Why Banning The Phone Ban Was A Mistake

Last August I returned from a youth mission trip and declared that I would no longer ban cell phones on these trips. I said,

Negotiating the role of our phones is a terrific community-building opportunity on mission trips, indeed, in all of our youth ministry gatherings, because it gets at our expectations of attention and presence from one another. Inviting students to both articulate and enforce their own expectations of one another in this regard is a better practice, I’m convinced, than issuing a unilateral ban.

Well, I’ve just returned from this year’s trip, and I’m ready to make another declaration: that was a mistake, but not for any reason I anticipated.

This year we allowed students to bring their devices, and we articulated clear expectations of one another in terms of when they would be used, namely during free time and commuting. And while leaders wasted truckloads of energy policing off-limits use on work sites and during meal times, the truly negative consequence of allowing phones on this trip found expression within the allowed guidelines, and it did more damage to “community building” than any failure to be present has ever done.

In a word, it was gossip. Cell phones allow for unchecked gossip to spread like wildfire through cliques within a group completely outside the attention of the rest of the group or any of the adult leaders.

danah boyd has been arguing for years that there is no difference between online and offline interactions among teenagers. If someone is harassed by their schoolmates on Facebook, that harassment becomes a live issue when school is in session, and vice versa.

So on a mission trip where students are allowed to use Snapchat and to text one another during free time, interactions on those platforms are making an impact on their interactions around the lunch table and while working, and the impact isn’t good. Because it’s not like they’re texting each other Bible verses or encouraging words about the day’s work. Instead, it’s all drama.

There’s almost zero accountability here, too, since these interactions can be limited to a small intended audience. It’s a different problem than the one where certain kids need repeatedly told to put their phones away. And to my mind, it’s far more destructive.

How did I not see this?

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