Schwartz, S. E. O., Rhodes, J. E., Liang, B., Sánchez, B., Spencer, R., Kremer, S., & Kanchewa, S. (2014). Mentoring in the digital age: Social media use in adult-youth relationships. Children and Youth Services Review, 47, 205-213.
Digital communication (e.g. texting, emailing, Facebook, etc.) is increasingly changing how today’s youth communicate within their social and family networks (Common Sense Media, 2012). Research exists on how digital media is used in family and peer relationships (e.g., Davis, 2012; Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008; Turkle, 2011), but there is a lack of research exploring use of digital media in formal youth mentoring relationships. This study is a critical first step toward the assessment of current practices, measurement of impact, and evaluation of the perceptions of program staff regarding use of digital communication between mentors and their mentees. Results from this study are relevant to youth-serving program staff and academics that are interested in conducting future research on this subject.
The current study used online cross-sectional survey data from a sample of international mentors and mentor program staff. Participants who completed surveys include 227 mentors and 121 program staff. Additionally, 78 staff members responded to open-ended questions in their surveys. Survey questions for mentors asked about how they use digital media in their mentoring relationship and how they perceive digital media has influenced their mentoring relationship. Mentors completed both Relational Health Indices (RHI) (Liang et al., 2002) and Mentor Strength of Relationship Scale (MSoR) (Rhodes, Schwartz, Willis, & Wu, 2014) to assess relationship quality. For a copy of the MSoR to use in your own program, please click here. Relationship duration was measured by asking mentors how long their relationship has lasted and how long they expect it will last. Mentoring program staff answered questions regarding program digital media policy, digital media mentor training, and how they feel digital media has influenced mentoring relationships. Regression models were used to explore associations between digital media use and relationship characteristics and open-ended questions were analyzed using guidelines recommended by Braun & Clark (2006).
Results (for complete survey results, please download original article)
- 51% of youth mentoring programs have a written digital media policy that guides mentor and mentee interactions across social media.
- Only 2-16% of staff report their program addresses specific forms of communication (e.g. texting, IM, Skype) in their digital media policy.
- 72% of program staff report that social media use is discussed in mentor training.
- 17% of staff report monitoring digital media communication.
- 59% of programs allow mentors and mentees to accept Facebook “friend” requests.
- 41% of staff report prohibiting or discouraging the use of Facebook.
- 43% of staff report that their program offers skill development or training to mentors and/or mentees to better address cyber safety and cyber bullying.
Fig. 1 Staff-reported policy stance across different types of digital media
Fig. 2 Percentage of mentor-reported purpose of use across digital media
It is the recommendation of the authors that mentoring programs, if they do not have one already, create a written digital and social media policy. As reported by mentors, use of digital media across mentoring relationships is widespread. 72% of surveyed program staff reported discussing the use of digital media within their training for mentors. However, only 51% of staff reported having an official policy. Furthermore, 44% of all mentors responded “Unsure” as to whether or not their program had a policy to govern the use digital media. These numbers suggest that training may be catching up to what is currently being practiced by mentors, but that program policy development is lagging behind program training.
The use of Facebook by mentor-mentee matches had a modest association with higher relationship quality scores and increased relationship duration. However, these results should be interpreted with a degree of caution. For example, it is unknown if Facebook communication contributes to growth in relationship quality or if using Facebook is simply more common across stronger mentoring relationships. Future research is needed to determine causation.
Both mentors and mentoring program staff reported perceiving that digital communication either improved or did not do harm with regards to duration and frequency of contact in mentoring relationships. Mentors reported that their digital communication was mainly used to check-in with their mentee and that they preferred face-to-face conversation for meaningful dialogue. The authors believe that this evidence suggests digital and social media are not being used as a replacement for traditional in-person meetings. This is encouraging for programs that are looking to incorporate digital media use into their policy and trainings, but are refraining due to concerns over potentially negative consequences.
Findings from this study directly impacted the development of the 4th Edition of MENTOR’s Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring (EEPM). On January 28, 2015, a draft of the EEPM was presented to the youth mentoring community during a CEBM Short Course to collect practitioner feedback. As announced during this conference, incorporating pre-match training for mentors regarding “use of digital and social media” is a new Benchmark (i.e. required practice) for youth mentoring programs. Pre-match training on this subject for mentees and parents/guardians is a new Enhancement (i.e. suggested practice). Lastly, outlining appropriate means for communication using digital and social media after match closure is a new Benchmark.
For further information on youth mentoring and digital communication, please feel free to visit CEBM’s Short Course video archive. Included are video presentations from the Short Course, “Youth Mentoring in the Digital Age”, which includes a wealth information on the subjects of digital/social media as it relates to youth development, ethics, and program practice/policy.