Tweets and Teens
We hope you will join us for Rooted 2022 in Kansas City October 6-8. We offer a variety of workshops for youth pastors and parents, and this year, we are excited to offer “Tweets and Teens” taught by our own Director of Ministry Development, Tucker Fleming. A former youth pastor himself, Tucker will help both parents and youth workers think well about how they can encourage their teenagers towards faithful and wise interaction with technology.
At the beginning of his book The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman observes that this decade was characterized at least in one way by our ownership and use of technology rather than its use of us. Klosterman implies that this is the key way in which the 90s differ from our current decade: the world in which we now live is characterized more by technology’s use of us rather than our use of it.
If Klosterman is right (and I think he is), then this necessitates a massive shift in the way we live our lives. Technology is ubiquitous, even for those my age and older who grew up with flip-phones (at best) and 100 T-9 text messages per month.
It’s even more prevalent for many of your students and children. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a group of kids at a restaurant, department store, or mall without at least one phone out?
Chuck Klosterman’s question—are we using technology, or is technology using us?—grows more and more prescient with each passing day. It’s a question youth pastors must work through first for themselves and then with the parents of students under their care.
It’s a particularly challenging question because it requires a great deal of unique tailoring and wisdom; a faithful use of technology will probably look very different from person to person.
In order to think through what that faithful use might be, it’s important to have some information at the front of our mind. What’s behind our use of technology? What are we doing with it? Who is influencing the way we use our phones, social media, and what are their motivations? What are we seeking out when we use those things? And finally, are we using our technology, or is our technology using us?
For example, youth pastors commonly tell parents and students that technology, particularly social media, is amoral. That is, technology is neither inherently good or inherently evil. While it’s certainly true that technology can be used for good or for ill, the choice of which is largely in the hand of the user, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that some forms of technology lead more quickly to things like idleness and unhealthy comparison at the least. We all, students and adults alike, know the experience of opening up Instagram or TikTok to spend five minutes decompressing, only to look down an hour later and wonder how we have unknowingly wasted an hour.
To that end, a key distinction needs to be made when we speak to our students and their parents about technology usage. We need to distinguish between what we might call static technology—things like Microsoft Excel, or the calculator app on your phone—and more dynamic forms of technology which, among other things, “enhance” user experience by mining one’s data such that one’s relationship to tech resembles something like addiction. Our approach to dynamic technology can and should be quite a bit more skeptical than our approach to static technology.
Companies whose goal is to provide you, me, and our students with dynamic technology are not working simply to give us a platform to connect with friends and family members. They’re working to make a profit—a profit which they only make if they can keep our eyes on their website for long enough to entice advertisers.
It shouldn’t be surprising to learn, via The Social Dilemma and An Ugly Truth, among others, that tech companies do absolutely everything they can to keep you on their site, whether that be via targeted ads or encouraging anger and division to keep you rage-scrolling down your news feed.
The tech world we now inhabit is far different from what it was thirty, twenty, even five years ago. Not to mention, our students are wading into it without fully developed frontal lobes. This fact should impress upon us as youth pastors and parents the necessity to think well about technology (especially the dynamic brand) and the guidelines which should dictate ours and our students’ use of it.
These are some of the issues that youth ministers can try to think through together. We ought to be less interested in throwing out all of our dynamic technology because frankly, that’s just not all that practical. But it is helpful to think honestly about technology and formulate ways to help our parents shape their teenagers into the kinds of people who use technology in a God-glorifying, healthy, and productive way.