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How has digital media affected youth ministry?

I went to my first youth ministry planning event 19 years ago – I was about to enter year 10 and I was going to help lead the youth ministry program.

We spent most of the night stuffing colourful term programs and permission notes into envelopes. We’d planned a chalk chase, a messy food night (of course), and the obligatory bring-a-friend night. The good old days.

It would be another six years before Facebook arrived and iPhones didn’t take off until a further two years. For a long time, the biggest electronic distraction in church was Snake II.

Youth ministry has changed a lot since then, in many good ways. Our spaces are safer, yet slightly less popular. The supper table now caters for a variety of dietary needs (other than Doritos), and we’ve blended the face-to-face with the digital in exciting and necessary ways.

If we were to line up the past 20 years of youth ministry alongside the technical developments of devices and digital media, we would discover an emerging dependence on what’s hot right now.

I remember texting youth group kids weekly reminders (25c each), preparing SMS liturgies (when young people could be prompted to participate in worship via text message), hosting YouTube happy hours via early AppleTV devices.

We all survived the Pokemon Go phenomena (#hottip – if you want to be ahead of the augmented reality game, get Harry Potter Wizards Unite from the App Store today).

I’m confident no-one is stuffing term plans into envelopes anymore #ecofriendly. However, Youth ministries have struggled to know how to react to mobile devices.

Before social media, teenagers occasionally surrendered their phones during youth group. Today, a social media marketing strategy seems fundamental to developing and sustaining community.

We can all be unaware of our dependence on devices.

If you have an iPhone, I encourage you to enable ScreenTime to provide some confronting statistics about your personal screen time, (to prevent incriminating himself, the author will not be publishing his results).

However, my use doesn’t quite add up to the young man who recently reported spending 79 hours on SnapChat in a 10-day period #streaks.

Ironically, “mindfulness” is the fastest growing category in the App Store. Millions of us pay for technologies that help us relax and switch off.

So we’ve had a hunch that device-dependence isn’t good for us, and now science is screaming this.

The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has found critical links between device use and depression, anxiety and drug use.

This isn’t based on how young people use their phones (gaming, working, communicating, shopping, etc), but that overuse of a device prompts abrupt changes in sleep patterns and appetite (usually leading to eating less).

It can also increase social isolation marked by less communication with friends and less participation in social or school events. Absorption in devices is also linked to drastic or significant personality change, for example from calm to irritable or even angry.

If you have young children using devices, you can check out the World Health Organisation’s screentime recommendations for infants up to the age of five.

So, if we know how prevalent device usage is, at least anecdotally, and we know the damage it can cause, we must try to get smart about smartphones.

It seems unwise to simply unplug because a digital presence can have a pastoral and transformational impact, as well as providing information and invitations (also #fomo).

As with any new technology, wise usage is a skill best learned with patience and in community. 

Bradon French

Bradon French is the Youth Ministry Coordinator within the Intergenerational team. He is a passionate advocate for young people and enjoys challenging the status quo.

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