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Conducting Youth/Children Ministry in a Digital Age

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By Robert Showers, Esq. and Justin R. Coleman, Esq.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting stay at home executive orders being issued by various states, churches have had to look to new ways to minister the Gospel to its members and attendees. With online streaming and digital video conferencing, churches are able to connect to and interact with their members in real time. Even when the stay at home orders are stopped in phases, the need for online ministry will continue in this new abnormal. This online ministry is especially beneficial for youth/children programs due to the familiarity and comfort youth and teens have with this type of technology. However, new technology also brings with it known and hidden dangers that pastors and youth/children directors should be aware of and investigate before starting any youth/children ministries using these technologies. To protect both your church and the children you minister to you will need to make certain your child protection policy is up to date and covers, with appropriate alterations, your ministry online, its online communications, as well as in person interactions.. This article will briefly cover some of the practical questions on a virtual youth ministry.

1. What are the Hidden Dangers in Virtual Reality for Churches and Youth Workers?

The explosion of digital media and social media in the last decade is both a blessing and a curse for churches and ministries. It provides an instantaneous ability to communicate to your members, the local community, and the world at large. Conversely, it also may a temptation for individuals to make statements that are inappropriate, immoral, harassing, and potentially illegal because they think they are “invisible” behind the screen of their computer or smartphone. As to youth/children ministry online, social distancing has limited inappropriate physical contact but increased significantly inappropriate online communication leading to child abuse, especially in the “grooming process”.

Many of these platforms include a text chat feature where the host(s) and participants can send text messages to the group or privately between two individuals. This feature is helpful if the host wants to direct the participants to specific chapters and verses of the Bible for the lesson or when someone has a question but does not want to interrupt the host. However, this feature has the potential to be abused by individuals. Many of the cases of child abuse being investigated and prosecuted today were initiated by the abuser contacting the minor through text messages on social media sites or apps that contain a text chat feature. Text chats, especially in games, that disappear shortly after communication further complicates the issues of discovery and enforcement.

Church leaders should train youth/children workers to be aware that the virtual arena is still a public area and what they say and do online should be the same as if they were speaking to that person face to face.

Additionally, youth/children workers should be instructed on watching for behaviors or statements from participants that would violate church policies and suggest grooming1 of both the children and care givers.

2. What are Some Precautions Churches should take in conducting Virtual Youth/Children Ministry?

First and foremost, a church should have a written child protection policy which provides reasonable guidelines for screening, training, and managing youth workers to oversee youth ministries. This policy would apply equally to any virtual ministries and in-person programs. This means that any youth worker hosting the virtual ministry has been properly vetted by the church, including a criminal background check. If possible, any virtual ministry should have two adults present. As mentioned above, one worker would lead the group while the other could assist in presenting materials and monitoring the participants.

As mentioned in the previous section, text chat can be helpful in communicating to a large group, but youth workers must be extremely vigilant is using it with minors. Without the ability to interpret inflection, tone, and context, a neutral text can be interpreted to mean different things by the reader or a third party. For these reasons, a youth worker should never initiate a one-on-one text message with a minor. All text communications should be in a group setting or at a minimum include one additional adult (either another youth worker, a pastor, or the minor’s parent) into the response.

Youth/children workers should be aware of their surroundings when video broadcasting: Are their appearance and clothing reflective of someone presenting the Gospel to minors? Do they have adequate lighting to be seen on the screen or are they backlit? Is there anything in the background that would be considered inappropriate in view? Do they need earbuds to help reduce background noise? These questions should be answered and resolved prior to the youth worker launching the video meeting.

3. What Online Service Platform should we use for Virtual Youth Ministry?

There are a number of different digital platforms available that provide video conferencing or live streaming for free or a low monthly subscription fee (i.e. Zoom, Google Hangout, GoToMeetings, Microsoft Teams, EZtalks, Bluejeans, etc.). Likely your church is already using one or more of these platforms for streaming regular worship services or conducting administrative meetings and are familiar with its features.

If your church is considering launching a virtual youth ministry, it would be wise for your leadership to conduct its due diligence on these platforms. One particular concern should be the ability for the host to control 1) the participants entering and leaving the meeting, 2) the ability to record and limit recording of the meeting, and 3) ability to control what is shared or broadcast by the participants. For example, Zoom provides a host with a number of options in overseeing a virtual meeting including, but not limited to, requiring a participant to enter a password to access the meeting, the ability to mute and turn off a participant’s camera, to limit the ability for participants to record the meeting, and to remove a participant from the meeting.2 However, there have been many concerns about Zoom privacy (which we believe may now be resolved) which has driven others to Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting or other online platforms that appear more secure.

Again, each platform has its pros and cons. The church leadership should evaluate each platform to determine what provides the best service and security for your youth ministry within its budget.

4. What are the Privacy Concerns for Virtual Youth Ministry?

a. COPPA Requirements

With the expansion of digital communication, the need to protect private information, especially relating to minors, is paramount. In 1998, Congress passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Under COPPA, any commercial website or online service that is either 1) directed to children under 13 years of age and collects their personal information or 2) is directed to a general audience but has actual knowledge that it collects personal information from children under 13 years, must provide a privacy policy outlining the information it collects and must get parent consent before collecting that information.3 “Personal information” includes, but is not limited to, the child’s name, address, screen name, any photo, video, or audio file, and IP address. Church websites are not considered subject to COPPA because their non-profit religious activities are not considered “commercial.” However, for best practice purposes, churches should adopt a privacy policy that is compliant with COPPA.

A COPPA-compliant privacy policy for minors must include clear language stating: 1) a description of the personal information collected and how it will be used; 2) a list of all operators collecting personal information (both the church and any third parties); and 3) a description of parental rights in regards to the personal information.

The church must obtain the parent’s verifiable consent before collecting the minor’s personal information. COPPA does not provide one specific method to obtain consent, only that the method used would permit the church to reasonably ensure that the person giving consent is in fact the child’s parent/guardian. Like with most youth activities, the most common method would be by providing parents/guardians a written permission form prior to the activity for the parent/guardian to sign and return. If the church plans on recording any of these virtual ministry events, the permission form should include a waiver and release to permit the church to record their child.

b. Recording Audio/Video

As discussed in Section 3, most of these digital platforms give the host the ability to limit a participant’s ability to record the meeting. However, that may not stop an individual from using other devices to record the audio or video. Hosts should be aware of this possibility in all situations but particularly when conducting youth ministry. Recording laws vary by state and youth ministers and directors should be knowledgeable as to whether their state is a one-party consent state or an all-party consent state to record conversations. In the Mid-Atlantic, Virginia, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia are all one-party consent states. This means that any recording of a phone or video conversation is lawful so long as one side consents to the recording. Maryland is the only all-party state in the Mid-Atlantic region; this means that all the people participating in the call must be made aware of and agree to being recorded for it to be lawful.

This is also why we also recommend that the youth/children minister record and save all virtual youth ministry sessions for a certain period of time. If an allegation is ever made of inappropriate comments or actions by the youth/children worker, the church would have objective evidence to investigate the allegation. How long the church should store the digital recordings would be on a case-by-case basis and depends on the church’s server capacity to store the information. This procedure would be similar to any recording and storage of church security footage. Further, the church’s policy should state that law enforcement may view the recorded information but may not obtain a copy due to privacy concerns of the other youth on camera.

5. Online Bullying?

One of the most prevalent problems with online activities for young adults and teens is cyberbullying. Church leaders should first and foremost reflect Jesus Christ in their interactions with youth and encourage the members of their youth ministry to do the same on any digital platform. Both youth and adult participants should view these digital platforms as public spaces and honestly determine if they would make the same comment to the person if they were face-to-face instead of in text or on video. The youth ministry session should be open to and encourage parents to “sit in” on digital ministry events.

Youth workers should be monitoring posts on these digital platforms for instances of statements that look harassing to one or more of the participants and make note of them for discussion with the individual who posted the comment(s) separately. Again, having at least two adults present during the meeting will help by providing a second set of eyes and ears who are on the lookout for inappropriate behavior and help reduce bad actors from participating in these ministries.

Youth workers should encourage youth participants to let them know if they receive harassing or bullying messages from their peers or adults. If an adult, the church should look to its child protection policy on how to appropriately respond and whether the church has any duty to report the incident under that state’s Mandatory Reporting Statute.

If a peer, the church should approach the situation with appropriate discretion and Christian understanding. There are numerous resources and non-profit organizations dedicated to educating parents and organizations on cyberbullying such as:

6. Do’s for Online Ministry

a) Do not use texting/electronic communication to discuss or post sexual or sensitive topics.

b) If texting or video conferencing, do notify parents that texting/videoconferencing may occur and give parents the opportunity to opt out on behalf of their children/youth.

c) Try as much as possible to do online communication in groups with another adult present.

d) Help youth/children be aware of appropriate boundaries in online communication and do enforce the boundaries even if electronic communication does not feel like “real communication” with others.

e) Do tell parents and youth who to tell if a violation occurs or they have concerns about online communications.

f) Social media should be done through groups and do not have adult leaders befriend or direct message minors and keep adult leaders’ profiles as private to limit access to private information,

g) Do have two adults on video or other online communications with youth/children and record all video.

h) Do scan recorded conferences after the fact and consider MBWA (management by walking around) concepts by dropping in on videoconferencing with minors by other adults.

i) As stated above, do apply all child protection measures, privacy, and social media policies for online communications and do remember to act and say things as if you are in person always.

7. Conclusion

As with starting any new ministry, churches need to conduct their due diligence to assure that their procedures and policies are sound before launch. This is especially important for ministries involving children and youth and even more critical for online communications where things appear more invisible and safer to conduct risky behavior and communications. You may set up your ministry with the pure intentions to serve children and youth in a difficult time; and the majority of the people you work with may think likewise; however, it only takes one bad apple to derail your ministry if you are not intentional and vigilant to set appropriate guidelines. Social media is a powerful tool for good or bad. Thom S. Rainer recently published an article on five top reasons pastors get fired due to social media posts: 1) making combative/sarcastic comments: 2) making political comments not tied to Scriptural issues, 3) taking on church members, 4) criticizing other people, and 5) making unsavory or lewd comments were noted as the major culprits. Children and youth workers can learn from these mistakes and be careful what you post and what is posted by the children/youth.

If your church has decided to launch and continue a virtual youth/children ministry, leadership and youth workers should always remember that those procedures outlined in the church’s child protection policy also apply to the digital world. This policy should be reviewed by knowledgeable legal counsel to assure that it covers various types of digital communication, places adequate restrictions on communications with minors, and identifies proper responses to potential claims of abuse. Youth workers should have a Christian mindset when addressing minors during the session and ask themselves if they would make a similar statement if they were face-to-face with that person in a public setting.

The church should review and compare digital platforms to determine which provide sufficient security for the church in both overseeing who is entering and exiting the session as well as reducing the opportunity for potential abuse, harassment, and bullying of youth.

All of these steps, if implemented and consistently carried out, will help greatly reduce the church’s risk for liability as it provides ministry to its youth during this time of social distancing and into more virtual outreach.

Disclaimer: This memorandum is provided for general information purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice particular to your situation. No recipients of this memo should act or refrain from acting solely on the basis of this memorandum without seeking professional legal counsel. Simms Showers LLP expressly disclaims all liability relating to actions taken or not taken based solely on the content of this memorandum. Please contact Robert Showers at hrs@simmsshowerslaw.com, Justin Coleman at jrc@simmsshowerslaw.com, or Will Thetford at wrt@simmsshowerslaw.com or call at 703.771.4671 for legal advice that will meet your specific needs. For articles on COVID19 legislation and how to understand and apply the CARES Act and FFRCA please see https://www.simmsshowerslaw.com/covid-19-update/

1 See grooming process and child protection policies explained at Protecting Children in Church Small Group Settings and Minimize Child Abuse at https://www.simmsshowerslaw.com/protecting-children-in-church-small-group-settings/ and Virtual Instruction-Navigating Online Resources and Child Safety from MinstrySafe at https://www.facebook.com/pg/MinistrySafe/posts/?ref=page_internal

2 https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/115005759423-Managing-participants-in-a-meeting#h_135deff0-a391-4162-861b-204c020febb3

3 https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/childrens-online-privacy-protection-rule-six-step-compliance

 

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