Help teenagers find belonging in a digital world
The digital world can be a great space for connection, but as anyone who has spent much time online knows, it can also be complicated and painful. Especially for your students.
Like most of his peers, Michael—a high school senior—spends a few hours each day on Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and text messaging. He sees this as pretty normal teen behavior. But he also worries about the downsides of technology: “I feel like our security is in technology. You don’t want to talk to people, so you just text them or something like that. I just feel like we have lost a sense of having a real relationship with people around us and having face-to-face conversations.”
Another teenager, Arthur, describes the complicated advantages and disadvantages of technology: “Social media and texting help me talk with my friends and get closer to them. But social media also helps people badmouth others, which people have done to me. So I cut off my social contact with those people. So yeah, for me, it goes both ways. I agree that it can do good, but it can potentially also do bad.”
That “doing bad” includes exclusion and bullying. One Black student who was a minority at her school described how other students used her race as a weapon against her on social media.
These students and other teenagers we interviewed for our 3 Big Questions research about identity, belonging, and purpose demonstrated that the young people in our ministries need help to learn to think wisely about how they want to show up in digital spaces—and when they need to step back or opt out.
Navigating our digital world
When social media is used to enhance relationships, it can become a useful tool for reducing loneliness. Staying in touch through social media with friends can increase connections for young people.
But the opposite also happens. When social media is used as an escape from in-person interaction with others, kids lose out. It can become easy to “hide in plain sight” on devices to protect themselves from rejection—but hiding comes at the cost of increased loneliness.
The teenagers around us need to know that social media has the power to be used for both good and evil. While there may be pitfalls in the digital world, there can also be great opportunities for connection. So young people and adults alike need to think through how we want to interact on social media, gaming, virtual reality, and other digital spaces.
When it comes to setting boundaries and establishing ground rules around online engagement, our students likely experience a wide variety of guidance from parents. As youth workers, our default posture should be to support parents’ intentions unless we see reason for concern (in which case our first course of action will nearly always be to talk with the parent or caregiver to understand, unless we believe the student is experiencing abuse at home). But middle and high school students can also begin developing their own personal boundaries, ground rules, and intentions when it comes to how they interact in digital spaces and how these interactions impact their sense of belonging (as well as their sense of identity and purpose).
Our unique vantage point as leaders can be useful to support this growth. We can ask questions that explore how our students are really feeling about how social media, gaming, texting, and other digital interactions are shaping their relationships.
Don’t expect this to look the same for every student. I know teenagers who opt out of social media but spend hours gaming online with friends, while others jump from platform to platform in seamless ongoing dialogue. You probably have students in your ministry who only interact digitally with people they know “irl” (in real life), while others have developed a network of relationships far beyond in-person encounters.
Conversations with teenagers about how tech impacts belonging
Here are a few conversation ideas you can use to process with students in your ministry, drawn from our new student devotional, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future:
1. Ask questions like:
- What are your favorite and least favorite social things to do on digital devices? What do you get out of that time?
- Have you been able to make new or deeper connections through digital communication? What is special about those connections?
- What’s one way you can be wise as you navigate the online world?
2. Encourage a student or group of students to take an “audit” of their online life by asking:
- Check the amount of time you spend each day/week on particular devices, platforms, and games.
- Ask yourself why you’re showing up in these spaces.
- Notice how you feel after spending time on social media or gaming.
- Moving forward, consider what new boundaries you want to set for what you’ll do and who you’ll interact with online.
3. Read Scripture that might inform how we shape our digital lives.
While the Bible may not speak directly to social media and the internet, it has plenty to say about how we interact with one another and the impact of what we consume. We can foster belonging and true connection wherever and however we’re with others.
For example, take a week to read Colossians 3:12-17 each day and meditate on how this passage might impact how we relate with others in digital spaces:
“Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.”
Belonging can be tough for adolescents, period.
That’s why it’s one of the three biggest questions they grapple with in middle and high school, and on into young adulthood. While the digital world can make belonging more complicated and confusing, let’s let young people know they don’t have to walk through these experiences alone.
Tweet this: The digital world can make belonging more complicated and confusing. Let’s let teens know they don’t have to walk through it alone. Here are 3 conversations to have with a teen in your life.
*This content is adapted with permission from Kara Powell, Kristel Acevedo, and Brad M. Griffin, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future: A 60-Day Exploration of Who You Were Made to Be, published by Baker Books, 2022.
A 60-day devotional to help teens answer life's biggest questions
Every teenager wants to know: Who am I? How will my life matter? Where do I fit? Based on FYI’s landmark research in 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, this all-new student devotional will help teenagers find Jesus’ best answers to their three biggest questions.
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