About the Author
Shelby Meyerhoff

Beacon book explores internet use by teens and young adults

In the comments on a previous post, UUA Youth and Young Adult Ministries Director Erik Kesting recommended The Young and the Digital, by S. Craig Watkins. So I picked up a copy and now that I’m finished reading, I’m happy to second his recommendation!

In this Beacon Press book (yes, we’re biased!), Craig Watkins explores how teenagers and young adults are using new media. This is not a how-to book on new media, but rather a sociological exploration of to what ends new media is being used. Watkins draws on qualitative and quantitative research to make the case that young people go online primarily to develop and strengthen real-world relationships. Watkins writes:

A great irony of life on the computer screen is the fact that we usually go online alone but often with the intent of communicating with other people…Granted, connecting via a mobile phone or Facebook is a different way of bonding, but, as I argue in the following pages, these practices are expressions of intimacy and community.

For those who are interested in the statistical and anecdotal evidence backing up Watkins’s premise — or in considering how the concepts of online intimacy and community relate to the use of new media by congregations — the book provides plenty to chew on.  Equally interesting are Watkin’s explorations into how young people’s online/offline relationships are developed. I was particularly intrigued by the following of his observations:

Teenagers and young adults differ in their use of the internet to build relationships. Watkins describes teenagers, who have fewer opportunities to gather and socialize in real-life, using the internet to bond and have extended conversations. By contrast, “the Web, for young twenty-somethings, [is] less of a destination for hanging out and more of a place to life share and communicate with friends in between the next face-to-face encounter.” (See Chapter Three.)

Ideas about race and class influence the way that young people view their engagement with social networking sites and other people on those sites. Jumping off from danah boyd’s essay “Viewing American Class Divisions through Facebook and MySpace,” Watkins argues that there is a strong urge to self-segregate among young Facebook users. Watkins concludes, “Despite all of the hype about how the digital age is changing our lives, it has not changed one essential aspect of human life — who we form our strongest social ties with.” It’s notable that while Watkins’s central argument about the use of the internet to build social relationships dovetails with that of the recent Pew survey, he presents a very different picture of the relationship between internet use and the diversity of one’s social networks. (See Chapter Four.)

Young people struggle with the darker side of internet use. The internet-related dangers that Watkins describes young people facing are similar to those confronting adults: internet addiction and excessive multitasking. (See Chapters Six, Seven, and Eight.)

I enjoyed this book without having a background in professional religious education, but I imagine that it would be especially interesting and useful for congregational leaders and staff who work with teens and young adults.

Technology use, social isolation, and the implications for congregations

The Pew Internet and American Life Project recently released their “Social Isolation and New Technology” which investigates the relationship between social isolation and the use of mobile phones, the internet, and online social networking. The report is complex, as the it attempts to account for varying degrees of social isolation, different types of technology use, and unresolved questions about causation. The following are some of the key findings of the survey (as found in the report conclusion):

  • The “size and diversity” of Americans’ social networks has declined (although the prevalence of severe social isolation has not increased): “Compared to the relatively recent past, most Americans now have fewer people with whom they discuss important matters, and the diversity of people with whom they discuss these issues has declined.”
  • The changes that Americans are experiencing in their social networks are harmful: “Smaller and less diverse core networks diminish personal well-being by limiting access to social support. There are simply fewer people we can rely on in a time of need – whether it is a shoulder to cry on, to borrow a cup of sugar, or to help during a crisis. Small and narrow core networks also impede trust and social tolerance; they limit exposure to the diverse opinions, issues, and ideas of others.”
  • Use of social networking tools is not correlated with the trend towards “smaller and less diverse core networks.”  The headline-worthy news from the survey is: “[The] survey finds the opposite trend amongst internet and mobile phone users; they have larger and more diverse core networks.”
  • The report doesn’t prove that engagement with certain technologies causes users to have larger and more varied social networks: “We do not know if use of new technologies contributes directly to larger and more diverse core networks, or if those who use technology in a certain way are likely to have better networks from the beginning.”

The survey — and the larger debate about the connection between internet use and social relationships — raises questions that may be relevant to congregational life, such as:

  • What is the role of congregations in responding to the deterioration of social networks and the resultant challenges facing individuals?
  • Are there ways that congregational leaders and religious professionals can use new media to help build more robust and diverse social networks within the congregation?
  • Because of the relative size and diversity of new technology users’ networks, do congregations have a greater likelihood of reaching a diverse audience through social networking tools, rather than relying solely on word-of-mouth and other traditional outreach methods? (This question relates not only to the composition of online networks, but also to the patterns of how content is shared among social media users within networks).
  • What are the unique challenges of promoting a congregation or faith movement through social media? The Pew report also found that “Users of social networking websites are 40% more likely to visit a bar, but 36% less likely to visit a religious institution.” Egad! Is this because of the demographics of social networking users, because religious institutions aren’t using social networks as successfully as possible, or due to some other factor?

New blog about growing our faith, post about ministry and new media

I’m posting with two quick shout-outs to Unitarian Universalists sharing their wisdom about new media:

Peter Bowden, the Unitarian Universalist lay leader who created and manages UUPlanet.tv, has recently started “The UU Growth Blog” in his role as a growth consultant for the UUA’s Ballou Channing District. He’s published several posts specifically about communications, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

Rev. Cynthia Landrum recently wrote about how she uses blogging, Facebook, and Twitter in her ministry. I especially enjoyed this pithy remark: “Putting something out on Facebook is like saying something at a crowded party–you can’t assume everyone present heard you say it, yet you shouldn’t say anything you don’t want repeated to everyone.”