by Andrew Zirschky
Editor’s Note: Read Teens and Social Technology: Searching for Intimacy – Part 2 and  Part 3 here.
It should be no surprise that many youth workers believe that social media hold the key to better connections and more effective ministry with young people. After all, the average American teenager owns 3.5 digital gadgets and daily engages in screen time equivalent to roughly two months of youth group attendance.[1] In light of this, we outfit our youth rooms with the latest gadgets and turn to Facebook and Twitter as “essentials” hoping to approach teens with relevant ministry. However, in paying attention to how youth connect, we’ve failed to understand why they connect. We know they use Facebook and Formspring, Twitter and text, but why do teenagers use social media? The answers might surprise you and turn your approach to the social media revolution upside down. In this three-part series we’ll explore some answers to these questions and some ways that youth ministers might more faithfully engage young people in a digital age.
Recent ethnographic research reveals that young people’s voracious appetite for social media[2] isn’t rooted in a love for all things digital, but in a nagging loneliness and a persistent human longing for deep belonging and connection.[3] After three years of research funded by the MacArthur Foundation, digital ethnographer danah boyd concluded that teenagers use social media to establish “full-time intimate communities” that provide for always-on communication and relationships.[4] It appears that youth appropriate technology, not primarily for its entertainment value or cool factor, but because of its potential to foster “presence-in-absence”—the ability to be with friends despite physical separation.[5]
There is of course some significance in the fact that text messaging (and not quill pen) is the communication choice for teenagers, but social media researcher Craig Watkins says the greater significance is the “expression of intimacy” that such messages represent. After hundreds of interviews with young people he concluded that teenage use of social media is “driven primarily by their commitment to each other and a desire to stay connected.”[6]
You may be surprised that Watkins found that the technology itself garnered little interest. While the news media tend to paint contemporary teenagers as anti-social recluses permanently transfixed by their screens, Watkins and others report quite the opposite: Their “true interest is not the technology per se, but rather the people and relationships the technology provides access to.”[7] Teenagers tend to use social media to strengthen the bonds of already existing offline relationships, and to foster deeper levels of friendship and intimacy.
What this signals, then, is that our gratuitous appropriation of Facebook, Twitter, and the gadgetry of a technological age does little to actually make youth ministry relevant to the lives of teenagers. It is in their quest to know and be known that teenagers are increasingly turning to social networking, text messaging and other forms of digital communication. Incorporating the use of an iPad in your preaching, outfitting your youth room with flat screens, or Tweeting with abandon, are actions that show you’re able to survive in a digital culture, but do not directly satisfy the relational hunger of young people—and they do even less to testify to the church as the transformed body of Christ marked by the depth of our communion together.
In the second installment of this series we’ll look at the nature of our faceless face-to-face world and why teenagers have turned to the use social media to search for intimacy. In the third installment we’ll explore a youth ministry response to social media that takes account of the adolescent hunger for intimacy.
[1] In 2010 the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that teenagers on average own 3.5 devices from a list that included cell phones, Mp3 players, computers, and gaming devices.  Also in 2010 the Kaiser Family Foundation found that teenagers spend nearly 11 hours of screen time daily.
[2] Social media includes blogs, social networking sites, and photo sharing and others that allow people to create, play, explore, express, and most importantly, to connect with others without the normal boundaries of language, geography, ethnicity, or national origin. [Mizuko. Ito, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out : Kids Living and Learning with New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010), 28].
[3] For research on teen belonging and technology see danah boyd, “Taken out of context: American teen sociality in networked publics” (University of California, Berkeley, 2008). See also Craig Watkins, The Young and the Digital : What the Migration to Social-Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009).
[4] See danah boyd, “Friendship,” in Ito, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out : Kids Living and Learning with New Media, 84.
[5] Cf. danah boyd, “Friendship” in Ito, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out : Kids Living and Learning with New Media, 79-116.;  also see Watkins, The Young and the Digital, 48-74.
[6] Watkins, 74.
[7] Watkins, 49.