Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Jewish Teens and Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Inappropriate

In the early 1990s I was an active leader in my synagogue’s high school youth group. Even as a young teen I appreciated the importance of communication in cultivating new members to the congregation’s chapter of United Synagogue Youth (USY) and for keeping current members abreast of upcoming events. This membership communication came in the form of photocopied flyers on colored Xerox paper, phone messages left on the family’s answering machine, and hand drawn posters attached to cork boards with push pins in the synagogue lobby. Once every two months we assembled a cut-and-paste newsletter to be photocopied, stapled and sent to members’ homes.

social networking and teens
Teens and Social Media - sheknows.com

Much has changed in the past twenty years when it comes to teens and communication. Everything is now instant. Those mailed event flyers often took as much as a week to arrive in teens’ mailboxes, but today’s texts and tweets arrive in the blink of an eye. Direct communication, of course, has become easier as we’re almost always available to chat. No more leaving messages on answering machines as teens can connect virtually anytime using Skype, FaceTime or text messaging. Parents, however, are often out of the communications process in the 21st century. Each teen has her own cellphone to talk, text and video chat so parents often don’t know what their teens are doing or where they’re going unless they ask (or snoop).

For the most part, the growth of instant communication and social media has been a positive for teens in general and the success of Jewish teenage youth groups in particular. But despite the ways social networks like Facebook and instant messaging services have made it easier for teens to communicate with each other and for Jewish teen leaders to promote their group’s programs in more efficient ways, there are some very scary consequences that come with this high tech communication and social sharing.

Teens often forget that what they post on social network sites have a permanency to it and will stay with them in the future. They also have a tendency to post mean, hurtful comments about others. Inappropriate posts about sex, drugs, disabilities, and other’s body type are all hurtful to others and harmful for future employment and even college admissions. This dark side of teens and social media isn’t restricted to Jewish teens, but according to the adults who work with them in youth groups, these are very prevalent problems today.

I asked a few local experts in the field of informal Jewish education and Jewish youth groups to share some of their own experiences dealing with the oversharing and inappropriateness of teens using social media. All of the experts agreed that teens are focusing their time around a few major social networks including Instagram, Vine, Twitter and Snapchat. Some teens are using Facebook, but to a lesser extent than the other, newer applications.


Rabbi Jen Lader of Temple Israel, who works with the West Bloomfield congregtion’s teens, says that her main concern surrounding teens and social media is their “lack of understanding regarding how incredibly public (and permanent) their actions are online. They use social media as a personal diary, posting every thought, picture and opinion, with no regard for how it might affect them in the future.”

The rabbi, who has developed a very good rapport with Metro Detroit’s Jewish teens and will be returning as a staff member on this summer’s Teen Mission to Israel, interacts often with teens on social networking sites. “I ‘like’ and comment on teens’ posts all the time, particularly when they are being kind or supportive of each other. I think it helps me to solidify personal relationships with teens. I also make sure that I reference what they’re posting, good or bad — congratulating them on their basketball team’s win, or telling the girls how much I liked their prom dresses, or pulling someone aside for a conversation about pictures of underage drinking, etc.”

Lindsey Rosenberg, who works with local Jewish teens in the Michigan region of BBYO, finds that “teens have said mean things to others or posted pictures they later regret. Even when they think they have taken it down forever, others may have seen it and taken a screenshot. Often these posts get passed around.

Rabbi Lader says that on the one hand she knows “more about what’s going on in their lives and can connect with them in a way that feels natural for their generation.” However, she acknowledges it’s difficult “in that I sometimes know too much, and it can affect levels of trust. I also don’t think that a social media relationship is worth the same as an in-person relationship, and sometimes teens feel that since we interact all the time, there is no need to come to an event to catch up.”

David Lerner, who directs Motor City USY, is also concerned about how easy it is for teens to bully other teens through these social networks. “A concern is the way in which the internet is used to enable bullying,” he says. “Also, it goes with the Jewish values of tzniyut (modesty) and privacy. I feel that some teens expose too much online. Because of this, they compromise the intimate and genuine qualities of personal relationships and deep friendships.”

Rabbi Lader has had to admonish teens about “photos of themselves and their friends completely trashed on spring break in the Bahamas, posting about who is sleeping with whom, writing really nasty things about their teachers on Twitter [and] tagging ‘kush’ and ‘edibles’ under pictures of brownies on Instagram” – terms for marijuana-laced baked goods.

One trend that has remained constant in teens’ use of technology has been the migration of teens from a particular social network once their parents get on board. While teens flocked to Facebook in the early years, with the growth of adults, teens have sought out other social networks. Rabbi Lader explains, “Teens crave personal connection, and I think that whatever comes next is going to address that — the photos and video are more connective than a post, FaceTime is more connective than a text, and I’m excited to see what the next ‘thing’ will be. It’s going to have to happen soon, since parents are all signing up for Instagram, which means there will be a mass exodus of teens in the near future!”

Much of the time teens’ social media posts are harmful to each other in ways that are mean or spiteful. However, Rabbi Lader has encountered teens whose posts could have serious legal consequences. “I had a teen recently who was regularly posting pictures of herself high, and pictures of food with tags that obviously meant that the food was drugged,” she explains. “I asked her out to coffee, we spent some time chatting about her life, friends, future plans, and then I brought up the pictures. I asked her if she knew they were public, and told her that I was concerned that she was using drugs regularly and that her social media posts would negatively impact her future as a college student, employee and a potential partner for someone.” The teen was grateful for Rabbi Lader’s intercession.

With all of the pitfalls of teen’s social media use the benefits for an informal Jewish educator working with teens are endless. For Lerner who is trying to resuscitate the local USY group, social media has proven very helpful. “Social media outlets provide free marketing, which makes my job easier. Social media also provides me with a great tool with which to empower teens to take on leadership roles and to increase the range of my potential teen network,” Lerner says. “Further, social media is a great method of communication for marketing, event planning, feedback and sharing program photos.”

Sometimes teens will use social networks to reach out for help in difficult times. Rabbi Joshua Foster, a Jewish educator and youth group adviser in Cleveland who is originally from West Bloomfield, recently saw that a student of his had “posted what appeared to be a suicide note on their Facebook wall, expressing frustrations with the world and why they were choosing to do this. The letter was seen by many friends and family and was quickly removed, though it was gratifying to see the outpouring of love and support for the individual. Fortunately the parents learned of the post quickly and are helping their child through this difficult time. In the community of teens who were friends with this student and may have seen the post, we reached out and offered to speak with anyone who was shaken or wanted to talk about it.”

Communication has changed at the speed of light in the past several decades. Teens are given a lot of responsibility to use digital devices to keep in touch with their friends and mentors. This means the dissemination of information is instant making it easier for teen youth groups to promote events and engage new members, but it also means an increased danger in the spread of information that shouldn’t be made public. Adults, including those professionals charged with the direction of Jewish teen groups, will have to remain vigilant in teaching teens appropriate behavior for the use of social media.

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