Your kids are now young adults. Looking back, what did you do well as a parent? What do you wish you had done differently?

The best gift I feel we offered our sons consisted of lasting memories from their childhood. Every birthday was celebrated, holidays honored, and each family member respected. We grew together as a family and were not afraid to apologize when we, as parents, were wrong or acted out of anger.

Although we had family devotions and taught our children to pray at an early age, I would have loved to continue praying together as a family more often. As our sons grew their schedules varied and family devotions were reduced. Prayer is binding glue to any family, and I still enjoy our prayer times as family today.

Much of your life has revolved around urban ministry. How has your time in urban contexts enhanced your family life?

I believe urban ministry has a pulse like no other ministry! Our family understands the complexity of urban life, and each member is able to thrive in multiple settings. Raising two African-American sons in the city is a blessing because they have learned how to make critical choices daily. We have also watched them share their blessings with their peers.

Urban ministry has enhanced our family life in three key areas. Ministry in the city:

1. Calls us to seek the peace of the city through prayer. 

2. Draws us to do our part to help build our city.

3. Reminds us to ask the Lord of the harvest for more laborers.

Our family is vested in the city and loves the people of our communities. We understand that we are a blessed family who is called to bless other families. 

Via Media X5: Sexting

Shares Dec 10, 2014 Art Bamford

Photo by jcarlough.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.

Read X1  |  Read X2  |  Read X3  |  Read X4  |  Read X5

Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this installment we’ll explore the conversations these leaders have had with parents and young people about the more recent phenomenon known as sexting.

Fuller Youth Institute: There is a lot of parental concern about sexting, but recent research suggests that the percentage of young people who have appeared in, created, or received sexually suggestive images is about 10%; and for explicit messages around 1%.[1] Then again, as we explained in an earlier post [link to the mini-series intro], it is tricky to discern how much confidence to put into research on sensitive topics like this.

What has been your experience with sexting, both in terms of it happening among young people you know and also in the perceptions of how pervasive it is?

Mike Park: Most of the young people that I talk to (and this could confirm the premise of the question) say that sexting does happen but that they don’t do it themselves.

Matt Laidlaw: Similarly, in my conversations with students, all of them are “aware” of sexting but most haven’t participated in it. That said, I have talked to a number of young women who have experienced sexting and bullying simultaneously—male students were manipulating their friendships with these girls in order to receive inappropriate pictures from them. For these girls, this bullying impacted how they viewed themselves for a long time. They hated that these guys talked to them like that, and hated that they “gave in” and sent the boys what they wanted. If we want to talk about sexting, we need to keep talking more broadly about identity, forgiveness, and healthy relationships with our young men and women.

FYI: You’re right about the premise of the question; people tend to read statements like “10% of teens” as one in every ten teens, but phenomena like this happen more or less in different contexts. So one school might have 0% of students sexting whereas another could have 30%. It varies quite a bit.

Brad Howell: The perception of sexting’s pervasiveness is much higher than it actually is, and some adults talk as if apps like Snapchat exist only so teens can share naked pictures of themselves without getting caught. That being said, this 1% stat seems low to me. It may be true if it includes a wider age range of adolescents, as sexting is more of a high school issue. It gets going around 15 years old, and the rates increase until about age 17, where it seems to stabilize and remains consistent into adulthood. Either way, mid-adolescents understand that they have the ability to affect others, but do not have the life experience to understand the ripple effects (or relational consequences) of those actions.

Adam McLane: I think it is important to frame sexting by looking back at history and recognizing that there have always been versions of this type of adolescent behavior. Yes, a percentage of teenagers share sexually explicit stuff. But not all of them do—the perception seems to be that if you leave a teenager alone with their phone they will pull down their pants and snap a photo! While I don’t think sexting is a good thing, I tend to see it as “normal, deviant behavior.” In other words, the same kids who are exchanging sexually explicit images today are the exact same characters who tried to get a girl to take her top off at a high school party in the 1990s. That said, I think there needs to be a line of delineation between self-created explicit images versus finding explicit images online and sharing them. The latter seems more common than the former, much more common than 10% in my opinion.

FYI: Here are a few additional insights on sexting:

  • Since 2009, a number of state governments have passed laws that address sexting. These laws are aimed primarily at child pornography, but most do not allow for two minors to voluntarily share explicit images. Parents and leaders should inquire as to what the law is in their state and make sure young people are aware.
  • As we have said often throughout this series: online behavior tends to be very consistent with offline behavior. Parents should gauge their concern about sexting according to their concern about how sexually active their son or daughter is offline.

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[1] Ybarra, M. L., & Mitchell, K. J. (2014). “Sexting” and Its Relation to Sexual Activity and Sexual Risk Behavior in a National Survey of Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health; Mitchell, K. J., Jones, L., Finkelhor, D., & Wolak, J. (2014) Trends in Unwanted Online Experiences and Sexting. White Paper by The Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire.



Via Media X4: When teenagers think porn teaches them about real sex

Shares Dec 04, 2014 Art Bamford

Photo by Ian Broyles.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.

Read X1  |  Read X2  |  Read X3  |  Read X4  |  Read X5

Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this third installment of our roundtable, we’ll be discussing how to address the false belief among young people that pornography is real sex education.

Fuller Youth Institute: Researchers have found that a lot of young men see viewing pornography “as education about proper sexual technique” despite the fact that what is depicted in porn is not realistic, normal, or healthy.[1] Ironically, a recent study found that porn, in effect, ruins a couple’s sex life—a higher frequency of porn use among young men was “related to greater gender role conflict, more avoidant and anxious attachment styles, poorer relationship quality, and less sexual satisfaction.”[2]

Fuller Youth Institute: Do you think it is possible to tactfully address or combat this misperception that porn is somehow educational during adolescence rather than waiting until adulthood, when it is more appropriate to talk about, but the damage may have already been done?

Adam McLane: We’ve talked about this in my small group with high school guys. The sad reality is that porn is about the closest thing they’ve had to sex education—schools have outdated and uncomfortable sex ed and their parents are absolutely not talking about it. So my small group is about ten guys including two married adult men, and we have “myth-busting” moments for sure! More than once my co-leader or I have said, “Um, if you really tried that you would either hurt yourself, or your girlfriend would kill you for trying it.” It is worth noting that the young guys in my life have absolutely no problem talking about what they’ve seen in porn or their own sexuality, which can be shocking.

Billy Jack Blankenship: Yeah, I’ve had some of the most honest conversations ever with early college students. I think the only way to enlighten older teens about how ridiculous porn is, is to talk with openness, with clarity, and talking specifics. In the many conversations I’ve had, I have never had a student, male or groups of females, tell me I am being too honest or candid. My best piece of advice would be to locate a trusted adult outside of the family that a teen knows, loves, and respects, and ask that adult to journey with teens on these issues—and that is applicable to lots of tough issues, not just porn. This is where the value of intergenerational relationships is so vital. Find people who can open the door to talk about and laugh about the pure awkwardness and messiness of sex, and point out how unrealistic and downright fake porn really is.

Annie Neufeld: I feel that in adolescence we can dismantle the mentality that “sex is a craft I can learn how to do independently of a loving relationship.” Watching porn to learn how to “do it” creates rote, detached, impersonal sex—and this is both unfulfilling and not how we were created to live. I think it is appropriate to set a high standard for sex and talk about this with adolescents by talking about how God created sex to be good by creating intimacy, connection, wonder, and commitment. Watching porn to “improve your skills” doesn’t belong in the category of Christian sex because Christian sex always involves honoring another person in marriage rather than simply “doing it right.”

Mike Park: I think it’s absolutely necessary to talk about this misperception during adolescence. Helping young men and women understand sex in the context of a committed and mutually-giving relationship between a husband and wife is vital. A lot of the young men that I talk to understand that sex is more than just a physical act but don’t yet fully understand the emotional and spiritual implications. Helping young men to understand these aspects of a sexual relationship gives them the chance to see sex beyond the faulty façade of pornography.

Brad Howell: I also want to underscore that we are talking about spiritual disciplines here. When I was a teen, and during the early years of my youth ministry, the message to teens was typically an in your face: “Don’t do it! Promise us! Here, sign this card to show us you mean it!” Spiritual disciplines are about training, and practicing responses that demonstrate trust in God and not ourselves so that when we face the real thing our instincts are rooted in trusting God. There is this common myth about the young man’s awkward first sexual experience that seems to warrant this excuse of wanting to educate yourself in sexual technique with porn. That is really steeped in a ‘trusting yourself’ versus a ‘trusting God’ mentality. Parents and leaders need to be very strategic about helping young people to develop spiritual practices that train for the kind of committed, mutually respectful relationships that we hope for them to experience. 

FYI: Before we move on to discuss sexting in our next post, we want to note two things researchers have found that effectively reduce the likelihood or frequency with which a young person will view porn: religiosity and good self-esteem. When young people are part of a network of folks who challenge them to higher standards of behavior while also encouraging and affirming them, they are less likely to be drawn to porn. Digital technology has led to a proliferation of porn in recent years, but it is important to remember that parents and adult leaders can and do have a positive impact on the young people in their lives! 

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[1] Regnerus, M. D. (2009). Forbidden fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.  Oxford University Press, USA.

[2] Szymanski, D. M., & Stewart-Richardson, D. N. (2014). Psychological, Relational, and Sexual Correlates of Pornography Use on Young Adult Heterosexual Men in Romantic Relationships. The Journal of Men's Studies, 22(1), 64-82.


Via Media X3: Talking about pornography with young women

Shares Dec 03, 2014 Art Bamford

Photo by Susan Sermoneta.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.

Read X1  |  Read X2  |  Read X3  |  Read X4  |  Read X5

Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this second installment of our roundtable, we’ll be discussing how to help parents and leaders interact with young women about pornography.

Fuller Youth Institute: We were surprised to find that most religiously affiliated young women interviewed by researchers about porn spoke very negatively about it, but not as morally or religiously offensive. They described it strictly in terms of being degrading towards women. In your experience, would you say that churches typically exclude young women from discussions about porn? How do you approach the fact that it affects both genders, even if the majority of women do not view porn?

Annie Neufeld: Most of the time when we talk about pornography in middle or high school ministry we separate girls and boys. In our effort to make an awkward conversation a little less awkward, we separate genders. I think this is appropriate in middle school, but we could perhaps push the “awkward threshold” a bit in high school, and certainly in college.

Adam McLane: I think the days of separating male and females to talk about sex and/or porn is quickly fading. I’ve found both sexes are equally open to talking about it, it just takes the adult to break the ice. Teenagers totally grasp that it is worth talking and thinking about how porn is degrading to women, and also that it is a social justice issue, since a lot of porn is sexually exploitative.

Annie: I also feel that our young women approach it as something incredibly perverse, disgusting, and “other”—which sets them up not to have much grace for their male counterparts. When we talk about porn, I want the males to hear how their viewing of porn affects women; how it is demeaning towards women. However, I don’t know if our young women know why it is demeaning to them—they don’t usually stick around in the “awkwardness” of the conversation to get to why it hurts so much. We should reframe this biblically: porn is offensive because it takes image bearers and makes them objects. That is true for both young men and young women who are looking at porn.

Billy Jack Blankenship: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that. This past school year we had two college-aged Christian women share their stories, and talk openly about their addictions to porn. It was refreshing to hear their honesty and authenticity, and it was very eye opening that this is not just a male issue. Churches do typically exclude women from these discussions, and when they are included it is to talk about “how they are viewed/portrayed.” There is a very real issue of degrading women, but porn is degrading of everyone!

Annie: Exactly, I want the males and females in the community to hear how their viewing of porn affects the whole. They are members of the Body of Christ, what they do affects the whole community. When one part suffers, we all suffer. Sexuality is meant to be personal but not private—our sexual lives affect everyone else in our community. It’s not just up to “me and Jesus.”

Brad Howell: This reminds of how, in the Victorian era, brothels existed because sex was considered moral only for procreation, and there was a prevailing misconception that men just couldn’t handle themselves. So brothels were viewed with distaste, but tolerated. I think we’re doing a similar thing with porn in our culture today—disdain but toleration.

FYI: When sex is a private issue, it is easy to have disdain for certain things but still tolerate them since they don’t seem to involve us personally. When it is a community issue, we all get more invested.

Billy Jack: I think porn, and our culture more broadly, can easily train us to look at others as objects to be used for our own personal gain of pleasure or power—without thinking about what it means to be in true, committed, loving relationships. It is not about creating rules that dictate whether or not to look at something, but rather thinking about who we are in our relationships.

Matt Laidlaw: But I have to say, it is probably difficult for youth pastors to know how to address the ways porn impacts both genders because the majority of youth pastors are men. Only one side of the experience and conversation is represented by the person leading the conversation, which can also feel degrading towards women in a number of ways if that speaker is always a man.

Mike Park: There is a significant amount of shame associated with viewing porn for both young men and women, but I would venture to guess the shame factor is higher for young women because they are supposed to be offended by it.  We are finding that more and more young women in college are open about talking about it, and a truly safe environment is essential to allow those conversations to happen.


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Via Media X2: Responding to Pornography

Shares Dec 02, 2014 Art Bamford

Photo by Liis Klammer.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people, and a multipart roundtable on issues related to sexuality.

Read X1  |  Read X2  |  Read X3  |  Read X4  |  Read X5

Because the research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated, we’re tackling some of these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion (read their bios here). In this first installment of our roundtable, we’ll be discussing how to help parents and leaders address the issue of online pornography.

Fuller Youth Institute (FYI): In dealing with the issue of porn, a lot of the advice given to parents seems to lean towards either total prohibition (e.g. how to get your child to never view porn), or the need to accept it as inevitable—young men are doing this so we need to emphasize restricting their viewing as much as possible. We’re wondering how you negotiate between those two perspectives, and what advice you might share?

Mike Park: Part of the reality of having an adolescent is that it’s almost impossible to regulate all the content they might be viewing, particularly outside the home. Even if they don’t have access to porn at home, that doesn’t mean they’ll never be exposed to it. I encourage parents to create safeguards and boundaries inside the home (keep the computer in an open area, utilize Internet security software, etc.) but also to help their son or daughter to make good choices when (and not if) they get confronted with porn or anything else that is harmful or destructive. 

Billy Jack Blankenship: Most of my interactions are with older teens and emerging adults on college campuses. I will say that the ease and multiple ways students can access pornography is simply overwhelming. We need to stop pretending that parental control is a true option—if a student wants to view porn, they can.

I think it is valid to acknowledge that it is a normal, natural thing to be drawn to such overt sexual content. But that being said, settling for “well, it is inevitable” is also falling short of our responsibility of raising healthy adults in this area of their lives. While teens have such easy and multifaceted ways to access porn, it doesn’t mean they have to look, or fixate on it, or even have to want to look.

Adam McLane: I wouldn’t say I fall in the inevitability category, but I do fall in the grace category. Even a casual user of the Internet is going to stumble upon (accidentally or purposefully) porn. In our house the rule is simple: no one, parents included, may use an Internet-connected device in a private space of the house.

Brad Howell: I like to suggest a different model of thinking along the lines of what Adam has described—that the Internet is public space. By embracing this mental model, connected devices do not belong in private spaces, such as bedrooms.

Of course this doesn’t solve everything, but the benefit to kids is that it helps them learn how to navigate in a world that desperately wants porn to be normative.

I think the claims of universal porn use among young men (and its growing acceptance and use among young women) primarily serves porn producers who want to normalize it, and organizations that profit from scaring parents. Neither serve our youth.

FYI: Regarding the ubiquitous nature of X-rated content, one of the popular solutions we hear about are content filters and blockers. The effectiveness of these is debatable and they can raise trust issues between parents and teens. Weigh the pros and cons for us based on your experience with teens and parents.

Matt: I think you could say that much of the role for parents is knowing how, what, and when to “filter” and “content block” the world on behalf of our children. I’m not sure why doing this electronically would be a different issue. However, if buying a filter is a way for parents to feel like they’ve addressed a problem while avoiding actually talking about sex and sexuality with their children, then filters and blockers are much less helpful.

Adam: Filters are useful for one thing and one thing only: accidentally stumbling upon porn. That being said, we don’t use them in our house and I discourage others to because when a person buys a tool to parent for them or instead of them, it never works. If your teenager (or an adult) wants to look at porn, a filter isn’t going to stop them.

Mike: Like most preventative measures, filters and blockers work best when introduced early so that they become a regular part of a child’s Internet experience at home. Young people are naturally going to be curious and resist boundaries and guardrails, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in place. If Internet filters create a tension due to lack of trust, it may be symptomatic of a deeper issue that goes beyond just Internet use. But a filter can’t be seen as the end-all-be-all solution. It’s a safeguard, but it can only do so much. 

Brad: As awkward as it is, families need to talk through what protections make sense for your household. Unilaterally slapping teens with blockers frustrates teens and reduces family solidarity.

FYI: Good point. We assume that young people are happy to stumble upon some of this content, but researchers have found that many do not like it at all. It makes them extremely uncomfortable.

Brad: It is easy for adults to fail to realize how many Internet-enabled devices young people actually own. As kids get older, the importance of negotiating any filters and devices increases for all of us. 

Stay tuned for our next post in which our guests will talk specifically about how to include young women when we talk as families and ministries about porn and how it affects the Body of Christ.

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Via Media X1: Sex & Social Media Roundtable

Shares Dec 01, 2014 Art Bamford

Photo by Kimberley Hill.

This is part of an FYI series on navigating digital technology and social media with young people.

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We’re often struck by what we see touted as “new data” in the news. If we look deeper, many of these stories pluck percentages from the last page of journal articles describing a complicated research process.

That approach may be fine with certain subjects or studies, but when the topic involves research on young people and sex, it can lead to pretty dubious oversimplifications.

For example, there have been only a relatively small number of studies on the phenomenon known as sexting. Some of these surveys provided a definition of what the term “sexting” means, others have not. A 2013 review that compared all of these studies found that when young people were asked about sexting without having been given a definition, the percentages who said they had sexted were higher than when researchers did clarify specifically what sexting meant.[1]

Throughout FYI’s Via Media series we have provided parents and leaders with insights from what we think is the best existing research on each of the various topics we’ve explored. However, when it came to concerns related to sex, like sexting and online pornography, we decided to take a slightly different approach and ask youth workers who interact with young people on a regular basis.

The following posts will share insights from a roundtable discussion with several seasoned ministry leaders. But first, we want to briefly identify our concerns about research related to things like sexting and pornography to be clear that we’re not simply choosing to ignore it. Hopefully these insights will help you understand why some research, as it appears in our news media, can do more harm than good.  

Research on sex, social media, and young people is complicated because:

1. There is not much of it

Topics related to sex and young people are notorious among scholars as being some of the most difficult to investigate.[2] Most researchers steer clear of projects involving young people’s sexuality or sexual behaviors due to the institutional approval(s), parental permission, and teen cooperation needed. That’s why most of what we see in popular media is based on informal online polls rather than actual empirical study.

2. Methods are still experimental

Researchers are still in the process of determining what methods are most effective to measure and understand what effect, if any, digital technology is having. Most studies at this point are still focused on finding reliable methods. This points to something worth considering: If the researchers themselves are skeptical about their own data, we probably should be too.

3. Teenagers are awkward

Imagine a young person you know being interviewed by an adult stranger about their sexual behaviors, identity, or attitudes. Do you think they would feel comfortable, or answer honestly? Similarly, do you imagine a 17 year-old male student might respond differently to questions about his sex life when talking with a young adult female interviewer versus an older male one? It is virtually impossible to account for how the various age and gender-related power dynamics in these types of studies skew the results.

We decided to tackle these tougher issues by asking several thoughtful ministry leaders to join us for a roundtable discussion. We hope that hearing their insights and ideas based on experiences with young people will be helpful to you, whether you are a parent or a ministry leader.

In our next few posts we will explore the topics of pornography, sexting, and teaching young people how to use digital technology appropriately as part of their dating and relationship experiences. Our contributors for these conversations will be:

Adam McLane – Partner at The Youth Cartel and Principal at McLane Creative, Adam is the author of several books including A Parent’s Guide to Social Media (with Mark Oestreicher).  

Billy Jack Blankenship – Minister to Children and College at Solana Beach Presbyterian Church and Area Director of YoungLife College for UC San Diego.

Annie Neufeld – Pastor of Children’s and Student Ministries at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, CA. Annie completed her Master of Divinity from Fuller.

Mike Park – Student Integration Pastor at Newsong Church in Irvine, CA.

Matt Laidlaw – Director of Adult Life: Formation + Connection (and former director of Kids + Student Ministries) at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI.

Brad Howell – Associate Director for Fuller Seminary’s Northern California campuses and an instructor in Fuller’s Youth, Family and Culture department. This fall Brad is teaching “Youth and Family Ministry in a Culture of Digital Relationships.”

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[1] Strassberg, D. S., McKinnon, R. K., Sustaíta, M. A., & Rullo, J. (2013). Sexting by high school students: An exploratory and descriptive study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(1), 15-21.

[2] Markham, A. N., & Baym, N. K. (Eds.). (2008). Internet inquiry: Conversations about method. Sage.