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Wired Beyond Belief?

Tracy Carpenter

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.

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

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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