Are Online Relationships Healthy for Teens?

12/28/2015


By Jeremy Steele, youth and college minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, Al. 

As churches seek to reach today's youngest adults and teens, knowing how they relate to others is essential. A study from the Pew Research Center reveals that technology continues to change how teens form, nurture and maintain all levels of relationships.

It's a highly nuanced study, but from a young person's perspecitve, the positive effects of online relationships outweigh the negative. As far as long-term health, it's hard to tell since we don't have the data, but for now we should educate ourselves of the benefits and pitfalls of online fellowship, and more importantly, learn how to protect teens from online danger.

Are online relationships healthy for teens? Pew Research reveals how teens form & nurture digital relationships TWEET THIS TWEET THIS

Here are the highlights from the study along with insights to help guide your youth ministry:

Social media, video games, texting

Teens are not merely communicating with their friends using technology, they are also meeting people for the first time and forming relationships. Pew Research says 57 percent of teens have made new friends online. Where are they meeting? For girls, the primary place is social media (78 percent made new friends online). Boys primarily meet new friends through video games (57 percent).

Once they have met either in the real world or in the technological one, these same two venues (social media and video games) along with text messaging are major paths to grow those friendships. In fact, 72 percent of teens spend time with their friends on social media. Video games also draw 72 percent. However, unlike social media, gaming spans the real and the virtual worlds, with 82 percent saying they play with other people in person and 75 percent saying they do the same with people online.

Not surprisingly, the most common technological channel for nurturing friendships is texting. A full 88 percent of teens say they text. Not only is texting the most widespread technology, it is also the preferred method of communication. If your church is not using texting to reach this generation, we have three great places to start.

Get MyCom tips for church leaders in your inbox.

  

It's not all technological roses

While 83 percent of teens say social media helps them feel connected to their friends, 88 percent believe people share too much online, and 68 percent experience people stirring up drama online. One in four have fought in person about something that began online. Learn how churches can help youth fight cyberbullies.

Teens increasingly trust online friends

While 89 percent of gaming teens say they play with friends they know in the real world, 54 percent of them also play with strangers they have never met in real life.This trust extends beyond talking to strangers. One in five teens has shared personal passwords with such friends.

The good news is that these new tools for interaction are bringing some positive benefits. Among gaming teens, 78 percent say that gaming helps them feel more connected to friends and 82 percent say it makes them feel relaxed and happy. Among social media users, 68 percent of teens say they get support in tough times through those platforms. Churches can use these tools as well to build community in small groups in this generation.

This information about the changing landscape offers food for thought for churches who want to speak the native relationship language of the next generation. Though it is not time to abandon all non-technological channels of communication, it is clear that where and how we communicate will need to change as we reach today's teens.

While a phone call or home visit may have been the preferred method of communicating with visitors in the past, teens and younger adults strongly prefer to communicate through text messages. It may be time to supplement your newspaper ad with promotions on Instagram or with a Facebook ad.

As teens mature at a time when they are constantly broadcasting their lives online, it is the church's duty to explore with them how their faith affects that broadcasting. How do you love your neighbor via Facebook and Twitter? How do you act justly, love mercifully and walk humbly on Instagram?

Armed with this knowledge, it is time to begin evaluating how you communicate, how it should begin changing now and how it might change in the future. We can help with that! A great next step is to begin a communications audit to evaluate and plan the future.