Stop Giving Youth TMI

Youth Facebook friends boundaries

Don’t get burned with youth interactions on Facebook

Most modern youth workers would probably agree that social media is to youth work what fire was to mankind. It’s revolutionized how we interact with youth and allows us to keep in touch with them between youth work sessions like never before. You can see pictures of their weekly activities, who their friends are and share activities that are happening in your youth work programs.

But, just like fire provides light and heat and allowed Tom Hanks to cook crab, it can also burn you. It has benefits and dangers. Social media, particularly Facebook accounts, can provide all these great ways to connect with youth when you’re not seeing them; it can also be used to cross boundaries by providing TMI (Too Much Information).

I’m an advocate of boundaries within youth work. I think that a lot of youth workers have professional boundaries that govern their work and guide them in a safe and healthy relationship with the young people they serve. It’s safe for both youth and youth workers. It provides youth workers with some semblance of ‘life/work’ balance that’s so often missing from the lives of those in the caring professions (teachers, social workers, youth workers, pastors, etc).

Youth workers are not parents.

They are not teachers.

They are not counselors.

They are not friends.

At least not in the traditional sense. A youth worker can provide parental-style guidance. They can teach new skills. They can provide a listening ear. They can be friendly.

But ultimately, a youth worker is someone who’s a blend of all those roles and yet still not entirely any of them. They’re not the youth’s parent. They’re not responsible for making sure that ‘No Child is Left Behind’ through SOLs. They’re not (usually) trained to deal with deep psychological issues. They’re not a young person’s BFF – even if the youth sees them that way.

It’s this last point that often gets muddled in the world of social media and youth work. Recently, I read and commented on an article on Youthmin.org about pastors asking their youth pastors for their Facebook password. For the record, I do think that’s an invasion of privacy and a step too far for any employer.

But in the touchy-feely (no pun intended) world of church youth work, there’s often a blurring of the lines between relationships. Your pastor is also your friend. You see the same people at a pot-luck on Saturday night that you see at work on Monday. Relationships with young people are often more informal under the guise of ‘doing life together‘.

Just like I think it’s not a good idea to give out personal cell phone numbers to youth (a common practice in youth ministries), I think that your Facebook profile should not be available to the youth you’re currently working with. 

In the comments of the Youthmin.org blog post, I shared my feelings that you should have a separate Facebook account for youth work and your personal one. I got a lot of feedback that this was not a good idea. Mainly because we should be above reproach as youth workers and therefore one account should be fine. One person even shared how this goes against Facebook’s terms of use (personally, I believe it’s actually a little more of a grey area which I’ll explain in a minute).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about being above reproach. But I don’t think that means that youth need unrestricted access to every part of my life, my friendships, my bad days, my friends’ drama (which if they have ‘friends of friends’ as their settings, allows my friends to see as well), etc. Because at the end of the day, as I mentioned above: youth are not my friends. I might be the person they trust the most, but that doesn’t make them my friend. During our professional relationship the best way I can behave that’s above reproach is to keep our communication as that of a youth worker and young person, not BFF.

Facebook’s terms of use say that you can’t have more than one personal profile. I think that having a professional profile and a personal profile could be argued might not strictly violate their terms of use. However, it also says not to violate the ‘spirit of the terms’ in your actions. I’ll be honest, like most of us, I hadn’t really read their terms of use and so now having read them, I can’t in good conscience (and as someone who does aim to be transparent and above reproach in my work), suggest that you create a second profile.

However, you can create a group or a page and use that to interact with the youth in your group. To keep everything on the up and up, give administrator duties to more than one responsible adult within your organization. This way, you remain above reproach, are able to contact the youth during the week and interact with them, while keeping your personal profile for your personal life.

Once your working relationship has ended with a young person, it’s up to you to decide how appropriate it is to add youth to your personal profile. I have very few youth I’ve worked with on my personal profile and those that I do have are a) over 18, b) All of them I’m no longer their youth worker and in three special cases c) were foster youth that we had a uniquely different parental/professional relationship with. Use discretion to ensure that you’re not placing yourself in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship with a youth that could be misconstrued by either the adults or the youth.

Question: Well, what do you think? Is it ok to allow youth (that are over Facebook’s required user age of 13) to be friends on your personal Facebook profile? Have your say in the comments below.

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