OP-ED: Social Media and the New Landscape of Youth Mentoring

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Jean Rhodesnew report estimates that more than 4 million young people enter formal mentoring programs at some point, double the rates a decade ago. That's roughly the same number of youth who enter formal helping relationships with social workers, psychologists, etc. This increase has coincided with a new science of mentoring, in which evidence-based practices are strengthening the capacity of caring volunteers to connect with and improve the lives of vulnerable youth. It also coincides with an ever-expanding array of social media, raising important questions about how these relationships are being transformed by new ways of connecting. 

As societal concerns over children’s safety (solicitations and abduction and by strangers) have waned, new, subtler risks (and rewards) have come to light. Many fear that social media is undermining the next generation’s capacity for deep reflection, conversation and sustained attention. At the same time, we are experiencing the many ways that these new forms of communication have improved and sustained bonds. Likewise, as the Connected Learning Research Network has shown us, new and diverse online forums have expanded youth’s capacity to explore their identities while connecting them with communities and caring adults that help to refine and deepen their interests. To better understand how social media is shaping mentoring,  the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring recently held short course on Mentoring in the Digital Age. The short course included discussions of the changing landscape of digital media. Most of the conversation was focused on the risks and affordances of social media in formal mentor-youth dyads. Although it’s impossible to limit an entire day’s worth of presentations and conversations into one column, a few bits of advice stand out.

Manage expectations — It’s easy to see how things could go awry when expectations are unclear. A youth disclosing something time sensitive over Facebook or texting something vitally important to their mentor, and receiving no response. This, in turn, could lead to hurtful or even dangerous lapses in the provision of timely support. Likewise, mentors may have good reasons to exclude their mentees from their Facebook pages, but the rejection (or simple ignoring) of friend requests can be hurtful to young people. Staff and mentors are encouraged to set expectations and policies around social media at the onset of the relationship — before such lapses and requests.

Be mindful of your public persona — Problems might also arise when mentees search the Internet and discover controversial information, opinions, or photos of their mentors.  Mentors are encouraged to search the Internet occasionally and view themselves through the eyes of their mentees. To the extent possible, mentors should delete controversial public images and postings so as to protect the relationship.

The many benefits — Yes, social media includes risks; but it also includes important opportunities for conversation and mentors must embrace mentees’ channels of communication. In fact, many youth feel more comfortable texting than talking on the phone. They can do it while with a group of family members or friends without worrying about being overheard or judged, and can communicate painful emotions they may be too embarrassed to raise in a verbal conversation.

Relationship maintenance — Interestingly, a recent survey showed that, to a certain extent, the more things change, the more things stay the same. New forms of social media are seen by mentors, not as a substitute for face-to-face relationship, but as a facilitator (much like a telephone). Texting and other forms of messaging with staff, mentees, and parents have vastly improved mentors’ ability to schedule meetings, learn about changes in plans and avoid the frustrations that can undermine planning and erode connection.

Expanded timetable — As we all know, young people’s disclosures about important topics don’t always fit neatly into the designated meeting time. Texting provides opportunities for them to raise issues, ask questions and make disclosures to their mentors whenever the spirit moves them. The mentor who receives such texts can, in a sense, “bookmark” them — responding briefly in the moment but returning to them during the meeting times. At the same time, a kind word or empathic response can become a “transitional object” for the mentee, a perennial boost of support to which they can return when encouragement is needed.

Overall, there is little evidence that social media is undermining intergenerational bonds. Just as there was once moral panic over books, the telephone, radio and television, our fear that digital media will fray our social bonds and diminish our capacity for connection has been challenged by our everyday experiences with social media and the enriched opportunities for connection it has provided. Technology will never change the basic human need for connection. And, rather than passive recipients of new technologies, we will always be active consumers who decide how and when to use them.

The challenge now will be to develop guidelines for youth programs that are sufficiently flexible to encompass both their strengths and limitations.

Visit the short course website to hear the speakers, read their articles, and learn more.

Jean Rhodes is the Frank L. Boyden Professor of Psychology at UMass Boston and Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring. She is also a member of the MacArthur Network on Connected Learning