4/09/2011 01:28:00 am

Facebook and Teenagering

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It was Facebook night tonight at youth group. We spent most of the night running around Hornsby trying to catch people pretending to be drug dealers. They were particularly bad drug dealers because they posted clues about their whereabouts on Facebook every few minutes. Despite that, one of the drug dealers managed to stay uncaught anyway. So good on them.

I didn’t get to go hunting though because I needed to monitor base camp and be ready to go out in my ambulance car if there were any emergencies. There weren’t. I also had to stay back and work on my talk. I had virtually no time to work on the talk this week, so it was feeling like a bit of a mess.

Despite my lack of preparedness I had a lot to say. I ended up with a 20-25 minute talk rather than the 10 minutes I had to give it in. I edited a lot.

What struck me this week is how concerned parents are about Facebook. At the beginning of the term we let the parents know what we were speaking on, and each week I’d send an email. No one has said anything about any topic, until this week when suddenly parents were wanting to know what I was saying about Facebook. I guess the concern is that Facebook is a vast world that they can’t control. And the dangers are huge for teenagers. You have issues of bullying, cyber-stalking, inappropriate relationships being formed, inappropriate photos being posted, and then kids just doing things which are generally dumb.

The potential audience for dumbness is massive.

One of the illustrations I did was got the youth to imagine they were in a hall and in that hall was everyone they know, parents, friends, enemies, youth leaders, siblings, teachers, everyone. And then to imagine that also in the room is everyone that everyone they know knows.

Then I got one of the male youth leaders up and got him to put on a bikini (over his clothes). Everyone thought it was very amusing, which it was.

Then I asked the girls to imagine how they would feel if they were standing in that hall, in front of all those people, in their bikini. Awkward. Embarrassed. Uncomfortable.

The boys I then pointed out they they’re likely to do dumb things like get in bikinis too. Of if I had an older audience I would have mentioned getting drunk, and doing dumb stuff at parties. Getting naked. The only naked photos I’ve seen on Facebook are of guys. And we probably don’t want everyone seeing how dumb we are.

The point was when you stick photos of yourself on Facebook, when you make comments on Facebook, when you post stuff, you have a potential audience of thousands. And the maths backs me up.

If you have your privacy settings on Facebook as Facebook recommends the you will have photos you post and photos of you set to be able to be seen by ‘Friends of Friends’.

If you are an average Facebook user, you’ll have 120 friends.

Now say my friend Bill takes a photo of me and posts it on Facebook, and he has his photo settings to ‘Friends of Friends’ too, then with just first degree friends, on average each photo has a potential audience of 240 people.

But because the photo is set to ‘Friends of Friends’ assuming Bill and I have no mutual friends, and none of our mutual friends have mutual friends (extremely unlikely, but it’ll make it easier for the maths) then the potential audience for the photo of me that Bill took jumps from 240 people to 28,800 people (if my maths is right). That is a lot of people.

So if you do something dumb on Facebook, the potential audience for your stuff up is huge.

I think the issue is probably bigger for girls. Guys can do dumb stuff and not too many people will be interested, but we live in a culture that expects girls to be sexy. So sticking photos of yourself in your swimmers or underwear on Facebook is a huge temptation. And if you do that boys (and men) are going to look, and friends of friends are going to look. And there are potentially thousands of people who will look at photos of unsuspecting teenage girls posing on Facebook who didn’t think things through.

The point of my talk tonight was, while Facebook offers us the ability to create a custom built identity and community, it won’t be able to live up to its promise. In Jesus however, we are given an identity that is not created online, is not subject to whether people ‘like’ it or not, it does not get better or worse with our successes and failures online and offline. It is safe and secure in the by the work of Jesus on the cross. And we are brought into a community, a holy nation, a royal priesthood and family of God. And that community is not made up of people you have a loose connection to, it’s made up of people who are your brothers and sisters. In Jesus we have an identity and community that is safe, secure and very healthy.

With that in mind, our difference means that we must live differently. I encouraged the youth to live differently because they are different; to treat Facebook not as a tool to shore up their identity and community but as a tool to love God and love others and to help others love God and love each other.

As Christians, I think if we could grasp that our salvation in Jesus affects our whole life, and our character and identity is shaped by Jesus in every aspect of our lives, we wouldn’t need to have think hard about whether our silly choices in the physical world are going to end up online. Our integrity of life would mean that whatever ended up online from what happened offline would fit in with our character online and offline. It would fit in with the character we portray to our parents, friends, family, teachers, bosses, work mates and perfect strangers.

Social networking puts an end to the double life of the Sunday Christian. Instead of making us stress about what goes online, it should keep us accountable in all our life because anything could go online. It should help us live lives of integrity in every facet of life.

That said my experience of teenagers is that integrity of character isn’t always first priority. Not because they don’t value integrity. In fact I think teenagers value integrity more than many adults. Teenagers seem less willing to accept the duplicity and hypocrisy of daily life that grown ups take as par for the course.

However teenagers are still working out who they are. They aren’t asking “How do I make sure I live consistently in all areas of life?” because they are still asking “Who am I? How should I live?” When they know who they are, then they can work at living consistently. Are they the one who drinks on the weekends, the one who obeys the rules, the one who rebels, who is selfless, who is ambitious, who is seductive, who is reserved, who is fun, who is funny, who is thoughtful, who is kind? They’ll test the various aspects of their character they find coming out to see what fits. They’ll ask, what brings peace, what brings comfort, what brings happiness. When they find the character traits that fit then they’ll start asking questions about integrity.

So back to Facebook, when teenagers are discovering and forming their character, Facebook becomes a vast stage for them to test their boundaries, and discover their character and having a couple of hundred people there they can give you instant feed back about the character you’re building. And while this can be potentially harmless, it can also be very detrimental. Facebook can be a permanent record of unthinking moments. One dumb Saturday night, which in the past could be forgotten or just remembered by the few who had to carry you home, can be kept for posterity, a permanent witness that people, friends and strangers are going to interpret however they want, and most won’t interpret the night in light of lessons learnt and character built.

I guess all this musing really just leads me to conclude that we need to be helping teenagers use Facebook well. We need to encourage them to live with integrity. To be living out the character traits of who they want to be rather than who they are discovering they are.

I think older people need to be feeding back online and offline to younger people about what they value in them and what they appreciate, so that they can form a character that isn’t just shaped by the feedback of their peers, which while important will only be one perspective.

Christian teenagers need to be taught to have their identity and community thoroughly grounded in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus so that they can live differently out of that reality. If that can happen, not matter what happens online, no matter what mistakes they make, no matter what dumbness they do, they will have something deeper to hold onto, a way of living that stems from something other than just peer opinion and a character that is rooted in an identity that goes beyond any social network.

The question is though, how do we do that?