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.

Q: What about new media guidelines for religious education?

In the previous post, I offered some suggestions for crafting a congregational new media policy. Another related and frequently-asked question is about new media policies specifically for youth groups. At this time, the UUA does not have an official sample policy for youth groups.

What I usually recommend to youth advisors is that they join the UUA’s “advisor-l” e-mail list for youth advisors, browse the archives to read past conversations about communicating online, and — if the answer to their question isn’t available in the archives — post a new question to the list.

Religious educators may also find it useful to consult the UUA’s resources on creating and maintaining a safe congregation and to contact their district office if further guidance is needed.

If your congregation has an online communication policy for religious educators that you think would be helpful to other congregations — or you would like to suggest some guidelines that have worked well in your experience as a lay leader or professional religious educator — please comment!