The last week of July, Scooter Kellum and other youth leaders from Taylor Road Baptist Church, Montgomery, drove a group of teenagers away from the Ocoee River and back into the reach of a cellphone signal.
And the whole carload of teens’ phones lit up.
“It’s amazing how dependent we get on the internet,” said Kellum, youth ministry strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, talking about himself.
But Kellum didn’t grow up with that kind of connectedness. “It’s so accessible to them,” he said. “It’s a means of communication, a means of living life together.”
That in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad, he said.
But there are so many things for teens to guard against, from pornography all the way to just making sure they leave plenty of time to establish real relationships, Kellum said. He asked the teens in his car — leaders in the youth group — what’s the worst thing they’ve seen happen in their own lives or the lives of their friends as a result of the internet?
Their answers — Suicide. Pornography. The fact that it takes so much time away from their family. The fact that it takes so much effort not to fall into temptation because it’s right at your fingertips.
It can become an addiction, according to Lisa Keane, clinical director of marriage and family for Pathways Professional Counseling, a ministry of Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries (ABCH).
“It’s a huge problem plaguing many teens and their families,” she said. “There is a growing and ever-present need to be connected and be in the know.”
Looking for validation
They can be drawn to the more sinister issues, sure — like online gambling or bullying — but they can also get to a point where they simply struggle to unplug.
“They struggle to be alone or to be OK without the validation that the internet and social media offer,” Keane said. “The larger issue with that is their self esteem, self worth and identity become entangled with the validation of others through likes and comments.”
It also crowds out a relationship with God, she said, and disrupts the opportunity to see “our worth and value ultimately come from Him.”
It’s a topic that the Church — parents and teens alike — can’t afford to stick their heads in the sand about and think it will all be OK, she said. “We need to be taking proactive stances on making sure we teach healthy, safe consumption of the internet.”
It’s OK to be informed — that’s important, Keane said. But parents and leaders need to model healthy technology behavior, she said. “It’s hard to help a teen make good, healthy tech choices when they tell me their parent is constantly on their phone or checking Facebook too.”
Another way to help teens take a breath from technology and learn how to disconnect is to offer opportunities to go device-free — much like Kellum’s group did on their rafting trip.
Keane said she worked at an all-girls summer camp, and the high school campers — who were there for five weeks without technology — reported feeling more connected to friends, having better conversations and having a great deal more space in their lives to hear from the Lord when they left.
‘Focus on relationships’
“Offer times that teens can unplug and focus on relationships with others as well as their relationships with God,” she said.
Kellum agreed. “Our students realized how refreshing it can be not to have the internet,” he said. “It was refreshing to be able to sit around a circle this weekend and talk with each other without distractions.”
Technology can offer so many ways to share the gospel but it also can take over your life if you don’t guard against that, for yourself and your teenagers, Kellum said.
“We need to put structure and guidelines in place,” he said. “The kids are going to fight you on it a lot of the time but we are the parents. We need to have access to and control over what is going on with the devices we pay for.”