Student ministry leaders point to biggest influence in teen online behavior

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Although a Pew Research study indicates that a majority of parents are using a variety of methods to monitor their teenagers’ life online, Georgia Baptist student leaders say more inroads could be made if adults monitored themselves first.

Those sentiments follow findings in the survey Parents, Teens, and Digital Monitoring, released Jan. 7. With an increasing number of ways teens can have a digital presence, parents are sticking with standard ways of keeping track such as checking which websites their teens have visited (61%) as well as social media profiles (60%). Nearly half (48%) of parents in the study say they looked through their teen’s phone call records or messages.

More intrusive monitoring through filters and blocking (39%), parental controls on cell phones (16%) and location monitoring tools on cell phones (16%) lagged.

While making sure your teenager is safe online and sharing appropriately, Georgia Baptist student leaders admit frustration when the most influential adult in that teen’s life isn’t modeling the same responsibility.

Parents pave the way for the student

Billy Christol, Ringgold, Georgia, student ministry, youth ministry

Billy Christol

“You almost have to expect [some irresponsible behavior] from students” said Billy Christol, youth/associate pastor at Burning Bush Baptist Church in Ringgold. “But it is very frustrating when parents post inappropriate [pictures or messages] or even pics that aren’t inappropriate but they link to a page with really vulgar or profane names.

“One annoyance is when they post a meme/video with profanities and they simply excuse it. …That sends a pretty clear signal.”

Last March ConnectSafely.org, a California-based nonprofit dedicated to educating connected users about safety, privacy, and security, related that one in five parents admit to sharing intimate photos and/or messages online or via text.

A parent’s online behavior affects their teen’s sense of right and wrong. Whether it’s oversharing, texting while driving, or even cyberbullying (73% of online adults admit to witnessing it among peers), children are actually doing the monitoring in many cases, and taking their cues as to what it suitable.

Since the founding of Facebook in 2004, it would be hard to overstate the impact technology and connectivity have had on society at any another point in history. Still, the influence on a teenager by their parents plays a monumental part in what that student sees as right and wrong. The added layer for Christian parents is how that influence extends into how their child relates to God.

“When parents send mixed messages to their children, i.e. when their religious behaviors are incongruent with their attitudes about religion, the extent of religious transmission should be diminished,” expressed Oxford’s Association for the Sociology of Religion in 2006.

Ten years later it’s difficult to dispute that assertion. Even more so, as parents live out their own lives in the digital town square the faith walk they model is on prominent display to not only their children, but their children’s friends.

Effective monitoring, and how far is too far

Teens have been sneaking around parental safeguards since much earlier than Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. The challenge for parents today is finding the most effective way – in addition to modeling – to positively influence teens and discourage risky behavior online.

A report released a year ago by the University of Haifa illustrates that point. Parents were divided into three groups: mediation through supervision, mediation through guidance, and non-intervention. In a surprise result the “supervision” approach, which included installing software that blocked sites, recorded sites visited, or limited time spent online, led to children taking more steps toward inappropriate behavior.

Maintaining a consistent presence in your teenager’s life covers a lot of areas, including online, said one middle Georgia student pastor who also warns that not all social media platforms are advisable, despite their popularity.

Eric Gargus, Dublin, Georgia, student ministry, youth ministry

Eric Gargus

“The main observation I have seen over and over again is that parents who monitor their students’ social media feeds and do not allow their kids to have Snapchat eliminate a world of temptation which turns into sin,” said Eric Gargus of Marie Baptist Church in Dublin who wrote a commentary on social media for The Index last year.

No student ministry leader is going to endorse a “non-intervention” approach. If anything, the Haifa study seems to urge the practice of parents modeling appropriate online behavior if they want their children to follow suit.

“Supervisory behavior, which can be linked to a lack of trust in the child, will lead to an increase in unsafe behavior. In contrast, as has been found by other studies, families that knew how to establish a relationship of trust among family members reduced risky behavior,” researchers wrote.

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