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virtual morality: the challenge of addressing students' online behavior

virtual morality: the challenge of addressing students' online behavior

There have been a few items in the news recently that have led me to think about how we talk to our students regarding their conduct in the virtual realm they so adroitly occupy.

  • There is the high profile and extremely tragic case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who committed suicide in the face of cyber-bullying.
  • The Clementi case brings to my mind the equally tragic story of Phoebe Prince. If you recall, Prince was the 15-year-old from Massachusetts who committed suicide earlier this year after unrelenting cyber-bullying from a group of her peers.
  • These two cases were in my mind when I saw a recent study showing the high rate of cyber crime among teenagers. The recent study indicates that nearly three quarters of American teenagers students have tried some form of simple hacking by the age of 16.

These three stories led me to ask a question:

As youth workers, as those tasked with playing a role in leading the spiritual development of the teenagers in our ministries, are we effectively addressing the way our students conduct themselves online?

We labor to equip and challenge our students to live the Christ-life at school and in their various extracurricular activities they are involved in. But do we intentionally challenge students to live as "salt" and "light" in the virtual environments they inhabit? It's an interesting question to me, in part because of the prevalence of inconsistencies I see in students' "virtual lives" and their "real world" lives.

  • How many times have you seen a student identify himself or herself as a Christ-follower in their Facebook profile, yet post pictures, or wall posts, or applications that seem to be contrary to the basic tenets of their self-professed faith?
  • How many of your students would be OK with stealing a shirt from the Gap or a pair of shoes from Target? Probably not a lot. Yet, many of these students don't think twice about ripping a video from a DVD, or using bit torrent to download a video game or movie.
  • How many times have you heard of or maybe even witnessed a particularly rude or aggressive (or potentially even a harmful) interaction between students online that would have never taken place in person?

It seems that for a variety of reasons, there is a real disconnect with how many of our students live their lives in the "real world" and how they live in the "virtual world." What are the issues or reasons that this happens? This is by no means exhaustive, but here are a few thoughts that come to mind:


Young people are extremely comfortable with compartmentalizing the different facets of their lives. This is exactly why many teenagers can go to small group on Thursday night and party with their friends on Friday night. I think this applies to the way students act in the "real world" as opposed to how they project themselves in the "virtual world." The two seem to be very separate to most students.

Image Control

It seems to me the motivation of a lot of bullying is the desire to look better by making someone else look worse. Call it "image control." This problem is as old as time. Yet, the medium of Social Networks makes the effects of bullying inescapable. The torment that used to stop at the end of the school day now continues in near perpetuity thanks to Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter.

Personal Detachment

For some young people, the Facebook Wall has become the modern day equivalent of the Restroom Wall. But instead of a few people seeing hand scribbled note about an unwitting victim, potentially thousands will. The same underlying motivation, however, is present: young people will say something when protected by space and distance that they won't say in person. The social connectivity of the virtual world simply heightens the effect.

"Victimless Crimes"

Hacking or pirating video or music seems harmless because there is no "victim" and a much less "concrete" chance of getting caught. When you steal a shirt from the local boutique, there is a person behind the register who you can see. There is a visual victim. When you steal from Target, you stand a very real chance of getting caught. These are both pretty strong deterrents. But virtual crime doesn't feel so personal. It's simply easier to do and live with. What can we do about it? Quite simply, we must begin to intentionally and overtly address the "virtual" character of our students. How?

We must teach students a biblical approach to the character of Christ, and must challenge them to live it out

I argue often that Jesus never made a distinction between belief and behavior. Yet we are guilty of doing this in the way we have traditionally talked about salvation and faith. We must teach students the biblical basis for what Christian character is, and boldly challenge them to live it out.

We must help them see their virtual environments as "harvest fields"

The connectivity of the virtual world of social networks provides 21st century Christ-followers with a vast platform to be witnesses to the Good News. The activities and practices your students DON'T engage in will speak volumes about what is in their heart. They have a great opportunity to "salt" and "light."

We must hold them accountable without violating their privacy

Desiring for our students to live more Christ-like lives online is no excuse for stalking their profiles looking for missteps. If you are fortunate enough to be allowed into your students' online worlds, behave as a guest. If you notice behavior that is harmful, address it, but do so in a way that respects their privacy and autonomy.

We must not shoot the messenger

Technology is not the problem. It is merely another medium in an eternally expanding line of mediums. Don't shoot the messenger. The Internet is not a fad. Social Networks aren't going away. I would love your thoughts. How are you addressing this issue on your students' lives? What are you doing to challenge your students to consider who they are virtually?

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