Cyberspace: young bullies’ new playground

It was Jill Brown’s experience as a church youth worker and volunteer that led her to start paying attention to how teenagers use Facebook, text messaging and other social media tools. Because she wasn’t their parent, teenagers would sometimes talk to her about their online experiences.

“I was just horrified,” Brown said. “I was losing sleep over it. It was like the kids are living this secret life parents don’t know about.”

She started thinking about what she could do.

To be clear: Brown does not advocate a technology-free life. She does not tell teenagers to abandon Facebook or text messaging or to give up their cell phones. She does, through public speaking and Web sites she’s created, try to educate both teenagers and the adults in their lives about how technology has changed some of the dynamics of teens’ social interactions.

For example:

» Bullying and harassment now take place electronically as well as face to face. That can include text messages or photos — some of which are forwarded en masse to others — or demeaning comments posted on Facebook or other sites.

» Examples of cyberbullying have been documented in the investigations of a number of cases involving teen suicides. While the circumstances of such cases can be complicated, concerned adults have used them as an opportunity to raise awareness about the impact of bullying, such as through the It Gets Better Project (, which tries to reassure lesbian and gay young people that things won’t always stay the way they are in high school.

» Colleges and prospective employers may check out the Facebook pages, Twitter and Tumblr streams and other technological footprints of students applying for admission, internships or jobs. Some might not be impressed by the party pictures with bottles of vodka and beer cans sitting on the counter — or be particularly reassured when the partygoers who write comments about getting wasted hold only plastic cups in their hands. Even if students try to be careful about what they post, it’s easy to be tagged in photos put up by others.

So what’s the role of congregations in all of this? Some might argue these are private family concerns. But Brown and some others contend these are issues to which churches would be wise to pay attention.

A 2010 study on social media and young adults, published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, found that nearly three-fourths of online teens use social media sites. In short: teenagers’ use of social networking is pervasive.

That reality has affected churches as well. Some congregations have integrated Facebook, Twitter and text messaging into their ways of communicating with teenagers involved in youth groups.

That has led some Presbyterians to raise questions about what their church’s policies are or should be for social media interaction — since some of that communication can be private and therefore open to potential abuse. Should, for example, an adult working in youth ministry send private text messages to teenagers? Should youth ministry social media sites be open for parents to see, or limited in access to students and their youth ministry leaders?

Should adults send friend requests to teenagers on Facebook? Some religious organizations have policies stating that adults in ministry can accept Facebook friend requests from teenagers, but can’t initiate such requests, because of the power inequity inherent in the relationship – it may be that a particular teenager doesn’t want that much personal attention from an adult.

Adam J. Copeland, a Presbyterian minister from North Dakota (and an occasional writer for the Outlook), blogged last falls in Christian Century that his searching turned up a surprising dearth of church social media policies. “I expect the main reason is that policies like this often develop because of misuse and abuse, not before it,” Copeland wrote.

All of that leaves some Presbyterians asking how concerned adults, communities and congregations can get involved in helping young people navigate a fast-changing, exciting and challenging technological world.

Jill Brown is a New Jersey mother of three children and a member of The Presbyterian Church in Westfield. She also is the founder of two Web sites dealing with children and social media use ( and The second of those sites, which she designed with the help of educators and law enforcement officials, offers an alternative to Facebook for networks involving younger children, such as sports teams, Scout troops or church youth groups.

Brown also is involved in efforts, including presentations to school assemblies, to try to educate children and their parents about how to use social networks wisely. “The bottom line is they make mistakes all the time,” she said of teenagers’ online use.

Sometimes parents keep a distance from their children’s social media use – either because they’re not comfortable with computers themselves or in an effort to give their children privacy. Brown argues that parents need to balance privacy concerns with protection.

“You protect them from what other people might learn about them,” she said – information others don’t need to know or which might misrepresent the kind of person they are. “Or are they being victimized, being teased, being cyberbullied? If you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t help your child. Kids don’t tell their parents, because if they do, parents take away Facebook or the phone. … That’s like taking away their right arm.”

Instead of taking away access, she urges parents to become involved in social networking with their children, and to use what they see as inappropriate activity as teaching opportunities, chances to talk about social media with their children.

In her presentations, Brown presents the idea that Facebook and other social media sites leave what might be a permanent record — and that teenagers should not post or write anything they wouldn’t be comfortable putting on a billboard for all to see.

In middle school, for example, “sexting is so huge,” she said — referring to the way teenagers send each other sexually explicit text messages or photos. “Sexting is their way of learning how to deal with their hormones and their emotions and starting to like the opposite sex. It’s our version of spin the bottle,” done with cell phone cameras and videos.

Let’s say “you have a boyfriend and he asks you to send him a (nude) picture. You really like him and you want him to think you’re pretty. So you send him a picture” — and then he forwards it to some of his friends.

There can be legal consequences, Brown said, for minors caught with explicit photos on their phones or computers. “You can be charged as a sex offender,” a charge with serious long-term consequences. “Then if you forward that picture to your friends, that’s called distribution of child pornography. That’s really serious stuff.”

Sometimes it’s cutting words that get passed around — words that can be painful enough when spoken, but take on added weight if someone makes a harsh comment on Facebook, and then others jump in.

Sometimes whoever initiates a chain of comments pretends to be joking. What happens next is that others start commenting, and “the next thing you know it’s like a gang of people commenting about you,” Brown said.

What role can churches play in addressing issues such as these?

Brown wants more churches to start talking about social media usage – educating both teenagers and their parents.

“It’s our job to teach people how to live the Christian values” – to connect the teachings of the Bible to everyday life, Brown said. “Adults need to hear this too.”