Head buried in her screen, she was more concerned with live-tweeting the event than listening to the speaker. She was so busy scrolling through social media, she didn’t realize she had walked past a friend she hadn’t seen in years. She chose a seat based on proximity to an electric outlet and was constantly asking the adult sitting by the charger on the bus to top off her phone. She arrived home cranky and sleep deprived because she had stayed up too late each night scrolling through the conference hashtags.
I could be describing any teen since the invention of smartphones, but this is actually me in the summer of 2017. After ten years of owning smartphones, my mobile habits were indistinguishable from those of the teens I was supposed to be setting an example for. Like the one in ten millennials recently surveyed, I would have rather lost my pinky than my iPhone.
A tool for organization, communication, and even evangelization had turned into an escape from boredom and quick fix for affirmation and attention. The phone wasn’t evil, but every convenience it offered taxed critical relationships. I turned off notifications, uninstalled social media apps, and tried completely fasting from social media, but I’d still catch myself absentmindedly scrolling or responding in the middle of time I had vowed to spend unplugged and present to my family. The greatest wake up was when my son said to me, “You really love your phone, don’t you?” This is not how I want him to remember me.
As a youth minister, I had come to believe that a smart phone was necessary for inculturation. Teens are so plugged in to social media, I felt as compelled to be present on Instagram and Twitter as I would to attend a graduation or volleyball game. However, after ten years of trying to keep up with all the trends in technology, I quit my smart phone cold turkey and switched to a flip phone. After using it for over a year, it’s eliminated a lot of stress from my life and made me a better youth minister.
Protecting My Primary Vocation
Live-tweeting the opening ceremony of the Olympics was fun when I was eating dinner alone on the floor of my one-bedroom apartment; but as a wife and mother my attention cannot be divided between homework, bedtime, and keeping up with hashtags. Otherwise, something is going to receive less attention than the other; and ten years from now, I would have more regrets about the moments spent away from my family than any trending topics I failed to address. Does social media hold opportunities for evangelization? Absolutely. But my first responsibility is to help my husband and child reach heaven. Every time I had reached for my phone in the evenings, I put my primary vocation second to whatever media I was about to consume.
While those who are single or in religious life may have different routines, the importance of keeping social media use in check remains true for all states of life. The affirmation and attention that a “like” gives can be a tangible way to fill an ache for communion that is meant to be satisfied by authentic relationships with the Lord, family, and friends. We may regularly complain about the way we see our students turning to social media instead of relationships in “real life”; yet, adults are also vulnerable and can use social media to numb the ache of loneliness that can lead us to invest in personal prayer time, go on a date, or call a friend.
Avoid the Time Vacuum
Logging in to Facebook or Instagram to like or comment on posts or stories can be a quick way to connect with families and find out what’s going on in their world. However, I found that I struggled to do this in a reasonable amount of time. Millions of dollars are spent on algorithms to keep us scrolling. Ministry already demands unconventional and sometimes long hours; and if we examined our schedule, we may find that interaction online sucks hours from our day with unmemorable results. When we connect on social media, we are often just joining a sea of indistinguishable comments.
The time we have to spend with students is limited, to say the least. We all only get 168 hours in a week, and hopefully we’re only spending about 40 of them working. Youth ministry burnout is a reality that can come from spending too many hours at the office or pursuing job-related tasks for a disproportionate amount of time each week. Being available to students and families is important, but if we spend many of those hours being available via social media, we run out of hours in our day for real life conversations, for phone calls to parents, and most importantly for personal prayer, and family life.
It is not Relational Ministry
The term “relational ministry” is tossed around a lot in youth ministry; and while social media can be a way to see fun pictures or remember birthdays, an online presence is no substitute for a real life presence. A student’s online presence only conveys a fraction of who he or she truly is; so when we rely too heavily on social media, we not only fail to discover our students’ “true identities,” we also miss the opportunity to model important skills that many of them sorely need, like making eye contact and active listening.
The internet and social media are here to stay; and in their proper place they are fantastic tools. But how can we depend less on social media, especially through our phones, to protect our primary vocation, to make good use of our time, and to build authentic relationships?
Suggestions for Social Media Stewardship
- Utilize a messaging service, like Flocknote (flocknote.com), to schedule texts and emails to push to connected social media accounts. This shares important content (meeting reminders, Mass schedules, registration due dates) without having to be constantly online. Flocknote gives you the option send all replies to your email, so you can take control of when you reply.
- Remove distractions by turning off notifications or uninstalling apps, and thereby eliminating the temptation to read a status update, for example, when picking up your phone to order pizza. “Budget” social media time for when you have access to your desktop or laptop in order to break the habit of idly scrolling through the phone.
- Install apps that help develop your mind and prayer life, and give them priority by putting them on your front page. For example, there are apps for praying the Rosary or daily reflections on Scripture. Instead of catching up on pictures of people’s lunches or vacations, or worse getting angry over a political tweet, you could be catching up on your reading list on Kindle or iBook.
- Install an app like Moment that keeps track of how many times you pick up your phone, hours spent on the phone, and which apps are used the most. Moment also sets goals for screen time and gives alerts when those goals have been exceeded.
- When students do something extraordinary, like volunteer at VBS or ace the SAT’s, send them an old-fashioned hand written note. Put stamps and notecards in your budget. Amid all the chatter online, a handwritten note speaks volumes.
- Call parents and students to remind them about upcoming events, to check in, or to ask questions. You might end up playing “phone tag”; but parents will be touched that you took the time to call, and you’ll be able to build rapport with parents. With the proper hands-free technology, you could even do this while driving.
- Have students turn in their phones when they arrive for events at Church. There may be initial resistance; but after a few weeks, it will be part of your group’s culture and they will expect it. Just be sure to alert parents; they might be alarmed if their kids don’t text back for an hour! Make photography truly social and pass around a digital camera (or a couple, depending on the size of your group) for students to take photos. Develop the photos and post them for students to see the next week.
- Set boundaries for yourself and let your coworkers and students know that if they call or text you after a certain time, you’ll connect with them in the morning. Be firm with yourself and with your students. You won’t seem unapproachable or unavailable, if you are vigilant about following up during the day.
In his message for World Communications Day in 2013, Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “In social networks, believers show their authenticity by sharing the profound source of their hope and joy: faith in the merciful and loving God revealed in Christ Jesus.” The benefits of social networks are real, but they must be carefully weighed according to the routine, responsibilities, and temptations of each individual.
Alison Blanchet (Griswold) is a youth minister in Panama City, FL, where she lives with her husband and son. You can follow her on twitter at @alisongriz, although she doesn’t tweet much these days.
 See AI&IoT Daily, July 25, 2018 post: https://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/322677/one-in-10-millennials-would-rather-lose-a-finger-t.html
This article originally appeared on pages 38-39.
Art Credit: images from Pixabay.com