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Jonathan's Resource Ezine

Weekly Resources, Ideas and Articles from The Source for Youth Ministry
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

In This Issue

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Feature Article

HAVE YOU READ "PART I" OF THIS ARTICLE?
Click Here for the first half of this article where
Jonathan reveals the truth behind the rumors...


PART II-A Window into the "MySpace" Generation:
Gleaning from the MySpace Epidemic... or Objecting to It?

By Jonathan McKee
2/21/2006


What Now?

Good question. If you spend five minutes browsing MySpace.com or if you read about the dangers in Part I of this article, you'll probably be upset that the web site is such an epidemic in youth culture.

But it is.

So is Grand Theft Auto...

So is gangster rap...

So is Abercrombie and Fitch...

So should we listen to that one guy on the Christian radio and ban it?

Look at what that kind of reaction has accomplished in the past. It gave Scorsese's film, "The Last Temptation of Christ," more publicity that it could have ever asked for. People flocked to the film to see what was so offensive. The film makers laughed. After all, "No publicity is bad publicity."

Abercrombie and Fitch has capitalized on past attempts to boycott or ban the store and its magazine. In 2005, the store took a risk and did no advertising and still came up in the top 5 for revenue during the Christmas season. Last month the Baltimore Sun reported, "Abercrombie beat the odds by taking a contrarian approach. In a year of heavy promotions and bargains, it did virtually no advertising or discounting. Instead, it stayed with the racy imaging that has caused public controversy but continues to draw teenagers to its stores. (Baltimore Sun, January 6, 2006)

So how can we respond to the MySpace Epidemic?

Glad you asked. I see two ways: First, we can increase our awareness about it to protect our own kids from it. Second, we, as youth workers or parents, can consider gleaning from this porthole into the teenage world.

But there's the rub. In using it, are we endorsing it?

Let's dive in a little deeper. Here's my two cents to parents and youth workers.

What Youth Workers Can Tell Parents
Recently, my own 12 year old asked me if he could sign up for a MySpace.com account after hearing about it again and again at school, church, and karate class. I decided I had better take a peek. After two minutes of browsing through the site, occasionally stumbling across racy pictures and foul language, the answer was clear. I immediately blocked the entire site using a feature from my CyberPatrol service.

For parents of junior high students the answer is easy. "Sorry, you have to be 14." In other words, wimp out and delay the decision for two more years. (Then you don't have to be the bad guy-even MySpace says "no" to under 14.)

But if your kids are 14 or older, I admit, the answer would be more difficult. Consider this: Until a few months ago, MySpace posted, "If you're under 16, MySpace is not the place for you," the site cautioned. "Go away." Now the site has the exact same verbage, but with 14 as the age.

Did kids rapidly mature in the last few months? Or is MySpace STILL not for kids under 16 years of age? (Maybe somebody in a corner office doesn't like settling for the #7 slot. Facebook, similarly, now has a high school section, where they used to only be for college aged users. I know they must not enjoy being #38. ...Did I mention that we're content with TheSource4YM.com's #225,054 slot?)

If my son was 14 today, the answer would still probably be "No." The ads alone can be inappropriate (Find Naughty Singles). There are days when the ads seem to be racier than others. Last week I was looking at the site with another youth worker and 1 in 4 ads were a little on the raunchy side. Today I refreshed on a page 10 times and never saw a provocative ad once.

This is a difficult decision for a parent to make because there are plenty of good kids with innocent pages on MySpace. I've visited the pages of hundreds of youth group kids where they shared encouragement and scripture with each other. These kids had truly innocent pages, and some kids will want to be part of these online Christian networks.

But a few innocent pages do not make the entire site safe. For a 14 year old boy I wouldn't want him to have the temptation to wander off to other areas that aren't so innocent. Males are visual creatures and are easily lured by visual temptations. For a 14 year old girl I worry about the pressure to respond to "friend" requests and smutty conversations or postings. Sometimes the most innocent of girls will give in to these pressures because of self esteem issues or simple na?ve curiosity.

As kids get older, the decision to "block" MySpace" will be even more problematical. When my son is 16, the answer might not be "no." Listen to my logic. When my son is 16, I will only have two more years until he's going to be on his own making these choices by himself. So rather than just deflecting anything that comes his way, my goal would be to equip him to learn discernment. Any kid that doesn't live in a shoebox is going to see MySpace at a friend's house, school or somewhere. I'd rather my son see it in my house with me in the same room for accountability and input.

With a parent in the room, kids are much less likely to wander into trouble. If I'm with my son and he runs into something objectionable, we can quickly steer clear and then talk about it. If the occurrence becomes too common, maybe he'll even realize on his own that it's not a place for him.

Here are some suggestions of how parents can use MySpace:
  • If your kids are under 14, just block the site: As we've said multiple times, even the creators of MySpace don't allow users under 14. If you allow your 12 year old to create a MySpace page, you're allowing your 12 year old to lie. They can't create a page without testifying that they're at least 14. It's that simple. If you're okay with your kid lying... don't stop there. Lie about their age when you pay for movie tickets and you'll save quite a bit of money! (sarcasm implied)

  • Require full access: By "full access" I mean that parents should have the password for their kid's page giving them access to read the private emails, block users, activate privacy settings, and remove comments. Parents of girls need to especially note this. Girls are frequently solicited on MySpace. It's not an uncommon occurrence to receive "friend requests" from random guys of unknown age and origin. Even the most innocent kids will receive disturbing proposals from guys/men who saw their picture while browsing through the profiles of young girls.

    In addition, some parents might want to only allow their kids to use it with a parent present-meaning "in the same room." This might sound absurd at first to both parents and kids. But think about the reasoning behind this. If the kid has no other choice, they'll probably choose Mom + MySpace. Parents frequently tell me they are looking for opportunities to dialogue with their kids about real life issues. Here's their chance.

  • Go over the MySpace safety tips: I gave examples of the MySpace safety tips in Part I of this article. These tips are easily accessible through the button on the bottom of any MySpace page, but I have YET to meet a kid who has actually read them. Parents should review these tips in detail with their kids, making sure they understand some of the consequences that can result when they are not followed.

  • Don't allow unsupervised browsing: The "browse" feature on MySpace is where people can really wander into racy areas. Browsing is when you do a search for other people who you want to meet, or to just gawk at their pictures and profile anonymously. You type in the zip code (if any), age range, gender, status (single, married, divorced...), and what you're looking for (dating, networking, friends, or relationships). Then click "Update." This will bring up a list of thumbnail pics for you to look at. "Advanced" browsing features are also available that allow you to select sexual orientation (straight, gay, bi...), body type, etc. There might as well be a button that says, "Click here to see half-naked skanky women."

    After a few times browsing, I told my wife that EVEN I should not browse unsupervised. Certain girls post graphic pictures of themselves-rarely naked, but you'll find a lot of underwear and bikini shots. But the pictures aren't the only thing that can be risqu?. The language, the dialogue and even the fictitious names people select would achieve an "adult" rating on many of the pages. These people usually associate with other people of the same mindset... it's pretty easy to follow a trail of smut.

    When I was a kid, Friday and Saturday nights were a popular time to go "cruising." Our city had a loop that every troublemaker in the city used to "cruise" looking for girls, parties and fights. The police in our city were forced to create traffic laws restricting passing certain areas twice and doing U-turns in specific intersections. "Cruising" had become out of hand.

    The MySpace Browse feature is unsupervised "cyber-cruising." Imagine cruising with no rules, no dress code... and in the privacy of your own bedroom. Add anonymity to the equation and it gets worse. Imagine what people do when they are not responsible for their actions.

    Another one of the dangers with browsing is the fact that 18 is the minimum age you can search for. So most of the profiles that come up are more mature (I use that term loosely) individuals, hence, more mature content. If kids select their schools, however, then they can browse for kids closer to their own age. MySpace will then offer a more customized "school" search for ages as low as 16 currently (but I can't help to wonder if that age will drop as well). These 16-year-old profiles are usually less trashy. Rule of thumb: the lower the age, the less chance of hitting risqu? pictures.

    But most young kids on MySpace right now don't have their true age in their profile. The majority of kids I interviewed have had MySpace for at least 4 to 6 months. Back when they signed up the age limit was 16. So every 12, 13, 14 and 15-year-old I know is "16-years-old" or "18-years-old" on MySpace. This makes the browsing feature highly inaccurate even if you actually wanted to use it for noble purposes.

    Note: many of the young, na?ve church kids that I talked with were not even aware of this "browse" feature. They used the site just to communicate with their friends. This made me wonder if parents should not even go into detail with their kids about the "browse" feature... it might become the attractive "forbidden" fruit. Parents might want to just reinforce a general rule that the site is only for corresponding with existing friends not searching for new friends.

    Regardless, I wouldn't want my kids browsing at all. Browsing has too many down sides. Someday, if I let my kids even use the site, it would be to contact and communicate with existing friends only. That leads to my next suggestion...

  • Activate two important privacy settings: MySpace allows users to choose "privacy settings." You do this by clicking on Account Settings from your own home page (right next to your own picture). Once on the Account Settings page, click on Privacy Settings. Two of these are very important to take advantage of. One, select the option called the "My Friends Only" setting. This way, only MySpace friends (the user chooses who his or her MySpace friends are) can view your full profile and all your pictures. The default setting is where anyone can see your profile. In other words, any naked 40-year-old man can examine your kid's pictures, comments and complete profile. If you activate the privacy setting however, they have to send an "Add a Friend" request which must be approved by the user.

    The second setting to take advantage of is choosing to approve comments. This "Approve Comments before Posting" setting keeps others from posting anything on the user's own page without his or her approval. You can also check "Friend Only Blog Comments" so that only friends can make comments in the first place. Some parents may want to help the kids make these decisions. Parry Aftab says it well on MySpace's own safety tips page: "Just remember that while your kids may know more than you do about technology, you know more about life. And you are allowed to set the rules and enforce them. You're still the parent!" (MySpace.com's Safety Tips and Tips for Parents page)

  • Peek in on your kids and their friends: Kids are so brutally honest on MySpace that they say more than they realize. One mom I was talking with compared it to carpooling. She said, "Teenagers forget about the driver sometimes when they're talking with their friends. I've learned more information about my kids and their friends in that driver's seat than anywhere else." MySpace allows you to be a fly on the wall to 90% of the conversation kids are having-kids post vulnerable stuff in their blogs and comments. They save some conversation for the private messages, but if parents have their kid's password, they can access that as well.

  • Don't overreact: One of the most important things parents can do about this situation is to NOT overreact. These articles have highlighted many of the dangers of MySpace and may scare us. The worse thing a parent can do is impulsively go in, unplug the computer and tell their kid, "This computer is THE DEVIL!!!" These actions will just confirm in our kids' minds that we are old, "out of touch," and we "don't understand." The fact is we DO understand, so we shouldn't overreact and lose all credibility with our kids.

    Pray over the decision of how to respond. Get on the site yourself and take a peek. If your kids are current users, calmly tell them that you want to look at the site with them. Talk with them and begin implementing the above suggestions. You're still the parent, but don't forget love and understanding.

For divorced parents the situation may be more difficult. If one parent allows MySpace, it's hard to restrict the kid from the other end. My friend is in this situation and he required his daughter's password for her to have access to the site while in his house. He also helped her set the privacy settings. His ex-wife was receptive to this when she was made aware of some of the dangers. Even when his daughter is with her mother, my friend is able to peek in on her occasionally through the site. He can look at her private messages by accessing her account with the password. He has also started his own account, keeping in touch with his daughter regularly through the site. MySpace is her language, and he has learned to speak it. This has really helped him connect with her and get even more involved in her life.

How Youth Workers Can Use MySpace
Although MySpace can be a dangerous place for kids, it can also be a great tool for youth workers. I've met youth workers who regularly visit MySpace to communicate with kids and stay current with their culture. After PART I of this article circulated I was inundated with emails from youth workers who use the site regularly to connect with their kids and encourage them.

Some Suggestions of How Youth Workers Can Glean from MySpace:
  • Peek into the porthole: MySpace is a glimpse into the lives of kids today. Youth workers can use the site to learn a little more about the thoughts and attitudes of kids in their area or youth culture in general. More specifically, they can get their thumb on the pulse of the kids in their actual youth group. I was sitting with a youth worker last week who jumped on the MySpace pages of a few of his student leaders. One of the pages was pretty revealing as to what kind of activities this kid was involved in with his friends-ones not worthy of a student leader. This youth worker met with the kid and talked about what was posted on his page. The conversation uncovered some other important areas that needed to be discussed. The youth worker helped this student find an accountability relationship to work through some of these issues.

    Another youth worker told me about a time he was looking at some of his kids' pages when he noticed some scary content on the page of one of the girls in his group. Her page was filled with suicidal talk, foul language and self deprecating dialogue. The youth pastor immediately called the girl's mom and told her to take a look at her daughter's page. It was an eye-opening experience for the mother.

  • Encourage existing MySpace users to invite friends to programs, events and activities: Youth workers are constantly asking kids to invite their friends to youth programs. In the "analog" age we used to hand out flyers to kids to pass out to school. Now we can create digital flyers. Youth groups can advertise their programs, events and activities on their web site or on their own MySpace page. Then kids can pass around links for these pages on their MySpace pages.

    One of the reasons MySpace was created originally was to spread the word about bands and concerts. The same can be done for activities and events. MySpace has a feature where kids can "post bulletins." Users access the feature under the heading "My Mail" on their own page. When they click "Post Bulletin," they can generate a message that will go to all their friends. This is one of the newest ways that "Generation @" communicates with each other about where to hang out Friday night. Where would you rather that place is: the party at Jake's house... or the church?

  • Create a MySpace youth group page: Numerous churches and youth groups have web pages... why not have a MySpace page? Here's the beauty of having a MySpace page: kids from your group can make the youth group page their "MySpace friend." Other kids will see the page in their friend's list of "MySpace friends."

    When your group has activities, you can simply post a bulletin. When kids are emailing their friends or posting bulletins, they can just link the youth group's page.

    My church's college group has their own MySpace page. They have three guys that maintain the page and contact people in the area regularly. These guys are so dedicated that they spend hours each week browsing for people in their area to invite to the group. This is probably the only positive use of MySpace's browse feature. It allows you to search for people of certain ages in certain postal codes.

    I actually have a friend who began coming to our church's college group because he was invited through MySpace. (You won't hear that story on 20/20.)
One of the difficult situations youth workers are facing is the balance between using the site and trying not to endorse it. Using MySpace is not a sin. But let's be honest, it is an arena that we may not want to encourage kids to explore.

I encourage you to pray carefully before even using this tool. The youth workers I know who use MySpace don't talk about it Sunday a.m. or Wednesday nights. They don't want kids who are NOT current MySpace users to get the feeling from church that they SHOULD be on MySpace. So tread these waters carefully.

Male youth workers should also seriously consider using MySpace only in a public setting. It's no secret that pornography has become a major stumbling block for men, and men in the ministry definitely are not above that temptation. The Apostle Paul wasn't kidding when he said to "Flee" from sexual immorality (I Cor. 6:18). He didn't just say, "be kinda careful..." he said, "RUN AWAY!" Don't flirt with danger. If youth workers are going to use MySpace (especially if they are going to "browse" MySpace), don't do it alone. If you were going to go be a witness in the Red Light district, you wouldn't go alone at midnight. You'd go with a group.

Final Thoughts
At a glance, MySpace appears to be an unchaperoned online playground for teenagers. Actually, I don't know how far off that observation is from the truth. But if Jesus were roaming the streets today, I can't help to wonder if he would log on to MySpace and interact with lost kids.

As I read through the Gospels I see Jesus rubbing elbows with the sinners of the day. He sat down to talk with promiscuous women, had frequent conversations with prostitutes, and dined with tax collectors (usually to the disapproval of the local religious leaders). He never put himself in precarious situations with these people, but he publicly interacted with them.

And that's the catch, isn't it. How can youth workers use MySpace without putting themselves in vulnerable situations? Let's be honest. Some of us might need to block MySpace from our own computers and only log on when we're with a co-worker or spouse in the room.

But MySpace can be a valuable tool for ministry-it's where today's teenagers hang out. Kids speak MySpace fluently. Maybe for some of us... it might be time to enroll in language lessons.

YOUR REACTION?

Jonathan will be posting some of the responses to these articles next week. Email us with your reaction to these MySpace articles at contact@TheSource4YM.com

(If you don't receive this free EZINE already, CLICK HERE to sign up!)

Jonathan McKee is president of The Source for Youth Ministry and author of the new book "Do They Run When They See You Coming? Reaching Out to Unchurched Teenagers." This book helps us better understand youth culture today, and equips us to reach out to an unchurched generation (CLICK HERE FOR THE BOOK). Jonathan studies youth culture and trends, speaking and training across the country and providing free online resources, training, & ideas for youth workers at www.TheSource4YM.com


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One of the great resources on last year's 2005 Outreach Resource CD is the "ready-made" PowerPoint seminar called "Reaching Out to the Unchurched." You can use this 38 slide PowerPoint presentation to teach your student and adult leaders about the mindset of "The Unchurched" today. This presentation parallels chapter 3 in Jonathan McKee's hit book, DO THEY RUN WHEN THEY SEE YOU COMING? published by Youth Specialties.
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May 20th, Jonathan is doing a Saturday workshop (9AM to 3PM) for youth workers within driving distance of the TAMPA area. If you're a youth worker, paid or a volunteer, this is for you!

A Personal Note from Jonathan: I'd love your help! If you are a youth worker in the TAMPA area and would like to help me spread the word to the greater Tampa area, please email me at jon@TheSource4YM.com

Here's the details for this TAMPA training:

WHEN:
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WHERE:
    St. James United Methodist Church
    16202 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. (3/4 mile south of I-75)
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COST:
    Two choices:
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TO REGISTER:
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Jonathan will be doing his REACHING OUT TO THE UNCHURCHED training seminar at the INVIGORATE conference this year in Livermore, California on May 6, 2006. This Saturday conference is only $15 including lunch if you register by April 1st. All youth workers, both paid and volunteer are welcome. Please call (925) 455-4250 to register.

CLICK HERE FOR MORE ABOUT THIS TRAINING WORKSHOP




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