New Research About Teens, Social Media, & What They Need from Us: Not as Complicated as it Seems

Photo by Jordan McQueen.

My friend Eric, a local youth pastor, recently told me how a Ping-Pong table was revolutionizing his youth group.

“All I did,” he told me, “was buy the table. Now the kids are there all the time! I can’t get rid of them!” Eric was shocked to discover that such a seemingly old-fashioned form of entertainment could attract a bunch of young people who have so many high-tech options vying for their time and attention. 

What happened with Eric and his Ping-Pong table is interesting in light of the findings of a new book coming out this week called, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. The book is the product of a ten-year research project coordinated and conducted by danah boyd,[[This is not a typo, danah boyd does not capitalize the first letter of her first and last name. If you want to know why, she explains it here]] a senior researcher at Microsoft, professor at New York University, and Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Boyd’s thesis in the book is essentially this: Once upon a time, young people had some unstructured time to play and socialize in between the end-of-day bell at school and the dinner bell at home. They could ride bikes around the neighborhood, go to the mall, play pick-up games at a nearby park, start a garage band, and so on.

Now, as the result of a variety of culturally-conditioned parental (and other adult) fears and anxieties, many of which boyd outlines in detail in the book, this kind of unstructured, unsupervised social time has basically been eliminated from the lives of young people today.

What boyd found instead was that today’s teenagers are using social media to do what previous generations had done face to face. Because there is no time and place in their lives exclusively dedicated to talking with friends about how creepy the algebra teacher is, who they want to ask to the spring dance, and that funny thing that happened at lunch, teens now have these conversations via social media.

As boyd puts it: “Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other…They’re not allowed to hang out the way you and I did, so they’ve moved it online.”

My friend Eric discovered, as if by accident, what boyd found in her research. Contrary to the assumptions of many adults, teens would rather hang out face-to-face over a Ping-Pong table than through a computer screen, with the caveat that they can do so in a somewhat unstructured environment, without overbearing adult supervision.

As one of the teens boyd interviewed told her, “I don’t care where, just not home.”  

Perhaps the success of Eric’s Ping-Pong table has nothing to do with the timeless appeal of swatting paddles at plastic balls. He created a space where parents know their kids are safe, and a place where the kids want to go. There is no league, no ministry “objective” of strategic relational connection, no Bible lesson at the end of each game—he just created a place where the young people in his group can hang out together and have a lot of the conversations that might otherwise happen digitally, face-to-face.

That doesn’t mean all of our youth rooms should revert back to the “if you build it, they will come” model of attractional ministry. But it adds a new layer to the conversation about the role of “hang-out time,” and the role social media is playing in young people’s lives that could be met in other ways. Perhaps even ways the church is uniquely positioned to serve.

If one thing is clear from boyd’s book, it is that today’s teens are desperately craving the opportunity to have more of these types of offline social interaction with their friends.

That, to me, sounds like a golden opportunity for churches and youth ministries.

How have you seen this play out in your ministry context?

What other ideas do you have for helping give students opportunities for face-to-face interaction?