One of the perks of continuing education at Princeton Theological Seminary are the occasional webinars that allow me to keep current with youth trends without leaving my office in North Warren. I usually bypass workshops on social media, after attending a few that leaned more towards advertising than actually exploring the phenomenon itself, but bit on this one because my learning experiences at Princeton Theological Seminary have always been a good investment of time. I'm glad I did, because Andrew Zirschky, a doctoral fellow at the school, did an excellent job in defining social media and helping our group understand what it means to relationships.
I learned was how, as an adult, I understand and experience social media differently than my own children and my youth group. Adults use Facebook, instant messaging, etc. for networking with new contacts and catching up with old friends. Youth use social media as a way to continue conversations with friends they see everyday. They aren't just passing on information online or through their phones-they're sharing their presence with each other. As an adult I interpret a lot of social media as solo activities, but youth understand them to be communal activities with friends.
I tend to be pretty easy going when it comes to youth and technology, but Zirschky helped me see things from a really different perspective. First of all, it will help me be more understanding and less dismissive of youth and the way they communicate. It is helping me communicate better with my youth group by asking their opinions and interacting with them rather than using social media simply as a way to promote events. It has me looking this autumn to continue the conversations begun in youth group online.
It has me pondering what kind of society we adults are creating that has our young always seeking connections and relationships online. What can I do as a dad, volunteer, and neighbor to better foster face-to-face community with the young people I know? Presence-real presence-takes time and effort. I have to reprioritize my schedule and activities to make more space for this. Maybe I can turn off the TV, the kids can shut off the cell phones and we can meet in the middle for some board games or a walk in the woods.
Social media offers some fascinating ways for youth to build relationships and community. We need to keep in mind that face-to-face activities offer some fascination, too!
Ian Eastman, M.A., is a community educator with Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that helps people solve problems and be happier through counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups. Learn more about this important work at www.fswc.org.