Wired Beyond Belief?

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Kids can access technology anywhere,any time. An online
expert looks at the deeper meaning behind this phenomenon-and what
it signifies for kids’ faith.

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The kids in your ministry are more wired technologically than
you may even realize.
Greg Taillon of iParenting.com estimates that up to 75 percent of
preteens have their own cell phones, while the Wall Street Journal
reports that kids play with computers; CD, DVD, and MP3 players;
and digital cameras-all before age 11. The same report found that
the market for tech toys aimed at preteens grew by 46 percent in
2004. Kids today are so absorbed in technology that they often
don’t differentiate between meeting someone face to face, talking
on the phone, or chatting online.

“I don’t know any [child who]doesn’t have a phone with them all
the time,” notes Catherine Cook, president of MyYearbook.com.

Kids are typically the first to embrace new technology. However,
their instant access to communication and information affects their
development in many critical ways that you need to be aware of.
This growing phenomenon warrants further examination-especially
from a faith perspective.

An Image Develops

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Have you visited the online profiles of kids in your ministry
lately? Or checked out any social networking sites? If you have,
you’ve seen kids’ edgy self-portraits peering out at
you…beckoning, challenging, enticing. Kids today snap everything
in their lives, thanks to fingertip access to digital
cameras-enough so that experts are taking notice.

Digital self-portraits are a recent, highly popular kid trend
that transcends regional boundaries and cultures. Kids everywhere
are doing it-from America to Japan. Cell phones equipped with
digital cameras have instigated a fundamental change in how we
capture images-and how we perceive them.

When you and I were kids, pictures served as “occasion
markers”-school portraits, birthdays, vacations. Our grandparents
took even fewer photos than we did, mainly due to limitations in
technology, cost, and the sense that they were something of a
luxury, used to capture life’s milestones.

Today, though, millions of kids take hundreds of pictures of
themselves in different poses, places, and situations. And these
aren’t pictures where kids sit stiffly in front of the camera and
mumble, “Cheese.” If you’ve spent any time browsing online profiles
(and you should to know what’s out there), you’ve seen their
melodramatic, exaggerated, and sometimes pretentious or suggestive
photos. Kids snap themselves wrapped in caution tape, holding their
breath, making weird faces, and positioning themselves
provocatively. This cultural trend is based on an obsession with
sharing self-portraits with friends and strangers through cell
phones, emails, or Internet uploads.

Behind the Pose

Digital self-portraiture is a high-tech way of expressing an
impulse among adolescents that psychologists call the imaginary
audience, says Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a developmental psychologist
and Fulbright scholar at the University of Copenhagen. “This is the
idea that adolescents think people are more interested in them than
they actually are, that people are always looking at them and
taking note of what they’re doing, even if it’s just walking across
the school cafeteria.”

Let’s dig in to how kids respond to “the imaginary audience”
with their self-portraits.
Building Peer Groups-Preteens, who are entering
the imaginary audience stage, are also wired for relationships. As
younger children they had playmates, but now they want friends.
Their peer groups soar to major status, and the power of the
“audience”-whether real or imagined-guides much of their social
behavior. And since peer groups are no longer geographically
limited, thanks to technology, kids may interact with others half a
world away. While we adults typically use the Internet as an
information-
gathering tool, preteens use it to build a network of friends that
may span the globe.
Trying On Identities-Kids want others to know
and understand them, and they want to express their identities.
Social networking sites let members create highly personalized home
pages loaded with message boards, blogs, photos, and streaming
music and video. Often kids create risqué or inaccurate profiles
right under the noses of their less-technologically adept parents.
Kids can play any role they choose. They post self-portraits and
information that offer a certain perception about them-often more
fiction than reality.

“Psychologists and others…say the digital self-portraiture is
an extension of behavior typical of the young, like trying on
different identities, which earlier generations might have
expressed through clothing and hairstyles,” writes Alex Williams in
his article “Here I Am Taking My Own Picture” in the New York
Times.

The role-playing evident in many self-portraits found online is
“a form of pretend, the adolescent version of children dressing
up.”
Emulating “Cool”-Kids’ self-portraits are full
of emulation and faux expression. Guys stick out their tongues like
rock stars or flex their muscles like bodybuilders, and girls pout
their lips like models. For kids, emulation is only natural;
developmentally they begin it very young as a way of learning. As
kids grow into preteens, they transfer their emulation to peers,
celebrities, and media influences. Older kids are inspired by what
they see their friends do, and naturally they want to “outdo” them.
Outdoing each other often means presenting an image that’s more
risqué, suggestive, edgy, or artistic.

Reality Emerges

Technology-and kids’ rampant access to it-has shifted the
sociological landscape for childhood today.
Relational Shifts-Kids have historically
belonged to social groups-Scouts, church groups, clubs, sports
teams, school friends, family friends. This hasn’t changed; kids
are still extraordinarily socially active within their groups. But
rather than face-to-face gatherings, they keep in touch with
friends from these groups through cell phones, which offer multiple
platforms for communication-email, texting, and talking. They take
pictures throughout the day of friends, teachers, the trip home
from school, dinner out, and anything else that defines their
lives, as a way to communicate what matters to them.
Personal Realities Made Public-“Thanks to the
availability of inexpensive digital cameras and Web sites that
simplify photo-sharing, Americans have a new favorite pastime:
creating their own reality shows, featuring themselves-and anyone
else they see along the way,” writes Janet Kornblum of USA Today.
“While many, especially young people, think it’s all fun, privacy
watchers are eyeing the new trend, trying to gauge just how it’ll
affect us legally and shape us socially.”

With kids putting their personal lives on global
display-regardless of the boundary between fiction and
reality-they’re inviting the world, for better or worse, into their
private domain; that’s something no other generation has even
conceived of.
Easy Access, Permanent Results-With great
freedom comes great responsibility, the saying goes. This is
especially true with the seemingly limitless possibilities
technology offers today.

“Cell phones have become portable computers,” notes Bob
Sullivan, technology correspondent for MSNBC. “And that has opened
up a whole new set of concerns.”
Many new mobile phones have Web access and even mobile television.
This means cell phone-packing kids can access content from the
Internet and TV from anywhere-with or without adult supervision.
It’s also unbelievably easy to alter, share, and post inappropriate
images to the Internet. And once images post to the Internet, it’s
virtually impossible to retrieve them.
Too Much Information-New networking and
file-sharing sites pop up almost daily, but MySpace.com is
unparalleled in popularity and use. In less than two years it has
emerged as one of the hottest sites on the Web, with more page
views than Google, more than 40 million members, and a growth rate
of two million a month. MySpace stands to rival MSN, Yahoo!, and
AOL as a major Web destination. MySpace has no guaranteed filters
or protection. If kids are on this site-and it’s naïve to believe
they aren’t-they’re experiencing mind-warping images and
information. Consider this: When Dateline NBC surfed MySpace,
reporters found scenes of binge drinking, apparent drug use, teens
posing in underwear, and people simulating and having sex. Equally
alarming was that young users routinely listed not only their names
and addresses, but even cell phone numbers and after-school
schedules.

Looking Through the Frame of Faith

As a children’s pastor, I’m continuously trying to gauge how
this image obsession affects kids spiritually.
It’s a Me-Me World-The phenomenon of kids taking
“image-making” self-portraits may only be the tip of the iceberg.
That’s because when you mix kids’ naïve and invincible nature with
the seedy side of social networking sites, you’ve got a situation
where children may be growing increasingly isolated from their
families and having their purity stolen, click by click, without
ever realizing it. Our cultural journey down the path of image
manipulation and sharing may leave our children with an insatiable
appetite for attention and instant gratification. It may set them
up to become more self-centered than God-centered.
Ministry: Mundane Versus Magnificent-Kids change
so quickly in their perceptions and perspectives that no mundane
children’s ministry will capture their attention. At any given
moment, kids are stewing in the sensory overload that cell phones,
computers, and the Internet have to offer. If we’re going to
protect our kids from Internet predators, pornography, and other
dangers, we must constantly seek to understand cultural
characteristics and development-including how kids communicate,
verbally, visually, or virtually. Intelligent people are always
open to new ideas…in fact they look for them (Proverbs
18:15).

Undeniably, one of the requirements of effective ministry to
this generation is the ability and commitment to seek to understand
the technology kids use. Take notice of what they take notice of,
or they won’t take notice of you.

As observers, technology allows us rare glimpses into kids’
worlds that frankly only an insider could provide. Kids’ pictures
offer clues about their everyday lives, concerns, and
identities-and they’re a starting point we can use to educate
ourselves about what’s important to the kids we’re ministering to.
Ultimately our goal should be to use this information as a tool to
enlighten and improve our ministry, teaching, and
relationships-enriching and educating kids by equipping them to
deal with whatever they may encounter not only on the computer, but
also in life. cm

Tracy Carpenter is the chief creative officer for Kidsworld
Studios, Inc., and serves as the director of creative development
for theporntalk.com, a Web site on how to talk to
kids about pornography and Internet dangers.

A Snapshot of Digital Camera Use in the
U.S.

  • 58 million households (more than half) owned a digital camera
    in 2005, up from 4.4% in 1999.
  • 68 million digital cameras are in use.
  • 17 billion pictures were snapped by digital camera owners in
    2005. That’s expected to double by 2008.
  • 8 billion regular prints were made from digital cameras in
    2005.
    Source: Photo Marketing Association International

To-Do List

As a children’s minister, I can:
• Help protect kids online by offering education and a biblical
worldview for them to consider as they surf.
• Help kids understand the dangers of the Internet and especially
social networking sites.
• Become more computer literate and encourage my team of leaders to
do the same.
• Immerse myself in kid culture and stay current with existing and
upcoming trends and technology.
• Offer counseling free of judgment for kids who make mistakes and
find themselves in trouble.
• Provide education for parents in the form of handouts, including
tips and valuable information about Internet dangers and
solutions.
• Create innovative programming for kids during high-risk hours
(for example, when school lets out).
• Give kids my cell phone number for emergencies.
• Build social networks within my ministry for kids to fall into as
they fall out of elementary school.

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