Editors Note: In this column Gail Manza and Susan Patrick draw from their new book Mentor’s Field Guide, which is framed as a series of 67 answers to the most common questions that arise in youth mentoring.
Question 25. Will talking about my own life or beliefs help my mentee open up to me? If so, how much should I share?
Question 30. What about communicating with my mentee online? Should we e-mail, text, tweet, or “friend” each other
Online communication is here to stay, and its reach just keeps expanding. Chances are that unless you have a very young mentee or are quite tech-savvy yourself, your mentee is ahead of you in using social media and electronic means to form and sustain relationships. Even if you think the development of the Internet and all that it has spawned is one of the 20th century’s worst developments, it is important to familiarize yourself with the nature and offerings of the online world because it is the world in which most mentees live. Technology is now embedded in school curricula, and even a significant percentage of kids living in our nation’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods grow up with cell phones and other high-tech devices as routine parts of their lives.
We encourage mentors to be open to using electronic media unless they are involved in a formal mentoring program that discourages it. If you are mentoring through a program that is based online (like iMentor.org), one that encourages online contact, or you are mentoring informally, this arena offers opportunities to enhance the quality of both your communications and your relationship with your mentee. Keep in mind that some mentees may not wish to “friend” their mentors in social media sites because they want to maintain some privacy regarding their peer relationships and activities. If your mentee does friend you, these sites are a great way to get to know her better and learn more about her interests and daily life.
A good place to start in learning the basics is the straightforward article developed by the Corporation for National and Community Service (www.nationalserviceresources.org/files/Youth-Impact-vol-2.pdf). At a minimum, it will help you become familiar with the terms you’re likely hear your mentee use. Mentor Michigan also has a useful one-page tip sheet on social media (www.michigan.gov/documents/mentormichigan/
Finally, bear in mind that there is no need to become an expert in all matters related to the virtual world. Your objective is simply to be aware of the extent to which young people operate in that world and to become familiar with basic forms and forums for online communications. In fact, mentors who are largely untutored in this area have one bonus: your lack of knowledge and skill gives your mentee the chance to demonstrate competence by helping you gain your bearings in a world that is new to you. Cyberspace and its myriad Internet-based access points also provide opportunities for you and your mentee to explore a wide range of interests together. One simple example: we think of our smart phones as 24/7 encyclopedias. Want to know who the sitting governor in your state is, how many games the Knicks won last year, or when Mozart was born? Google it and use the information you locate it to enliven (and inform) on any subject that interests your mentee.
If you are interested in learning more about online mentoring, there is a good overview on the MENTOR website at mentoring.org/downloads/mentoring_1316.pdf. Or visit imentor.org. Finally, if you are concerned that your mentee has fallen into the “technology gap” that affects many young people living in tough circumstances, see Question 39a.
DATA POINT: Children and Internet Access
The U.S. Census Bureau stopped tracking computer use at home by children because the availability of home computing was so highly correlated with actual use. Today, the bureau tracks only children’s Internet access. In 2009, nearly 77 percent of children lived in a household with Internet access, with markedly higher rates (more than 90 percent) for children with a parent holding a bachelor’s degree or higher and lower rates for children whose parent holds a high school diploma (63 percent) or did not complete high school (39 percent).
Source: U.S. Census Bureau (2009).
For more information, please see the The Mentor’s Field Guide. The book is published by Search Institute and available as a book or ebook at amazon.com. See the table of contents for full range of questions and answers.