Can “deep” relationships form in e-mentoring programs?

kevin oby Kevin O’NeillAssociate Professor, Education and Technology, Simon Fraser University

Throughout my career, I have been developing, running, and studying a series of small school-based e-mentoring programs (each generally serving less than 100 youth) over the years. I began this work around 1993, and from the beginning my inclination was that face-to-face mentoring would be preferable wherever it was possible. However, it isn’t always possible. Sometimes the adults you need to serve the specific goals of a program will not have the flexibility in their schedules that is needed to meet regularly with a young person face-to-face. In the end, regular contact with the right person is essential to developing a trusting, reciprocal mentoring relationship that can support personal growth.

People often think that an electronically mediated relationship will necessarily be a poorer one. I like to remind these skeptics that in an earlier era, people sometimes sustained deep and meaningful relationships through letter writing alone, for years at a time. This was the case with the early Hudson’s Bay Company traders, for instance, whose letters to their wives and children in England could only cross when the ice permitted the ships to move. If you place e-mentoring in this context, it is not surprising that elementary school children in an inner-city school in Chicago could be as inspired as they were in one of my early projects by exchanging e-mails with environmental engineers in California and Wisconsin about a project they were doing at school. Having adults other than their parents and teacher pay close attention to their ongoing work, and offer useful advice, was really something special even if the communication was just text-based, and there was a delay of a few days between one message and another.

As your questions suggest though, the nature of the communication that young people experience has changed dramatically over the years. It is now normal for many young people, even in challenging financial circumstances, to carry cell phones and have frequent, instantaneous communication with their friends throughout the day. (I was stunned by recent market research showing that 56% of people aged 18 to 24 who make less than $15,000 per year carry smartphones. In recent years I have found high school students in my e-mentoring programs increasingly frustrated with having to post messages to their mentors in my secure forum, and wait for replies. They ask why their mentors are not available on instant messaging, or on Facebook. When I tell them that we need the mentoring exchanges to happen in a safe place that we can monitor and control, they understand; but they are still frustrated.

While most of my e-mentoring experience is not with at-risk youth, I can tell you that e-mentoring relationships are somewhat challenging for many young people to sustain in the best of circumstances. (I often say that the “e” in e-mentoring does not stand for “easy.”) Particularly if mentors and mentees have to log in to a separate environment to communicate with one another (which, for the sake of protecting vulnerable youth, they should), the relationship can lapse without some regular support “on the ground.” Any young person’s life is filled with competing priorities and distractions, so e-mentors can simply be “out of sight, out of mind.” In my programs, regular classroom work connected with the e-mentoring relationships provides prompts for mentors and mentees to check in. I believe some support of this kind is important if an e-mentoring relationship is to develop into something more than a glorified pen pal or key pal exchange. To me, one of the hallmarks of a real mentoring relationship is that the participants feel responsible to one another. This can happen online, but it takes time and personal investment for this mutual responsibility to develop — and distractions can easily prevent it.