New online communities give youth ministries incredible access to students. 24/7 you can log on and connect even with people who are half way around the world. This access has its benefits and some serious drawbacks. Students and youth workers are not the only one frequenting sites such as Myspace.com, Xanga.com or Facebook.com. Sexual predators and marketers of illicit material use these sites too. If you want to reach the students, you have to go where they are. Many of the old ways of communicating just don’t work. However, the new technologies and gateways are fraught with challenges. For example, Myspace.com markets many sexually explicit products and sites even to minors. These ads are not harmless.
I wonder how many middles schoolers have been educated to online porn due to these new “community” sites. By using these network sites, some critics say that youth ministers are legitimizing them. Implied endorsements may cause students to lower their guard. It may also make parents less aggressive about monitoring student activity.
Can you really be effective talking about spiritual issues next to ads for
Victoria’s Secret and porn sites? Some students will be willing to share things online that they would never say in person. While this can help unveil real problems, it may also create a situation where sensitive information gets in the hands of someone who makes problems worse or even exploits a hurting person.
Older youth can become friends with younger students and educate them on things they are not really ready to process. It’s kind of like what you hear by sitting in the back of the school bus. While a parent cannot shield their child from every negative influence, adults should be aware of the dangers associated with these networking sites. Youth workers should develop strategies to limit any problems and encourage healthy online communication with and between students.
As already mentioned, these sites can lead to minors being taken advantage of or abused by adults. And a less obvious problem may be that too much online communication may not help students socialize and interact offline. Many people escape online without dealing with their real world problems.
Jim Manker, outreach pastor at
Sacramento, Calif., recently said in Youth Worker Journal, “The popularity of the sites reveals something fundamental that is missing in our interaction with one another. I think Myspace is particular is an illustration of how desperate we are for relationship and intimacy, and how terrible we are at authentic relationship. It’s a substitute for doing the harder work of sitting across the table from one another.”
Many students don’t know how to have authentic, safe relationships because they have never seen such a thing at home. This leads to an even deeper challenge.
Can Myspace become Godspace? Well, that has to be decided by each ministry. I have decided not to participate at this time. Today, I mainly communicate with students through email, cell phones and my blog on my own personal Web site.