Working with children in a digital age

There was no doubting Dr. Bex Lewis’s enthusiasm for all things digital.  She is not only an expert on the web and social media, she is a dedicated user!

The CGMC Spring Conference this year had chosen to focus on how technology is impacting our ministry with children and families and, to borrow the subtitle from Dr. Lewis’s recent book on this for parents, on how we can ‘enjoy the best and avoid the worst’ of all that is available at the press of a button on the keyboard or the slide of a finger on a screen. This is the digital age within which our children are growing up; and they are natives in this world while many of us who have responsibility to train, lead and inspire those who work among these children are merely digital visitors.  There was a lot to unpack and discuss over our 24 hours together.

Dr. Lewis began by introducing us to some of the facts and figures about social media and its use – although these are already out of date as they were being given!  All this raised many interesting issues for our work.  The afternoon presentation was a free-flowing conversation between our guest speaker and us as a group as each new slide prompted thoughts, reactions and more questions.  Like browsing the web itself, we soon found ourselves following trails far from the path we started on and stumbling across new challenges and possibilities as our Internet search led us from one reflection to the next!  Today’s social media revolution is the new reality for this generation and just as for the missionaries of old who were eager to share the gospel, we too need to get to know this new culture if we are to engage with it and find ways both to receive and share God’s love appropriately among those we work with.

This is a generation that even before birth already has a digital shadow; a generation that is using fewer and fewer words but communicating more and more; a generation that has already abandoned texting and is using other platforms to create communities; a generation for whom images and messages are important in the moment but then instantly lost; but it is also a generation, as Dr. Lewis observed, that in many respects is not as media-savvy about the commercial dangers of the web as we might have imagined.

All of us need help to be more confident about how and why we use the web and how we manage for example ‘the long arm of Google’ and don’t just look at what the advertisers want us to see.  Because something is free doesn’t always mean it is helpful and we need to be alert as to who and what is driving our interest in what is out there online.  However Dr. Lewis didn’t want us as Christians to retreat from this world but to be ‘present’ in a whole-life way, not segregating our digital and spiritual lives.  The Internet offers so many new and positive ways to engage with a wide audience and share our faith story.  She cited for example the website ‘’ as a recent example of one set up by Christians for those whose babies had died, offering them a safe space to grief and find support.

Many of us in CGMC face very practical questions around the use of social media in our ministry.  Should we for example insist that phones be turned off or do we encourage tweeting etc. when we work with children and young people?  Much is made of this generation’s ability to multi-task although as Dr Lewis commented, there are two ways in which this can happen: one which adds to the conversation and one which distracts.  It seems it’s not always easy to spot the difference.

Another dimension to this whole debate is the way in which this web revolution is redefining what we mean by a ‘friend’ or a ‘neighbour’.  Both of these are precious words within our faith tradition but now might well mean someone far away whom we have never met face to face but with whom we share something in common; and in some cases these may one day even become ‘face-to-face friends’.  Throughout history every new technology has generated a moral panic of some sort about its negative potential and even corrupting influence, but we should beware joining in with this popular outbreak of paranoia; far better that we model best practice in the use of the web as a tool for good and help others to hear the voices of common sense that will encourage them to find their own way through the sound and fury of some of the current safeguarding debates.  It is important to remind ourselves that it is human beings at the end of the fingers that are using these new tools and that the same rules of how we should respect and care for each other apply whether it is face to face or tweet to tweet.  We are in control of what we share and we want to see and although of course there is ‘bad stuff’ out there as in all walks of life, there are in fact more safeguards around the web than is ever possible within the routines of our everyday lives.  There may be new risks but there are also new ways to manage and think about these risks.

Technology makes many things possible but not necessarily inevitable.  We do not have to be, as Dr. Lewis reminded us, victims of some sort of technological determinism.  In fact social media and the web have opened up all sorts of important debates for us as Christians about the nature of church and the way to make contact with communities for whom church attendance for all sorts of reasons is either difficult, unattractive or impossible.  At the heart of our faith the incarnation teaches us both that God understands what it means to be human but also that as Jesus God can show us how to be the best humans we can be, both person to person in the flesh and face to screen online.

This first session raised lots of interesting lines of thought which we continued to explore and develop in one to one conversations and the next morning.  The world of social media has added many positive dimensions to our ministries, helping children to connect to a wider world, giving them a voice, enabling them to explore more creative responses in learning, and even, as one member pointed out, reducing vandalism on our buses because the children now have something else to do on the journey home!  As a church we must not be scared of what is new but help each other to use it well and not let it use us.  There are of course some worrying issues, for example, the digital divide between the developed and developing world and the part this has to play in the growing global tensions between the rich and the poor; the way it may be re-wiring brain patterns for very young children who are engaging with this digital world too quickly and too soon; the way it may well be affecting our understanding of friendships in depth; and perhaps even in the area of possible web addiction by some.  All this is part of the fascinating debate that could have continued.  We are all caught up in the new digital age in some way or another but seeing it as part of a new and exciting tool box of learning is perhaps the healthiest and most positive way forward.

On the second morning we took our theme further by sharing with each other the range of digital communications that we received within our ministries, with the challenge as to how we might practically filter these more effectively both for ourselves and for those we serve.  We need to help others distinguish between what is worth reading and what is not.  We also reflected that we need to be selective in our sharing of resources according to the different audiences with whom we are communicating and as ‘guardians’ be careful about what we recommend.  There is also an issue about keeping a wise balance between our personal and our professional roles in this context. Finally, Mary then helped us compile a list of recommended websites – which she deftly called up on the web even as we spoke! – and she will send this list around the group following the conference.

Children and young people, we all acknowledged, will always be somewhat ahead of us in this digital world, but in fact, young people needing and finding somewhere as their own personal ‘secret’ space is nothing new and indeed is healthy for each generation.  Our job is to be responsible listeners and at least be aware of what is out there so we can be informed leaders who can be trusted and who set a good example of web use.  We are all ‘Bringing up children in a digital age’ as Dr. Lewis’s book is entitled, and in this respect, whether we are online addicts or not, we all need to help each other live with this new world of social media responsibly.  To this end we plan to post follow-up material from this conference to keep people informed.  Our website and Facebook page  are the places to go to find information about what we discussed and in particularly the decisions taken at our Business Meeting, which includes information about our exciting partnership with the Methodist Church and the Family Ministry research.  We even talked about having a CGMC Pinterest board.  When it’s up and running, we’ll give you a tweet! 

Our thanks go to Mary and Gail who helped arrange this stimulating conference. Who will ever forget our creative ‘Bible verses of promise out of a cereal packet’ devotion on the second morning?!  Cheerio!

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