by Michael Adkins
If we’re being honest, the question of technology in youth spaces is really one of mobile devices (such as phones, iPods, and tablets) in youth spaces. And we have to face facts: Our students are increasingly wired at younger and younger ages. Mobile devices are our students’ very lives. You know it’s true when taking a phone away is no longer a viable punishment from parents because it inconveniences them just as much as it does their student! Mobile devices have moved from a luxury to the primary mode of communication and entertainment for our students, and we can choose to leverage that or suppress that.
When it comes to technology in our youth spaces, we don’t believe it’s a matter of tech versus no tech, but rather one of expectations. The family pastor at our church (previously the youth minister) says, “You have to communicate to your students that you expect the best from them. With technology in their hands, without technology in their hands, it doesn’t matter; you expect their best and you tell them as much.” And I couldn’t agree more. That kind of general standard covers all kinds of bases and doesn’t need constant, contextualized revisions to incorporate the “new thing.” It works today just as well as it would have 30 years ago and just as well as it will 30 years from now.
You have to do more than just communicate that expectation, though; you have to enforce it. In our ministry, we have our adults interspersed among our students during worship and teaching. They can easily monitor the students’ use of their phones and, if need be, quietly and inconspicuously correct distractions. A month ago, one of my adults quietly asked a student to put a text conversation on hold while I was speaking. It was so subtle, that I had no idea it had even taken place until it was brought to my attention after that evening’s activities were over. That tells me two things:

  1. The volunteer not only knew our expectations for the students, but also that she is trusted and empowered to enforce that expectation as she sees fit.
  2. She was able to address the situation in such a way that no one else in the room was aware of the correction.

And that second point is huge! What good would it have been had she attracted the attention of several while trying to address the attention of one?
We do not discourage the use of mobile devices in our youth environments. Yes, we run the risk of students playing Flappy Bird or texting during youth, but we counter that with the communication and enforcement outlined above, and it has worked spectacularly for us. In fact, we go out of our way to turn a potential distraction into an interactive and useful tool. Aside from students using their phones as Bibles, we’ve found four other ways to encourage their use in positive, engaging ways:

As a tool for you.

Occasionally, I’ll offer a discount from the next retreat to the first student who texts my phone with their name as the body of the text. I will display my number on the screens, give each student a minute to set it up, and the first one to hit my device after I yell “GO!” wins . . . but so do I! Now I have every one of their numbers, each labelled with the appropriate name. Communicating with them just got a whole lot easier.

As a tool for your students.

I recently stumbled across an app called Eidetic. It is a tool that periodically buzzes your phone to test your progress memorizing anything from phone numbers to definitions and fun facts. At the end of each “test,” you are given a progress report with a percentage correct and the ability to see what you may have missed. With repeated tests over time, the information is systematically moved from short-term to long-term memory. I’m currently using it to memorize scripture, and will soon roll it out to my students and volunteers as a great strategy for doing just that! There is a free version that allows for one “test” at a time, or spend the more-than-reasonable $1.99 to have up to 50.

As a teaching tool. allows us to ask questions in the middle of a talk and display the students’ responses live. It uses a phone’s text function to visually graph in real time the results on your displays for all to see. Students get to see the anonymous opinions of the room at that moment on whatever the given subject, and that can be particularly powerful and lead to more focused discussions of the topic at hand.

As a game.

Instahack is a game that can be purchased from, and, when paired with the Airserver software, allows for some hilarious fun! A student logs into his or her Instagram account on your phone while your phone’s display is live-cast onto the screens in your youth space. The student then participates in a trivia game with consequences: Get the question right, and your student is one step closer to a prize. Get the question wrong, and they’re at the mercy of the consequence wheel with their own Instagram account at stake with options like “Unfollow 20,” where you get to unfollow twenty of your students’ friends; “Rash,” which calls for a photo of a rash (included in the download) to be uploaded to his or her account; and “Love is in the Air,” during which you stage a selfie featuring the student playing the game and a student of the opposite gender, staging a false but comment-inducing relationship. And because your phone’s screen is on display, everyone can see that you aren’t crying wolf! The risk is high from the student’s perspective, so sweeten the pot with a tantalizing prize. For us, we offer to pay their way onto the summer mission trip if the student answers 4/4 questions correctly. An added bonus we encountered: The students that were not playing were on their phones liking and posting comments on the participant’s account as soon as the uploads were complete!
Your students’ phones can be just as much your tool as it is theirs if you can learn to leverage them appropriately. Instead of trying to devise ways in which to minimize their impact on your youth environments, find ways to maximize their impact in positive ways. Occasionally ask the students to text you any photos they’ve taken with their phones during youth events, use one of the four options above, or get creative and share your successes!
And let me be clear on this point: We don’t incorporate or allow mobile devices because they are “necessary evils.” If that’s the lens through which you view them, then you’ll only experience frustration and inconvenience because of their tremendous presence and importance in the youth culture. Instead, recognize the unique opportunities to engage students through a medium with which they are familiar and enjoy. Take advantage of the fact that they love their devices! It’s an easy sell, and the possibilities are constantly growing as technology advances.
Mike Adkins graduated from the University of West Georgia in 2009 with a degree in Psychology. He has been in youth ministry for a decade, serving as an intern for two years at Cornerstone UMC in Newnan, Ga., before stepping into full time ministry at Shepherd of the Hills UMC in Douglasville, Ga. He is currently at Forest Hills UMC in Macon, Ga., where he has served as the youth minister for four years. He has unhealthy levels of love for reading, survival methodology, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.