Footprints on the Screen: Talking to Your Students About Social Media

Twitter ruined my life. 

You may think this sounds a little dramatic, but the sad truth is that one momentarily lapse in judgment on Twitter drastically altered a young PR Exec’s life this past December. Before a long international flight, she posted an off-color tweet that resulted in a flood of online retaliation (we’re talking thousands of people), the loss of her job, and the deactivation of her entire online presence. If you haven’t heard the story, you can read more about it here.

One 10-second decision changed her life in a very negative way.

As I look across the faces of our high school students each week, I can’t help but think about the way their lives are now so freely shared with the open public. The good. The bad. The ugly. Each time their thumbs click “send,” they leave another impression of their personal footprint across the screen. A footprint for someone to read. For someone to potentially misinterpret. For someone to use against them.

Chances are, over the past year, you’ve had at least one opportunity to talk with a student about their posts on one of their social media platforms, Vine/Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/SnapChat. How’d you do? Feel like you got in over your head? Did you resort halfway through the conversation to the just-don’t-post-that-kind-of-stuff-on-the-Internet advice? Don’t worry. You’re not alone.

While there’s no formula to follow that will yield the perfect result, here are some good ways you can begin to tackle the subject of social media with your students.

Talk about it frequently.
If you have the opportunity to speak to a large group of students on a regular basis, think of ways you can incorporate practical tips into your message that speak directly to how they interact online through their social media platforms. Show special “fail” posts and ask, How would you have done this better? Make it funny. Make it interactive. Just keep it a topic they think about regularly.

Learn their language.
Don’t be afraid to be the adult that asks, What does this mean? It could be a new selfie pose, hashtag, phrase, or online game. When you show interest in their interests, you learn something new as well as open up the door for future conversations about the subject when they might really need it. I’ve learned about pretty cruel inside jokes or gestures that I would normally pass over in my newsfeed, but I’ve also found a great way to meet students where they are at and connect with them.

Watch for trends and red flags.
As you engage with students online, take time to assess their posts and make note of any trends you might want to address with individuals or in your next talk. You never know what you’ll find when you log on, but this can be a critical practice for your ministry as you seek out ways to provide relevant content. Students’ posts will indicate where you could go, you simply need to set aside a little time to listen. Partner with your students’ parents on this and share any of the trends you discover. Encourage them to share some insights of their own that they observe. Twitter has a feature called lists. This is a great feature for those of you who, like me, get easily distracted or overwhelmed by your newsfeed.

Have tough conversations face-to-face.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes we need a reminder of the no-brainers. As you do your assessments for those trends and red flags, fight the urge to immediately respond and correct through a text, message, or comment. If you come across a post that concerns you and you feel it warrants a conversation, reach out to them or their parents. You want to communicate those messages in person or at the very least, over the phone. Your tone is highly important in order for these conversations to come across the right way and can be easily misinterpreted online.

Praise them for the good things they share.
While our focus can often lean toward behavioral change, we must never forget the power of positive reinforcement. I love to see a student post a Scripture or a little nugget of truth they latched onto during a service. When I see those in my feed, I’ll like, share, retweet, favorite, leave a comment with 14 exclamation points, and affirm them in person the next time I see them. When they start getting more notifications and attention for their appropriate posts than their inappropriate posts, what do you think they will start posting more often?

Lead by example: Filter and unplug.
This is a hard one. As communications director at my church, I’m keenly aware of the importance for keeping content current and actively engaging in online conversations. If you’re a leader who has the “spiritual gift” of social media, you can probably identify with me. You probably manage three Facebook pages, a church twitter account, and lay in bed at night thinking of the perfect Instagram picture to load for your next big event. The lines between professional and personal life are getting blurred and it’s easy to fall in the same traps as the students we’re leading. Is there always a negative or critical bend to what we’re saying? Are we using social media as a replacement for true community? Do we find ourselves thinking about the hashtag for our sermon more than our actual sermon? It starts with us. We need to watch what we post. We need to use our filters and be intentional withdrawing from the crowds (both physical and online) like Jesus did.

You might have a love/hate relationship with social media. I often do. But I think it’s safe to say that they’re not going away anytime soon. Hopefully by applying these principles, you’re able to guide your students toward making wise decisions with each post they make. Our goal is not to try and change their personalities, but to continually educate them on how their online presence is an extension of their life and one that is hard to erase. Give them grace. Give them truth. Give them encouragement.

Mendy (Melinda) Cummins is communications director at Highland Park Church in Lakeland, FL. Mendy is married to her best friend and rockstar youth pastor, Tomy. Mendy is an Oklahoma native, which means she cheers for the OKC Thunder amongst a sea of Miami Heat fans. You can reach Mendy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at her blog.

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