Four Things Youth Workers Would Tell Parents About Teenagers, Social Media, and Technology
When we think about Psalm 23 and the Lord as our shepherd, we often have a soft, snuggly feeling. Indeed, the images of lying down in green pastures and walking beside still waters connote a tranquility and comfort. God is indeed a good, kind shepherd who leads us to the peace of Christ.
At the same time, we find fierce images in Psalm 23 as well. The Lord carries a rod, a weapon for defense. With this instrument the Lord protects us from the darkness outside of us. He also wields a staff, which is meant to discipline and pull a sheep back when he starts to walk astray. In this way, God shields us from the darkness inside of us.
As earthly parents, while God calls us to be comforters and nurturers, God also calls us to be protectors. There is darkness in the world to which our children are naive. There is darkness in our sinful hearts which our children do not have a great deal of self-awareness of in their youth.
In no arena do we see both the darkness outside and inside play out more than in the space of technology and social media. These devices can be wonderful ways to connect with friends and family. They also can be the scenes of some of the worst acts and deeds we observe in teenage behavior.
In support of the parent’s role as a defender of his or her kids, I wanted to offer this very hard, very blunt article about obvious technological realities that nearly every youth worker would affirm but that most parents are unaware of.
Before you read on, I think it is important to say that this article might shock and disturb you. I want to offer two reminders. In this life, your child will not be able to escape exposure to evil. Furthermore, your child will sin every day of his or her life, no matter your efforts. Yet Jesus has defeated both the evil in the world and the sin in our hearts. His gospel is greater than any trouble your child might find.
1. Behind your back, kids will tell their youth pastor that they resist technological restrictions at home, but they know their parents are doing the wise thing.
I have heard of children resisting their parents to the point of death on any technology restrictions. “Why do you hate me? Why are you ruining my life?” Oh yes, almost any parent of an adolescent has heard similar laments. I have seen students shut their parents out for weeks because they limited their Netflix viewing to a certain number of minutes per day.
At the same time, teenagers will admit to youth workers that they respect and often appreciate that their parents set up these boundaries. Some kids tell us that they feel some sense of relief when their parents will not let them use their phones on family trips or when they take phones up at night. Many kids are addicted to technology and they cannot imagine giving up devices at any point, but social media in particular creates as much anxiety and stress for them as any source in their lives. While they will never admit this to parents, they know that boundaries and protections on technology are good.
(2) If your son has unfettered access to the internet, he is almost definitely looking at pornography.
I remember traveling to visit a friend in college. I walked into his house and discovered that pornographic magazines were in every single room of the house. As a committed Christian, I vowed to keep my eyes pure for the next 48-hours. That resistance lasted about three hours. For most teenage boys — and I mean 98% — the allure of readily available porn is overpowering. This is why God tells us to “flee sexual temptation,” meaning to physically remove yourself from the situation (1 Cor. 6:18).
For a teenage boy to have a phone with no internet restrictions means he is walking around with an endless supply of pornography in his pocket all the time. When he lies down to sleep at night or goes into a bathroom stall, all of the porn he could ever want is sitting their enticing him all of the time. iPhones and other smart devices have very effective parental controls to eliminate your son’s access to anything inappropriate. (Side note: checking your kid’s Internet history is not a sufficient measure. It is easy to selectively erase internet history.)
(3) If your son or daughter has SnapChat, they are being exposed to awful things or being enabled to do awful things.
This is a tough one to swallow and your child will deny it, but I promise you this is true. If your daughter has SnapChat, she is being solicited for naked pictures of herself. We have had many teenage girls confirm that a normal experience for a teenage girl today is for a boy to ask her for naked pictures. We have not had a single girl deny this. Most kids will deny this to their parents because they are afraid that their parents will take away their social media access. These “virtual sexual assaults” (as I call them) begin in middle school and are normal going forward.
Meanwhile, as saddening as this may be to hear, if your son has SnapChat, he is going to face two mighty temptations. First, as sweet and pure as your son may be, he will live with a temptation to ask a girl for naked pictures. The boys I know who have gotten in trouble for this have all been “nice boys.” Compliant, seemingly innocent Christian boys. If the cream of the teenage moral crop is susceptible to it, then everyone is. Secondly, girls tend to be a lot more assertive today than they were in past generations. In the context of SnapChat, this means that some girls — without provocation — will send boys naked pictures of themselves as a means of drawing their attention.
I cannot emphasize enough how insidious SnapChat is and how important it is to eliminate your child’s access to it.
(4) Your child may not go looking for trouble but it will come looking for them.
Some teenagers who do not have access to the Internet still get pornographic images sent to them via group texts. Even worse, a pretty common incident involves a child sending an inappropriate image of herself or himself. That student sends it to a group of students. Whether your child wanted it or not, they now have child pornography on their phone. If they send it to someone else, they have now distributed child pornography. No parent nor child wants to deal with the potential consequences of this kind of problem that comes looking for them.
On most phones, you can turn off multi-media messaging (MMS messaging) so that your child can text with words, but cannot send or receive any images. Your child will probably claim that you have unnecessarily ruined their life, but you will likely protect them from a great deal of danger.
Making hard decisions and setting up tough boundaries like this will be met with resistance….to put it mildly. As we seek to shepherd our child in a way that reflects God’s divine parenthood over us, we can take heart in knowing that God is your child’s ultimate Good Shepherd. Fear not. There is no way for you to keep up with every single technological change and vice – it simply isn’t possible. But God’s ability to redeem far outweighs your caution and diligence, even superseding your child’s capacity to get in trouble. The Lord goes before you and your child every single day to redeem, protect, and transform him or her. When your child crosses lines via technology (regardless of how bad we may think those transgressions are in the moment), the Good Shepherd will use those mistakes to form your child through the outpouring abundance of his grace and mercy.
For more information on the challenges of this tech-dependent generation, check out this HTH resource from Mike McGarry.