Could teenagers’ social media use help them form intimate relationships?

Brad M. Griffin | Nov 14, 2012

“Everyone put away your phones now.”

How many times have you given that instruction to a group of students, to your family, or in some other gathering?

While I think we certainly need to think through appropriate boundaries for technology (and I’m still going to give this directive), it’s interesting to me that more research is revealing the “why” behind the appeal of social connection through digital technology.

It’s not about the novelty of the latest technology. Or at least not entirely.

For many teenagers, the obsession with Facebook, texting, and other forms of social media engagement is really about something much deeper. Perhaps their pursuit of digital connection is actually an attempt to find a platform for shaping intimate relationships in the absence of (or in addition to) opportunities to do so face to face.

Angela Williams explored some of this in an article for FYI entitled “Presence, Hospitality, and Facebook.” She concludes, “When Christians engage with others in practices of presence and hospitality, the church becomes a picture of a different way of socializing, on Facebook or otherwise.”

My friend Andrew Zirschky recently wrote a great three-part article series over at the Center for Youth Ministry Training about the question of intimacy through technology. Citing researcher danah boyd, Andrew notes that young people’s desire to belong and to be known drives them to utilize social media to create “full-time intimate communities” in which communication, feedback, and emotional support are ever-present.

Andrew suggests that the ways we present “connection” within our ministries often feel like “faceless interactions” lacking depth or sustained relationship. He wonders:

It turns out that what young people seek through social media is a quality of relationship present in Christian koinonia, which offers a community in which youth are known to the point of identification with God and others. It is in the communion of the Holy Spirit that the human desire for connection, so poignantly expressed through young people’s use of social media, is ultimately fulfilled.

In other words, the church has been prepared by God to offer young people the very thing they seek, but we’ve substituted faceless fellowship and disconnected belonging. And we’ve left the establishment of anything deeper to other venues including the online world of social media.

This doesn’t mean we should just create a Facebook group or mindlessly employ text messaging strategies for our ministries. It means we think carefully about how to utilize these technologies (or decide not to do so) in our formation of true communion.

  • How have you seen teenagers seek intimacy through social media?
  • How do you tend to utilize social media in your ministry?
  • What ideas do you have for capturing the “best” of social media’s ability to enhance relationships while minimizing the negative impact it can have on relating face to face?
  • What ideas do you have for rethinking the ways we shape our ministries to form deeper connections overall?
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.

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