Written by Aaron Helman
If you’ve done youth ministry for more than twenty minutes, you’ve probably had some kind of difficulty with your students and their apparent inability to separate themselves from their technology.
Smartphones, tablets, and iPods distract students from your message, make it less likely that they’ll authentically engage in group conversations, and pull their attention away from small groups.
You’ll fight the urge to scream.
WHY CAN’T YOU JUST PUT YOUR PHONES DOWN FOR TEN MINUTES!??!?
I also know the story of at least one youth worker who was unable to fight that urge, blowing up and lashing out about students and their persistent phone usage during everything.
So, if that’s you, here’s some more bad news.
Even if your students aren’t actively engaged with their technology, the mere presence of smartphones can derail relational conversations.
That means that even if you are successful at convincing your students to “just put their phones down”, it will still cause problems.
Students peeking at their phones, the inevitable beeps and buzzes, all distract from authentic conversation and lead to students who feel like they aren’t really listened to.
Back in the day, if you were talking to someone who had a habit of checking their watch, it was a social cue that they wanted to end the conversation – they weren’t interested in talking to you.
Today that cue is as simple as someone who’s habitually and addictively stealing glances at an iPhone or nervously patting a pocket to make sure it’s still there.
And just in case you thought it was as simple as the “cell phone basket” or any other solution that simply removes students from their cell phones altogether, you should know that Phantom Vibration Syndrome is a real, actual thing.
You’ve probably experienced this yourself – a vibration in your pocket, but not only is your phone not in your pocket, it’s on the table next to you with no notifications.
The vibration was somehow perceived or imagined, but didn’t actually happen.
What’s happening here isn’t simply that smartphones are an irresistible temptation, it’s that technology has rewired how we treat people in a way that isn’t good.
We can’t simply treat the problem by removing the temptation. We also need to reeducate our students about how and why other people matter.
When we’re in a small group, we need to teach them how to really listen.
It’s a skill that many of them don’t have and taking their iPhone away isn’t going to somehow give that skill to them.
They’ve been wired and trained to multitask and to feed distraction.
We need to somehow “unwire” that.
It’s a silly thing, and it may seem like an unnecessary thing, but I’ve seen it pay off in big ways in my own small group.
Technology and predominant teen culture have given my students bad habits about how they treat other people, so we teach them how to treat people better, by doing things like these:
1. In smaller group settings, we don’t just listen when people share. We look at them while they’re sharing.
2. When someone reads Scripture, we are all actively reading along in our physical Bibles.
3. When someone feels like interrupting with a non-sequitur, we write it down and then decide later if it’s really worth revisiting.
4. We keep cell phones in purses or pockets. If it ever becomes visible or audible, it’s already more of a distraction than it’s worth.
5. We apologize when we interrupt.
As you’re thinking about your small groups and new covenants for your small groups to use, these might be worth including.
Smartphones have absolutely changed the way we treat each other, and it’s going to take more than just removing the technology to change it back.
Liked this blog post? Then you’ll love this one:
Aaron Helman is on a mission to end youth worker burnout by providing the training and resources that you haven’t been taught… until now. Smarter Youth Ministry exists to help you learn how to manage their time and resources better so that you can do more ministry with less frustration. All of that having been said, you most likely know him as the creator of “Lamentation or Taylor Swift Lyric.”