How Should Kids, Youth Workers Interact Virtually?

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The key is keeping the same boundaries as in the physical world, agencies say, but that gets trickier online.

Although youth workers and the young people with whom they interact naturally form close bonds, they don’t really become friends. 

However, this dynamic has taken on a new dimension in the past half-decade with the explosion of social media sites, led by Facebook, which has added ease and casualness that’s stretched the definition of the word friend and has simplified sharing pictures, descriptions and accounts of people’s personal lives, which heretofore would have been much more cumbersome — and required much more intentional action.

social mediaYouth workers and leaders of youth-serving agencies must make new, informed decisions about dos and don’ts of social media and youth work. For some this may include a better understanding how social media works, while others — especially younger professionals — may need to unlearn some of the freewheeling habits they formed when they were teens themselves just a few years earlier, even as their overall understanding of social media and its tools are undoubtedly an asset.

“Many, many youth-serving agencies, including schools, family service agencies, mental health, after-school programs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Scouts, etc., now recognize a need to develop reasonable, user-friendly guidelines to ensure proper use of this technology and to prevent any untoward uses of it,” said Frederic G. Reamer, professor of social work at Rhode Island College, who has lectured about and worked with professional associations to develop guidelines around how youth and their adult mentors should interact in the social media space.

Reamer is unaware of any organization that has tracked statistically the numbers of agencies that have developed social media policies and says he would be “shocked” if any such database existed. But he has seen anecdotal evidence at his lectures. “Any time I ask my audiences … the number of hands seems to be going up.”

Social media best practices

John Henderson, executive director of communications at Foundations Inc., advises youth-serving agencies to look at what other organizations, such as corporations, have done in creating their own social media policies. “There are some best practices, and I would recommend that folks look at those and compare them,” said Henderson, who writes a blog (bigjohnsmarketingmachine.com) on the subject aimed at nonprofits. He cites examples from companies like Starbucks to performers like the Dave Matthews Band, and notes these as the top best practices:

(1) Designate a person on the staff level (not a volunteer) responsible as the equivalent of a web-master for social media tools. This person would hold the pass-code to input news items to the Facebook page, for example.

(2) Consolidate projects into the same social media site (for each outlet like Facebook) rather than allowing individual programs to have their own sites.

(3) Proactively work with young people to educate them on how to use social media and have them update sites under supervision. If something renegade gets uploaded, use it as a teachable moment.

Youth-development agencies sometimes have the impulse to restrict the use of social media — for reasons ranging from fear of the unknown to differences in generational comfort level — but that rarely works given the burgeoning number of sites and the undertow of youth culture toward electronic communication, Henderson said. The answer: to develop appropriate monitoring and educate youth. “You’d be better off encouraging it, or acknowledging that it’s a way a lot of young people are going to be communicating, and show people the power of it for all the right reasons,” he says. “Things you wouldn’t do to someone in person, you wouldn’t do in social media.”

A survey taken in July and August by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 92 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 say they use social networking sites, of whom 67 percent do so on mobile phones Both of those percentages decrease significantly with each higher age category, but social media use is relatively constant across race, income and education level. While 66 percent of adults say they use Facebook, only 20 percent use LinkedIn, and less than that use Twitter (16 percent), Pinterest (12 percent), Instagram (12 percent) and Tumblr (5 percent).

The child advocacy group Common Sense Media surveyed 1,000 teens ages 13 to 17 and found nine out of 10 use social media sites, and the same ratio say they text (see sidebar), two-thirds of whom text daily and half of whom use social networking sites daily. About 70 percent of teens say they use Facebook, compared with only 6 percent who use Twitter, and 1 percent for GooglePlus and MySpace, according to the survey released in June.

Agencies typically develop two sets of guidelines: one aimed at young people and their families to acquaint them with what’s expected of participants in their programs, and another aimed at staff, Reamer said. “It’s things like, ‘If you communicate by Facebook, it can only be on the organization’s Facebook site, and your postings should be limited,’ ” he said. “Then it will describe what’s appropriate — like an event, a meeting or a fundraiser — things related to the agency’s mission, as opposed to personal details.”

Youth-serving agencies typically parallel K-12 school districts in what they advise or require of staff, Reamer said. Although the most acute concerns are rare but not-unheard-of wildly inappropriate incidents — like staff who become sexually involved with teenagers — subtler issues are the more common problems, he said.

“Often, I’m less concerned about the black-and-white distinctions, things that are clearly inappropriate, than I am about the multiple shades of gray, where a youth worker shares a fair amount of personal information, and the teenager begins to view the youth worker less as a professional and more as a friend,” he said. “I’m talking about boundaries that are much fuzzier, where a youth worker may, on a Facebook site, talk about where he’s headed on vacation, or talk about what he’s going to do there, or the youth worker who talks about her day at the beach.”

It’s nothing scatological or sexualized, typically, but a 15-year-old might read about his mentor’s drunken revelry, for example, or even see pictures, Reamer said. “Here I am with my buddies, or my family, and there’s a six-pack there, and the worker is hoisting one of them,” he said. “Is it appropriate for a 15-year-old client at a Boys & Girls Club or an after-school program to see the youth worker with a Miller Lite in her hand? … People tend to edit much more, they tend to be more circumspect, when talking to someone in person. Something about the spontaneity of electronic communication leads some people to become less strict, which can lead to boundary complications.”

Different agencies, similar approaches

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America reached an inflection point around social media guidelines in 2009 after a “Big” accidentally posted a picture of her “Little” on Facebook and the girl’s mother complained, and in a separate incident within about a  year’s time, a Big blogged about his experiences, said Cindy Bahmer, vice president of programs for the BBBS Twin Cities, who authored the guidelines, since disseminated nationally.

Bahmer said she worked with a “social media savvy” team heavily weighted toward 20- and 30-somethings to develop the board-approved policy, which, among other stipulations, counsels not posting pictures of your Little online without parental consent, not posting your Little’s last name or contact information, and being aware of who sees your postings and how appropriate they would be for minors. In the Twin Cities, failure to adhere to the policy can result in termination of the match — and that volunteer would not be re-matched, Bahmer said. Both volunteers and parents sign a release form that establishes they agree to this policy, and staff do their best to monitor online media.

“We’re clear about what’s OK to do, what’s not OK to do, that we’re monitoring and that parental involvement is critical,” Bahmer said. “This continues to evolve. … We are making sure we monitor the policy; every year, we review to see if it is still working.” The agency recommends that their own staff not “friend” volunteers on Facebook, unless they knew one another prior to their BBBS connection, she said, “and they don’t want to. It’s a boundary issue.”

Bigs and Littles are allowed to friend one another so long as the Little is age 13 or older, Bahmer said, as long as parents give permission, but BBBS discourages the Big and the Little’s parents from becoming friends and becomes outright concerned if the Big becomes friends with the Little’s friends. Bahmer said: “There’s no reason for that.”

Nationally, BBBS programs are affiliates, and there is no one-size-fits-all policy they must follow, said Julie Novak, national assistant vice president of child safety. But the organization’s national child safety task force, on which she and Bahmer both participate, endorsed the Twin Cities guidelines because “it is very realistic, it relies on child protection strategies of open communication and involving the parents,” she said. “This is the world children live in, whether or not we’re entirely comfortable with it as adults, and this will be the world they live in.”

To bring regional affiliates up to speed on the need for and thinking behind such policies, BBBS has brought in training partners like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and its Netsmartz program, Novak added.

The Boys & Girls Club of America has developed similar guidelines around social media, which urge local club staff to keep parents informed of social media use, establish and enforce procedures for responsible use, keep postings and pictures appropriate for all to see, and  to “friend” online only those with whom one is actually friends in the offline world.

The national organization recommends that staff not use their own personal Facebook or other social media accounts to communicate with youth in any way, said Dan Rauzi, Boys & Girls Club of America senior director for technology programs. In some cases, “They’re going to post things that are perfectly OK,” he said. “But we have to keep that separation between the professional life and the personal life. Stuff I’m sending to my friends, I’m not sending to kids.”

The Boys & Girls Club of the Midlands in Omaha, Neb., began monitoring social media four or five years ago through an internally developed BGCA program called myclubmylife.com, which essentially served as a chat room for members, said Nancy Williams, chief information officer. “They didn’t term it ‘social media’ at the time,” she said with a chuckle.

The Midlands club makes it clear to staff that they can only friend youth in the club from their professional profile on Facebook or other social media sites, as opposed to their personal one. “When tweeting, you have to make sure it’s on message. You certainly don’t send personal tweets to members,” Williams said. “It’s always about maintaining that professional image, the same distance, the same attitude — the same way you would behave in person.”

The Boys & Girls Club of Oshkosh, Wis., launched a Facebook page about two years ago to promote the club’s activities. After investigating other organizations’ policies, they allowed kids to friend the club staff through the official page, which keeps things safe and enables the teen center director to see what club members are posting on their pages, said Tracy Ogden, development and marketing director.

“She’s able to monitor how they’re doing,” she said. “Behavioral issues, family issues … she uses it as a mechanism to keep an eye on her kids.”

Only two staff members are allowed to administer the club Facebook page; others must route requests through them, Ogden said. Staff are allowed to “like” the club’s page from their personal pages but must set those pages “private” so club members cannot enter them, and staff are not allowed to friend — and must turn down friend requests from — club members.

“They also have to report [friend requests] to their supervisor, so we can have a conversation with that child, as well, about why they can’t be friends,” said Lori Fields, director of the club’s Radford Center facility. “[Youth are] using social media as the main form of communication. We’re able to get communication out fast” by using the club’s page to promote activities.

The Boy Scouts of America asks scouts and adult leaders to abide by the Scout Oath and Law when participating in social networking, keeping safety and youth protection as a primary focus and engaging only in public communication, hewing to the Boy Scouts’ usual “two deep” leadership policy, which holds at least two adults are in on every conversation.

“The guidelines that we suggest to them as far as social media are nicely dovetailed into the youth protection policy,” said Charles Mead, marketing and public relations director for the Boy Scouts Capitol Area Council in Austin, Texas, which covers 15 counties in central Texas and incorporates about 600 local units. “For any of our adult volunteers actively managing a Facebook account, or running an event Twitter account, we ask them to have the same vigilance — to approach online worlds the same as they would approach their regular troop activities.”

Regional YMCAs typically have developed their own social media policies, sometimes in consultation with the national YMCA of the USA, which does not disseminate a nationwide policy, according to spokesperson Kevin Dietz. The YMCA of Greater Seattle, for example, prohibits employees and volunteers from using their personal profiles on social networking sites to contact YMCA clients or participants. And they must respectfully deny friend-type requests. Parents should be kept in the loop on these policies, the Seattle Y says.

The written policy was first put into place in 2007 or 2008 and has been updated constantly, said Alex Kitchen, communications specialist for the regional Y, which encompasses 13 branches and two overnight camps. “Anything that could be seen as ‘grooming’ is discouraged — if a staff member or volunteer has interactions with one child in particular over time, giving them attention that’s inappropriate, or quote-unquote special,” she said.

The Seattle Y is still thinking through how to use sites like Facebook to better communicate with youth participants about events or appointments, given that today’s young people are leaving e-mail behind, Kitchen says. “There are always going to be … organic developments in social media that throw you a curveball,” she says, “which is why we are constantly addressing how we’re behaving online.”

The YMCA of Fort Worth found itself “behind the 8-ball” before “playing catch-up” and developing its social media guidelines about 18 months ago, based heavily on the social media policy already in use at a local school district, said John-Michael Corn, vice president of risk for the regional Y, which has 13 branches.

The Fort Worth Y requires staff to go through a training session where they’re told that communication outside the organization’s own social media channels “is strictly prohibited, whether texting or Twittering — or babysitting,” Corn said. “If you use your professional Facebook page, we have control over it. We don’t police social media, but because it is so prevalent, when people do use it outside of those realms, it comes to light. We get informed, more so than not.”

In those cases, executive staff sit down with those who violate the policy and address the issue, meting out whatever punishment seems to fit the crime, Corn said. “By dealing with that, it sent a message throughout the organization about (a) why we do it and (b) that there are consequences.”

And that’s been the case even though the Fort Worth incidents have not involved anything particularly inappropriate. “The kids were doing something cool, and [the staffers] took a picture and Tweeted it. Very innocent,” he said. “But it was still … you’re posting something about a minor, and No. 2, you’re not able to appropriately supervise when you’re doing that.”

Keeping on it 

Youth workers are sometimes naïve about the slippery slope they can get themselves onto — either because they’re so accustomed to using social media that they don’t think about it, or because they don’t fully understand aspects like privacy settings, Reamer said.

“There’s a distinction between ‘digital natives,’ people who are very comfortable and understand the technology, and ‘digital immigrants,’ who are using the technology but are not that savvy when it comes to the technical challenges, and the tools and nuances,” he said. “They make mistakes. They don’t realize who has access to their Facebook site.”

Once agencies sort out their policies, they can’t just forget about the issue, Henderson said, because social media keeps evolving. Existing platforms gain new features, and there are always new platforms.

“Facebook is not something that’s only current when you sit down. It’s a train that’s always moving,” he said. “It’s not a trend. [Social media] may change what it looks like. But the need for instant communication, where you share stuff and collect stuff, it’s only going to become more vast and more important.”

“This is a subject that’s kind of a monster,” said Novak of BBBS. “It’s always changing. … It’s evolving along with the tools that are used. Research is showing that teenagers are starting to move away from Facebook, into things like Pinterest. When they will move is hard to say. We have to stay on top of it.”

Ed Finkel is a writer, editor and Web content manager with 20 years of professional experience.