I’m Dutch as many of you may know and for a long time Facebook wasn’t all that popular in Holland. That’s because we had a specific Dutch social network called Hyves, which was incredibly popular. But slowly but surely Facebook took over and Hyves died a slow death.
But my Hyves account and my Facebook account had one thing in common: a lot of my friends were under 21, teens and students from my ministry. My own parents have a Facebook account now (my dad succumbed to the lure of Facebook last week or so), as do most of my friends, but for a long time it was just me and my students out there.
To be honest, I’d never given it much thought. For me, social media like Facebook were just another way to connect with students. I read their updates, commented on what was going on in their lives, they sometimes did the same with me and of course I regularly updated our youth ministry page. I never consciously asked the question whether it was a good idea to connect with students on Facebook.
These days, I have more concerns about using Facebook to connect with students (though I’m convinced Facebook is a great tool for youth ministry in general). I still do, I’d say about 60% of my Facebook friends is still under 25, but I’ve become more careful about it. Let me share some of my concerns:
1. Boundaries become fuzzy
The boundaries in connecting with students that are so obvious when meeting them face to face, suddenly become fuzzy when the connecting is done online. It’s easier to make jokes, to be a little more cheeky and playful than you would be in real life. And because the boundaries become fuzzy, it’s easy to overstep and go too far.
2. Connecting becomes private
When you talk to students after a youth service or during lunch break at school, everyone can see you. Connecting with students on Facebook is only partly visible. Sure, everyone can read your comments, but that’s not the case with private messages. And the step from a public comment to a private message is a small one. Connecting with students in private has great risks however, because you lose part of your accountability. Again, it becomes very easy to overstep boundaries.
3. Guessing becomes knowing
Before Facebook (can you even remember that time?) we all could pretty much guess which students were living a ‘real’ Christian life and which ones were really good at faking it. With Facebook, this guessing has become knowing. I’ve learned more about some students than I actually wanted to, and I’m not sure if that’s always been a good thing. Because when you know, you immediately become burdened with the question what you do with that knowledge. You’re not ‘naïve’ anymore and it changes the game.
4. Private becomes public
It cuts both ways, everything becoming public. What you do becomes public as well. The upside is that living a transparent life as a follower of Jesus can only inspire others to do the same. But we all know we’re not perfect, we mess up as well if only in the form of making debatable judgment calls. Only on Facebook our mistakes become public, for all our students and their parents to see.
One ‘like’ on a YouTube video with a swear word in it, one comment on an offensive joke, one mention of you watching a TV series containing lots of sexual story lines, it can cost you. And with the new Facebook timeline, everyone can pretty much see what you watch, listen to, and read (unless you change your privacy setting which I think you should do anyway).
5. Personal becomes work-related
If you connect with all you students on Facebook, it pretty much becomes work-related. It means that whenever you go on Facebook, you get confronted with your work. It suddenly becomes a lot harder to take some real time off and not think about work, unless you stay off Facebook as well on your days off.
In short, using Facebook to connect with students has its downsides. Youth leaders aren’t the only ones asking the question whether it’s a good idea to connect with their students on Facebook. Teachers face the same dilemma. And a dilemma it is, because there have been some cases where Facebook contact between a teacher and a student resulted in an inappropriate relationship. That’s why the state of Missouri in the US made it a law that teachers can’t befriend students on Facebook. I think that’s a step too far for youth ministry, but I do think youth leaders need to be cautious when connecting with their students on Facebook. We’ll discuss some tips to keep your Facebook relations healthy tomorrow.
How do you feel about connecting with students on Facebook? Do you recognize these risks? Which risk is the biggest for you?