The promise and pitfalls of mentoring in the digital age

Screen Shot 2013-01-26 at 12.46.42 PMby Jean Rhodes

Considering how widespread it is, it is somewhat alarming that there is not yet a uniform standard of best practice around social media in youth mentoring. Granted, many programs have wrestled with this issue, and we sought to determine how to update the Elements of Effective Practice  and the youth mentoring Code of Ethics to encompass the ever-expanding modes of connection. As societal concerns over children’s safety (e.g., 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. Here is some advice about mentoring in the digital age!

The many benefits

Comfort and ease Digital media has expanded the ways in which mentees can connect with their mentors. 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 that they may be too embarrassed to raise in a verbal conversation. Likewise, text nudges, in which struggling students are “nudged” to enroll in school and complete requirements  are an evidence-based means of closing the educational inequality gaps struck such a chord.

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 has 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 return when encouragement is needed.

The possible pitfalls

Unrealistic expectations-With social media habits, things could go awry: 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.

Inappropriate  public persona It’s easy to see how problems might arise when mentees search the Internet and discover controversial information, opinions, or photos of their mentors.  Mentors are encouraged to occasionally  search the Internet 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.

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. We agreed that technology will never change the basic human need for connection or one’s  sense of self in relationship. 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 that are sufficiently flexible to encompass both their strengths and limitations.

Want more information? Here’s an article on the topic: MentoringinDigitalAge