“When I talk to a client about a conversation they had with a friend, I often assume it was a phone call... but for them that conversation is a text. So, I often have to recalibrate myself,” says Rev. Janelle Ohlemiller, a provisional deacon at Lafayette Grace UMC in Indiana. Ohlemiller has a dual appointment with the Indiana Annual Conference serving at church and as a therapist at Willowstone Family Services, a secular nonprofit.
Ohlemiller notes that teens are using FaceTime, messaging apps and other virtual platforms to keep in touch and talk to friends more often and that they navigate these platforms very differently from previous generations. Due to social distancing and concern for the safety of those they live with, teens are turning more and more to virtual communications. Virtual communication stretches beyond school, church events, and family gatherings to include free time on social media, texting and playing video games.
Virtual spaces are comfortable for teens
Teens are comfortable communicating deeper and more vulnerable things virtually. Ohlemiller says that for her, virtual communications are a form of supplementing her life. An example of this is using Facebook messenger to communicate with someone about grabbing coffee or talking on the phone. For teens, Facebook messenger might be their primary form of interaction – it is the phone call or the meeting up for coffee. Studies show virtual life is real life for teens. Ohlemiller says, “Online is real life for them. Which is a reframe for the church… It’s not a ‘fake thing’ that we just have to use. There is real interaction, real emotion and real connection happening there.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Willowstone's counseling team has transitioned into conducting therapy sessions virtually. She has noticed an increase in teens’ engagement and openness in their responses. “A lot of my teenage clients are more open and talkative on video calls than they were in the office. I think that might be about their comfort level with using that technology or the fact that they’re sitting in their room at home, which is a comfortable spot for them and a place where they have been thinking their big thoughts.”
Advice for parents
Although teens don’t have many opportunities to meet with other kids right now, it is still important for parents to encourage their relationships and connection with friends. Additionally, Ohlemiller says that encouraging previous friendships, such as cousins or classmates, provides value for the social development of the teen by keeping them grounded and reminding them of who they are and who they were before the pandemic.
Since teens are spending more time on virtual platforms, it can be normal for parents to be concerned for the safety of their kids. “As much as possible, treat those friendships as you would friends they make in person,” states Ohlemiller. Although parents can’t necessarily meet their teens’ friends or other parents like they normally would prior to the pandemic at a school event or other in person gathering, parents can still talk to their teens. If parents want to know about their teen’s friendships, Ohlemiller suggests they ask their kids open-ended questions instead of closed-ended questions that may feel like an interrogation. Here are some examples of questions parents can ask:
- What is your friend into?
- What do you like about them?
- What’s it like to have a friend you’ve never met?
She further states that when parents talk to their teens about practicing Christian communications, one should keep the Pauline epistles in mind. “Paul starts every letter with a greeting and something about how much he loves the people he’s writes to. And then he gets into the business. He can be encouraging, challenging, and downright judgmental. And then he wraps it up again with grace… I think there is something about that sandwich that is helpful to remember when communicating online.” It is easy for people to be practical when communicating virtually instead of engaging in pro-social behaviors. Ohlemiller encourages people to take time to express how much they care about one another and to make plans for the next time you talk.
Advice for teens
A big part of how humans process information is through non-verbal communication. Some of the clues we can get from non-verbal communication is the other person’s body language, tone of voice and contextual background. Although our generational use of technology for communication may change, our psycho-emotional process does not. She encourages face-to-face communication for clear conversations and conflict resolution, whether that is on face time or another video platform.
Because we lack so much non-verbal communication through virtual communications, it is natural to infer and fill in the gaps to make up our own conclusions. Text messages, posts on social media, group chats may not always come across the way they were intended. It can be easy to misinterpret someone’s emotion or what they were really trying to say. “Remember that there are alternative explanations for things that you perceive as being offensive, aggressive or unkind or somebody leaving you unread. The best way to find out for sure what’s going on is to ask them,” states Ohlemiller.
Effective communication takes practice
In his epistles, Paul was writing to people he hadn’t seen in a long time, but shows us how important it is to keep relationships going. If we don’t practice, our social skills can get rusty over time. This is something Ohlemiller has experienced with some of her clients. She encourages teens to practice small talk, and have a few questions in the back of their head such as how someone’s family is doing or how their weekend was, just in case. In addition, she encourages people to fully engage in conversations with others and express how they can pray for someone and how they want to be prayed for. It’s not just about small talk. “Part of being in a Christian relationship with somebody is wanting to go deeper than that.”
Aileen Jimenez is manager of Hispanic/Latino Leader Communications at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, TN, USA. You can reach her at [email protected].
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