According to a July 2011 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 18% of teenagers in America are using Twitter. That percentage of usage doubled over a two year period representing a major shift.
But teenagers aren’t using Twitter in the same way adults do.
Teens tout the ease of use and the ability to send the equivalent of a text message to a circle of friends, often a smaller one than they have on crowded Facebook accounts. They can have multiple accounts and don’t have to use their real names. They also can follow their favorite celebrities and, for those interested in doing so, use Twitter as a soapbox.
In no way do I want to sound alarmist. But I do want to point out a couple of things adults who minister to teenagers should be on the lookout for when it comes to teen use of Twitter. These aren’t hypothetical things, these are issues I’ve dealt with in the recent past or am dealing with now.
- Anonymity will lead to trouble – Unlike Facebook, where people are who they say they are for the most part, on Twitter you can pretend to be whomever you want. As long as you have a valid email address you can create an account… or many accounts. Many of us remember the problem of anonymity with Myspace or even the short-lived fad with Formspring.me. For a student, anonymity seems great because only their friends know who is who. But the flip side is that when you get into a situation 1 or 2 layers outside of the original circle, you aren’t sure who anyone is. And teenagers are especially vicious online when they think they are acting anonymously. More often than not, they are just being silly or sarcastic or aren’t thinking anyone will take their words seriously. All too often that anonymity leads to feelings getting hurt because the recipient can’t tell if someone is being silly, all they know is that someone thinks they are ugly or promiscuous or unlikeable.
- Private circles – Teenagers aren’t using Twitter like adults. They will create an account for a small circle of friends, essentially using it as a group texting service. They almost always keep the circle all private users with accounts they only use for that circle. Because they can have several accounts, one for each circle, you might be confused to see that they have a public account that follows you. Just don’t assume that because a student follows you it means you are seeing everything they do.
- A digital fingerprint is a digital fingerprint – This is where texting & Twitter are different. While the data may flow through their text messaging service, it isn’t protected to the same extent as using Twitter. As with any social media site… you don’t own your usage and you can’t ultimately control who sees what. Students need to be taught to have an assumption that everything they do online leaves a digital fingerprint that may last their entire lifetime.
Like I said at the beginning. There is no reason to be alarmed that more of your students are using Twitter. But it might be a good idea to help them understand the ramifications of how they are using the service.
Are you seeing students use Twitter in your ministry?
Photo credit: Garry Wilmore via Flickr (Creative Commons)