Social media interaction with minors – Where do you draw the line?

I have a column this week on Slant 33 about this very topic. Here’s some sound bytes.

Youth ministry is dangerous. It will bring you into temptation. It’ll bring you face to face with your deepest fears and greatest annoyances. It’ll cause you to create policies and break them at the same time. Chances are, as you engage with students online, you’ll see all of that and a whole lot more. 

Invitation is the dividing line in my eyes. I think that, as we engage with our students through social media, it has to be about permission. I know many of them say things in Facebook messages or chat that aren’t honoring to God. I know many of them have secret Tumblr accounts and private circles on Twitter and/or Google Plus. But I don’t want to force myself there without permission. I don’t think my role as a youth worker should come with expectations that I’m an FBI agent, cracking into their private spaces to discover what they really think. 

First, I think your church leadership should wrestle through this question together. I know it sounds lame to think about drafting a policy, but there are both philosophy of ministry and legitimate liability concerns to think through. Most school districts do not allow teachers to socialize with students on Facebook. There is good logic there that is worth wrestling through as a staff. Whatever the policy is, it’ll take the staff team policing one another to enforce it. 

Second, I think that when you do engage your students, you should do it through a ministry account and not your personal account. For instance, it’d be a good idea to create a Facebook page for your ministry or church and then interact with your students by using Facebook as a page. It’s a nuanced difference but an important one. It puts you in a position where you are obviously an agent of the ministry instead of the individual person. Because, at the end of the day, that is your role. Just like you attend a Friday night football game as a representative from the high school ministry, you engage with students online as a representative of a ministry.

Read the rest (And Tash & Scott’s take on the same question!)

What say you? 

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

9 comments

  1. My rule of thumb is that I let the student friend me, I don’t seek out my students.  Then, all online discussions are saved and put in individual files.

    Very simple, yet very effective.

  2. yeah definitely reached a point in time where it’s smart to draft a policy as a church or at least as a youth ministry in regards to where to draw the line… protects both sides of the coin.

    1. I think the local high school is a good place to look at for a policy. If teachers can’t be Facebook friends with their students… I don’t think it’s a good idea for church staff to be friends with their students. 

  3. I know what you mean about making rules only to break them.  More like bend… 😉

    First, though, I do think it’s important for us to be present in social-networking circles.  I laughed whenever a student asked me, incredulously, “you have a facebook account??”  But I think being present reminds students that the internet is not a playground only for themselves and their friends.  Their teachers, their future employers, their pastors, etc, are all there too.  Sticking one’s head in the sand or running from it shuts out a ton of opportunity for conversation.  It’s the meeting-students-where-they-are philosophy.

    My school did not have a strict policy on internet behavior – no specifics like no-friending-students, just general online behavior guidelines.  Of course, our school, headmaster, and teachers had numerous fb pages, and being a boarding school, we did have a VERY different atmosphere – much more like family than public school!  We teachers sort of came up with our own policy.  We never friended students – but we would accept their friend requests.  It had to be student-directed.  Then we put them on limited-profile – no wall, no photo tags, etc.  Some students were savvy enough to do the same, most weren’t.  Some would clean up their stuff after friending teachers, which I find to be a net positive.  We could share photos from class activities and have online study sessions.  A few teachers had separate school and personal accounts, but I never bothered with it (and I already had students on my personal account when the thought occurred to me).

    I advertised in my syllabi for students to contact me in the evenings for help with homework via email, facebook, or any number of messaging services.  That said, I (virtually) ALWAYS let them contact me first, never the other way around.  The only exception might have been a quick message to let them know I had a problem opening a file they sent, etc.  And sometimes those would lead to some really profound conversations about things much greater than school – and I was so happy to have that venue.  I had quite the online ministry going – and still do, with alumni.   But I ALWAYS typed as though a third person would be reading it at some point, and always in a professional, defendable manner. I kept my own logs of conversations in case anything was ever questioned – and it never was.  Students (anyone, really) let their walls crumble online.  They are looking for adults to talk to, and sometimes it’s easier when it’s not face-to-face.  And, again, our environment was very very different from most – we teachers were more like second moms, big brothers, aunts or uncles.

    The main point, though, and I can’t stress this enough, is that I was keenly aware of the potential storms I was swimming into, and even though my boundaries had a little fluidity in circumstances, I made sure nothing I said or did would wind up on the local news!  It’s when adults forget or ignore these risks when trouble happens.

    1. Jennifer- great comment. 

      As I was reading this it popped into my head– even though what students say to you via Facebook or even email. You’re still a mandatory reporter and you need to always remember you’re the adult. 

      Sometimes, especially in the church, we forget that. And since high school students are often times so competent we find it easy to slip into “friend speak” mode. 

      But yes, you are absolutely correct that we should say things “in private” to students with an understanding that it’s not really private. 

      1. Oh yeah, for sure.  There were a few instances when something popped up in my feed that I had to give our guidance counselor a heads-up on.  (and extrapolating, without that kind of online broadcasting and reception, some issues could have gone under the radar so long – perhaps nobody would have noticed had it not been for facebook?)

        And you’re absolutely right – my colleagues and I would joke all the time that it’s so easy to be lulled into complacency with students’ competence… but then they do something blindingly dumb that you’re reminded they’re far from fully-cooked!

  4. I friend new guests to our youth group and then leave it at that. I don’t get online late at night so as to avoid many of my students. I don’t initiate chats with students. OMG! I am a horrible youth pastor. LOL. 

  5. My wife and I have taken the position that it’s upto the youth if they want to friend us. Whenever we have a new group of students we will publish our contact info in class (email, cell, twitter, and FB). We do this so students have an outreach should they need an adult at church. But it’s also upto them (and their parents). If a student friends us we quickly make sure we friend their parent or guardian as well. Rarely do we have (or encourage) private discussions with students online.

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