More parents than ever are becoming accustomed to seeing the top of their teenager’s head.
That is assuming that the parent is looking up from their smartphone, tablet or laptop.

We live in an increasingly digitally connected society because technology has become so accessible and convenient. If left unchecked, the scene in my home might look something like this:

Our television is on while our oldest sits on the sofa and plays Minecraft on his laptop and texting a friend up the street using his smartphone.

Our youngest is using my wife’s iPad for her homework while using her phone to keep a zoo, unicorn, garden or some other creature alive this week.

My wife answers email on her phone while finishing a work presentation for the next day.

I sit keeping tabs on a basketball game, OK several basketball games through my iPad while having a conversation on Twitter with some friends.

For those not keeping count, that is four people and nine screens. This may seem like an exaggeration, but it is one I experience and hear about with increasing frequency.

All of these devices provide us with amazing access to information, communication and entertainment.

The dark side is that they can distract us from personal relationships, even convincing us that what we have online is a personal relationship.

It is the absence of face-to-face communication that can create trouble for families when the subject of social media arises.

Normally, the point at which many families start addressing social media issues are when some precipitating event has occurred, such as a teen posting pictures to Instagram of everything they do, a parent sharing embarrassing information about the kids on Facebook, or a news article that startles a parent’s awareness, causing them to fear what their children are really doing.

If the face-to-face conversation begins from a point of fear, crisis or accusation, there are going to be less than positive outcomes.

If an informed, honest conversation occurs before some anxiety-riddled event, then chances are a productive understanding of digital communication expectations will happen.

What is a parent to do? Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Learn about social media from people you trust, not those invoking fear. Most national studies indicate that a large majority of our teenagers are using social media and technology in responsible ways.
  • Talk to your children about social media.

Tell them what you like about it and what concerns you. Be honest with them and then listen to them at least as much as you speak.

  • Develop a family covenant for how you will manage social media, behaviors and expectations, and consider how that will be monitored.
  • Model good behavior online, especially if you expect it from your children; they are learning by watching their adult role models.

Churches can certainly help families in this arena by using a social media strategy that is designed to engage and encourage good digital citizenship.

For example, a youth group Twitter account that shares prayer requests, asks questions for upcoming studies, shares interesting links or words of encouragement is modeling healthy practices for youth and pointing them to the presence of Christ in their social media streams.

Another opportunity for churches to assist parents and families with conversations about communication and social media is to offer discussion groups where parents hear from one another about what they are experiencing.

This reminds them they are not alone and can be a time to share proven strategies.

Additionally, facilitated conversations with parents and youth allow for them to hear from one another in an environment that is less threatening than across the kitchen table.

Finally, churches can help their families by reminding congregants of the commitment they made to couples at baby dedications, namely, to help in the spiritual formation of the child during his or her lifetime.

When the congregation becomes extended family, the meaningful relationships between adults and youth grow. These adults are connected to youth in ways that parents are not.

They can certainly be the presence of Christ online and off for youth, children and other family members. The key is that offline relationships are the foundation for the online ones.

Parenting is hard work, requiring tremendous help and resources from the proverbial village. A healthy relationship still comes down to the ability of parents and children to communicate with one another.

So put down your devices and take a bike ride with your family. If your relationship offline is healthy, the online will follow.

Brian Foreman is a social media and youth ministry consultant for churches and organizations. His most recent book is “#Connect: Reaching Youth Across the Digital Divide.” His writings appear on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter @b4man72.

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