Monday, May 12, 2008

Making Connections

I just finished watching the Frontline program Kids Online. Ok - so like I'm five months behind on Frontline. Anyway, I received the program as an objective and informative account of why and how young people in North American society, especially teenagers who have wide open access to the Internet, get and stay connected on the Internet for hours on end. Producer Caitlin McNally made a statement about what she learned while she was completing research and talking with kids about the subject of teenagers and the Internet. She said:

"I think kids were generally excited that a bunch of adults wanted to listen to stories about their lives online, especially adults who weren't parents or teachers. We unleashed from them a flood of anecdotes, vocabulary and intricate rules and hierarchies. We repeatedly heard the Internet language that has become ubiquitous: LOL, BRB, POS (parent over shoulder). We learned about alliances, indignations, imaginative creations and secret friendships online. One girl described to us, with great confidence, a long-term and serious online relationship with a boy she had met only twice in real life. It made me think about the sheepishness and discomfort with which a lot of adults talk about meeting a date online.

Despite the research we did, I don't think I was prepared when we started talking to kids for the extent to which the Internet and other electronic communication has permeated all aspects of being a teenager. Almost every kid expressed the utter importance of being connected with friends all the time and how unthinkable a life without that connection would be."
There are two points I'd like to think about in Ms. McNally's statement. First -- teenagers, including college students if I'd have to guess, yearn for adult figures to take an interest in what they are doing online. That feels like a heavy and perhaps loaded statement. Why aren't teenagers interested in letting their teachers and parents know what they are doing on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube? Do they feel guilty, require personal space, want to do stuff that they don't want their authority figures to know about? Probably in many homes and absolutely in some cases. On the other hand ... Ms. McNally's statement suggests that the teenagers she talked with were totally ready to let her into their social networking web.Maybe the students were just psyched about gaining some fame.Maybe they felt like they connected with an adult who was interested in their personae. I don't know the answers to those questions - probably varies from young person to young person. What seems to matter are the answers to the question: "How can other adults such as youth directors, counselors, family friends, television program producers, whatever, connect with positive and meaningful ways that teachers and parents may not be able to make. We need answers to this question as it relates to making positive and healthy connections to Jesus Christ in our parishes and neighborhoods. Where is Jesus hanging out on the Internet? Is he only out there on evangelical websites or in churches where teens can come in and play video games on Internet networked, flat screen plasma displays.

My second question concerns having to stay connected 24/7. Teens, at least according to this producer and the information on the show, hate to be alone or disconnected from what's going on in the matrix of their social network. Non-stopAIM, cellular text messaging, and Video Chat connections leave little or no need for listening to God. Maybe silence is too freaking boring. Are there ways that silence is attractive? That question may be too simplistic. I think that many teens do like hanging out in beautiful natural settings. They just want to take their cell phone with them so that they can take digital photos and share the pics with their friends back home. It just seems to me that we've generally got to prove to some teens that there is some worth in disconnecting from friends and non-stop noise for a little while throughout the week. What would it look and feel like to have circles of silence for more than five minutes. I've noticed that the labyrinth at Chapel Rock works for some teens that walk it. Other campers think it's lame.

In sum, the Internet is indeed here to stay and younger people are linked into it in all sorts of ways. God can be virtual too but Christ as the incarnational presence of God is not principally about Second Life avatars or faceless friends. I feel like we've got to reacquaint teenagers with themselves, their friends, their families, and the Church in less digital and more tacit ways. However, we can't slice up teens' virtual lives from their lives in the "Real World." Interested adults need to be relevant, border-line cool, and genuinely interested in objective but helpful ways - in order to connect with younger people who reside on the other side of the virtual canyon between teens and elders. Sharing the compassionate and wise gospel of Jesus the Christ can be one blessed way to create a bridge between us, them, and God.

Blessings Along the Way,