Wherever young people go today, social media follows. In fact, a recent study found that 41 percent of teens called themselves “addicted” to their mobile devices. While some mentoring programs deliberately have young people unplug, many programs use technologies as hands-on learning tools and with 75 percent of teens accessing the Internet with their mobile phones, developing a technology policy for mentoring programs is a must.
Whether or not young people actually bring mobile phones or other devices to an activity, it is almost certain that they will be texting or communicating about it online. And it is just as likely that the adults involved in the program also text and use social media. Therefore, given the propensity to use technologies at, and relating to, youth programs, what guidelines should organisations have? What issues should program leaders consider for maximising its potential and minimising harm?
Social media use
- According to research undertaken by the Roy Morgan Institute in 2016, ninety percent of Australia teens are online, and three-quarters of them access the Internet through their mobile phones.
- A 2012 survey by Common Sense Media reported that nine out of 10 teens had used social media and that the majority see it as a positive influence in their lives.
- More than half of young poeple said they checked a social media site at least once per day, but 43 percent of the teens said they wanted to disconnect sometimes.
- More than one-third said they sometimes wished for a time when there was no Facebook.
- Almost half reported that talking face-to-face is their preferred way to communicate, followed by texting. And, of course, some have had negative experiences online.
- One in six online teens say they have been contacted online by someone they did not know in a way that made them feel scared or uncomfortable, according to the Pew 2013 report “Teens, Social Media and Privacy.”
- One-fourth of teens report being cyberbullied at some point in their lives, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center [sic]. The Center defines cyberbullying as repeatedly picking on or ridiculing someone online or repeatedly posting something they don’t like.
Policies for and about young people
In writing a policy, the goals include ensuring young people’s safety, protecting their privacy and keeping families informed. It’s also a chance to educate young people about communication via digital technology.
The guidelines for young people should explain the organisation’s use of social media. What is appropriate for posting on Twitter or Instagram? Is friending, following or texting with adult staff allowed? Is email to be used for certain purposes but not others?
Mentees in the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program can communicate with their “big” through Facebook if they are at least 13 and their parent gives permission. Parents must sign a permission form before photos of their child may be posted. The “big” must also sign a form agreeing to use privacy settings so that no information about the child can be viewed by the public. Facebook is the only social media site permitted for direct communication between “bigs” and “littles.”
Some organisations actively involve young people in digital learning — teaching computer skills or video or radio production, for example. Darri Stephens, director of digital learning for Common Sense Media, suggests that programs might work collaboratively with parents and young people to draft a social media policy. If mentee are using computers or other devices in the program, this approach can gain their buy-in, she said. Other organisations, however, prohibit digital devices altogether.
In devising a policy, the first step is to consider the program’s mission.
Many programs seek to connect with young people by using social media. In that case, several questions are useful:
- Why do we want to “connect” with young people online?
- What risks are there in this engagement that are similar to our offline practice?
- What risks are there in this engagement that are different from our offline practice?
- Given these risks, what are reasonable ways to manage these?
For staff and volunteers
Designate one or two people to handle a program or organisation’s social media site/s so the tone and voice is consistent, recommends Joleen Ong, marketing and publications director of NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network, because ultimately the audience doesn’t care who is posting as long as the message is consistent. And when posting photos of anyone under 18, it’s important to have parents’ permission, she said.
Youth organisations vary widely in the rules they set for staff and volunteers.
For example, only about half of youth mentoring organisations have a written policy on use of social media between mentors and mentees, according to research published in the Children and Youth Services Review. The article, “Mentoring in the digital age: Social media use in adult-youth relationships,” reported that 59 percent of mentoring programs allow mentors and mentees to friend each other on Facebook. The remainder prohibited or discouraged it. “Write a policy and make it clear at the outset”, said Jean Rhodes, director for Evidence Based Mentoring and an author of the article. “Don’t wait until issues arise…and if there are not clear expectations ahead of time, it’s a recipe for hurt”. Rhodes cited a situation when a young person disclosed something time-sensitive on Facebook, but the mentor wasn’t checking Facebook and didn’t respond. Setting expectations around social media at the beginning could have prevented the problem.
Whether the policy allows or prohibits friending on Facebook should be communicated at the start. A big issue with social media is that it can blur the boundaries between adult staff and program participants. Staff and volunteers in youth-serving agencies need to be mindful of their public persona, Rhodes said. “They need to be intentional and aware they are in that role,” she said. Adults can put privacy settings on social media pages so that everything is not visible. They can also create a separate social media account, such as a professional Facebook page for use with young people.
Finally, Rhodes sees great value in social media and digital communication among youth-serving organisations. It allows for easier, more timely communication between youth and their mentors and helps build relationships, she said. It also allows mentees to ask questions, raise issues and make disclosures when they are ready. “Just because it’s digital doesn’t mean it’s any more or less dangerous” than other communication, and “If you shut off those avenues of communication, and you may shut off a lot of valuable communication”.