To Text or Not to Text?

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Youth-serving agencies have faced another electronic opportunity/challenge in the past half-decade that’s grown up right alongside social media: the burgeoning prevalence of smart phones, which has led to an equally burgeoning prevalence of youth to communicate primarily via text message.

That presents an opportunity for youth workers who need to reach young people with time-sensitive messages that might not be seen on e-mail for days or weeks. But at least some agencies have been busily developing policies governing what and how much information should be shared using such contact methods. And some have concerns about cell phone use on the job, ranging from concerns about distractions from staffers’ personal lives, to inappropriate photography and video.

The Big Brothers Big Sisters of America have disseminated guidelines developed by the agency’s Greater Twin Cities regional branch in 2009 that counsel no online communication of any sort between “Bigs” and “Littles” without parental consent (obtained in writing) and full awareness of what’s being communicated.

“We do know that text messaging is the way — when Littles have a cell phone — that they, staff and volunteers can communicate,” said Cindy Bahmer, vice president of programs for the Greater Twin Cities and author of the guidelines, which have been endorsed by BBBS’ Nationwide Child Safety Task Force. “That’s more effective than e-mail communication when you’re working with that age group.”

The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that in July 2011, 80 percent of people ages 12 to 17 were using social media, 77 percent had cell phones (including 87 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds) and 75 percent text, including 63 percent who text every day — vs. only 6 percent who communicate via e-mail on a daily basis.

Boys & Girls Club of America has suggested (and some clubs require) that staff use corporate e-mail accounts to create a paper trail and get parental permission before texting — and to copy the parents on any texts sent. Staff are extremely interested in the subject, said Dan Rauzi, senior director of technology programs for the national BGCA.

“If you’re at a conference, and you’re not on work e-mail, yet you need to text teens, every text they send should also include a copy to another staff member, or to an account that’s been established by the club,” Rauzi said, adding that staff end up in this situation because many clubs don’t provide corporate cell phones due to lack of financial resources and/or “technological backbone.” He added that BGCA has recommended using third-party services that facilitate text messaging without the sender or receiver knowing one another’s phone numbers. 

The Boys & Girls Club of the Midlands in Omaha, Neb., doesn’t have company-issued mobile phones but has put forth a policy governing what, how and whom to text, said Nancy Williams, chief information officer, who added that the club is putting into place a text-by-e-mail function. When it comes to Twitter or Facebook, “It’s strictly club stuff — time and location of an event — you don’t cross over into personal information,” she said, regarding the club’s policies on social media use.

The ability to text sometimes causes another problem: lack of adequate supervision for kids in care while staffers are focused on a tiny screen. The YMCA of Fort Worth prohibits the use of cell phones among staff supervising children, said John-Michael Corn, vice president of risk. “Who would have thought that taking a cell phone into your locker room would be a risk?” he said. “But it is. We can’t monitor how they’re using it.” 

Todd Baker, chief property officer, added this risk at least partly revolves around someone surreptitiously taking photographs or video. “As technology evolves, our rules will have to evolve to meet it,” he said.

The policy takes an adjustment, particularly for younger staff, and those who have joined the agency since it was adopted are required to sign off during new-hire orientation. Some YMCA branches even collect cell phones at the beginning of a shift.

“[Staffers’] cell phone is like their arm; it’s part of who they are,” Corn said. “It’s very difficult to not have their phone with them and not be on it. They’re having three conversations at one time, texting to different people while doing their job. This [policy] was very problematic for them to accept. It’s a training process. It’s letting them know the reasons why” cell phone use is prohibited.