JJ Shackelford loves his iPhone 5. He uses it to check sports stats, stay in contact with his parents, play video games and connect with his friends. He keeps it with him and checks it multiple times throughout the day. JJ is 11 years old.
“I need a phone,” he says. “All my friends have one.”
According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, JJ is probably right. The study, “Teens and Technology,” found that 78 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have a cellphone, and 37 percent have a smartphone. In addition, 95 percent of teens access the Internet via a phone, and 1 in 4 is a “cell-mostly” Internet user.
And not only do young people use the Internet, according to Common Sense Media, but they spend an average of 3.5 hours a day on social media alone.
What used to be teenagers spending hours tying up the family phone with one friend now has become teenagers spending hours talking and texting with a whole tribe of friends. In fact, a study by TextPlus found that half of the teens surveyed said they couldn’t live without their mobile devices for a week, while 36 percent said they weren’t able to go 10 minutes without checking their phones.
Clearly, many teens are victims of technology overload.
This is hardly news to parents and church leaders. In fact, studies show technology overload applies as much to adults as to teens. Phonearena.com reports the average smartphone owner looks at his device 150 times daily.
Because social media and expanding technology represent the new normal, how churches respond to teenagers’ increased use may determine the extent to which the next generation will be evangelized and discipled.
One of the best ways for a church to connect with tech-savvy youth, according to Nicole Unice, is to be a place that continues to evolve. Unice, a ministry associate who has written extensively on technology and the church, says congregational leaders can appear out of touch by ignoring the reality of teens’ involvement with technology.
“If your church isn’t involved in social media or doesn’t keep a current website, you’re sending a message about what you think of technology, whether you want to or not,” Unice says. “That message says, ‘We’re not evolving along with the culture.’ Teens pick up on that, and then the church struggles with relevancy issues.”
Many Christian leaders realize the church can redeem technology and use it for a spiritual purpose. They believe technology is not intended to replace relationships but rather to enhance them.
Assemblies of God National Youth Director Heath Adamson, who has worked with teenagers for almost two decades, is one such advocate.
“People need to understand we’re dealing with a cultural issue, not a spiritual one,” Adamson says. “We can use technology to create community, to add value to the life of a person, and to make disciples throughout the rhythm of life. It’s a great way to connect with teens and disciple them.”
One of the ways the AG is doing that is through the 7:14 prayer app, available in the iTunes App Store and at 714movement.org. This app includes a daily devotional, verses every teenager should memorize by the time they graduate high school, and weekly video updates that mentor and coach young people in prayer.
The app also encourages students to create their own prayer lists and post those on their social media. The app has a database of every school in the country, so students can adopt their schools and build prayer lists around them as well.
Churches also can encourage Bible and devotional reading on phones, as well as a number of other options to connect with teens through technology. But it’s important to remember, Unice says, that issues of technology aren’t resolved simply by adding more technology.
“I know some churches that try to connect with teens by having a bunch of Xboxes, but that’s the wrong way to approach it,” Unice says. “Instead, we have to fight technology by creating experiences that are more compelling. We can’t compete against the entertainment a student already has access to. We have to fight that with something real, and the something real we can offer is personal, face-to-face relationships.”
Still, many adults get frustrated because when they try to have conversations with their teens the young people are multitasking on their phones.
Haydn Shaw, generational expert and author of Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart, disagrees. He says it is normal for teens to be connected through multiple channels of communication. He believes adults misunderstand by thinking that teens don’t want to engage relationally.
“Teens are very relational; they run in tribes,” Shaw says. “And they use the technology for small talk and updates when they’re not together.”
Shaw thinks this pattern provides a solid opportunity for churchgoing adults.
“The great thing about this generation is that if we evangelize and disciple two people, we can influence a whole tribe,” Shaw says.
Even with online engagement, Shaw insists teens still desire mentoring and face-to-face connections.
Statistics back up Shaw’s assertion. Common Sense Media reports that 49 percent of teens prefer face-to-face time to screen time.
One of the ways Unice has used technology with teens is to be intentional about building direct relationships as well; if she connects online with a student, she also meets in person with the student. Even though students desire that in-person relationship with adults, many are uncomfortable because they lose the anonymity and safety in not being face-to-face, she says.
Unice believes the church needs to engage teens by integrating their online lives with their real lives.
“That helps discipleship efforts, because if I see something online—say a person is feeling down—I can address that face-to-face, instead of going through small talk and pretending everything’s fine,” Unice says.
Eleven-year-old JJ Shackelford says the best interactions he has are when his divorced parents or youth leaders take the time to connect with him on an individual basis.
“But it’s still cool when I can text people and let them know what I’m doing,” he says.
Adamson adds that adults have a responsibility to ensure they aren’t too busy to connect with young people.
“It’s important to remember adults struggle with this stuff as much as teens do,” Adamson says.
While technology overload undoubtedly is here to stay, the best way to fight it may still be the old-fashioned way: Adults who take the time to understand the younger generation and how they interact differently can then mentor them through personal relationships—both online and face to face.