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Teenage Spirituality and the Internet


Cultic Studies Review, 1(2), 2002, 137-150

Teenage Spirituality and the Internet 

Alison Lutz

Candler School of Theology

Rev. Dean Borgman

Center for Youth Studies

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Abstract

Literature related to teenage spirituality and the Internet is reviewed. Teen use of the Internet for purposes related to religion is clearly increasing. Although teens demonstrate some discernment regarding the evaluation of information on the Web, their capacity to critically evaluate religious information on the Web is lacking. Those who want to help teens more effectively use the Internet for religious purposes should develop programs to teach teens how to separate the wheat from the chafe and develop and promote credible and useful information sites dealing with religious topics of interest to teens.

The youth population will grow rapidly over the next twenty years.  There are close to 30 million teenagers in the United States today (U.S. Department of Commerce and Economic Statistics Administration Bureau of the Census, 2002).  In this decade that number is expected to expand to 35 million (La Ferle, 2000).  

Teen trends are notoriously transient:  the hot brands, cool shows, and must-have accessories seem to change by the minute.  A priest at a local church summed it up when he said, “If you want to stay young, hang out with young people.  If you want to die young, try to keep up with them.”  Yet there are two trends that seem more significant than the usual teen fad:  an increase in teens seeking religion, and growing teen Internet use.

More young people than ever seem to be interested in religion.  The Gallup Youth Survey reports that in 1997, 64% of American teens surveyed were members of a church or synagogue, and 42% had attended services for religious worship in the past week. In 1999, 68% of teens were members of a church or synagogue, and 46% had attended services for religious worship in the past week (George Gallup International Institute, 2000). In an article for Newsweek, Sharon Begley writes, “this generation of teens is more spiritual than their parents” (Begley, 2000, p. 55).  William Damon, Director of Stanford University’s Center for Adolescents, believes that the spiritual searching of teens may be the generation’s defining characteristic.  “Their belief systems,” he says, “are in the long run more important than fashions, tastes, or even behavior” (Leland, 2000, page 63).  The importance of this trend in the long run makes it more than just a passing adolescent fad.

Another rapidly growing trend among teens is Internet use.  In 1994, 50 percent of teens reported that it’s in to be online; that number jumped to 88 percent in 1997 (Tapscott, cited in La Ferle, 2000).  In 1998, Jupiter Communications estimated that 8.4 million teens were online (Nash, 1999).  By the year 2000 11 million teens were online (Capone, 2000).  Though this growth is impressive, it shows no signs of slowing.  Jupiter Communications predicts that by the year 2005, 19.8 million teens will be surfing the Web (Capone, 2000).  This trend is by no means unique to the U.S.  By 2005, there will be an estimated 15.3 million European teens online (Ebenkamp, 2000).

As with teens’ search for religion, Internet use seems here to stay.  Teens are not only using the Internet in growing numbers, but those already online show every sign of increasing their use of the Web.  A study of college freshmen, for example, found that 70% believe their Internet use will increase in the near future (Lubans, 1999, Introduction section, para. 1).

Given the current breathtaking pace of social and technical change (young people graduating from college today are expected to change careers an average of seven times in their lifetime), it would seem impossible, and indeed, foolhardy to make a claim about the shape of the future for today’s teens.  And yet today’s young adults, who have first-hand experience of the fleeting nature of trends, are sure of at least one thing:  they believe that they will use the Internet for the rest of their lives (La Ferle, 2000).

What is the relationship between the growing teenage population, its growing interest in religion, and its growing Internet use?  In order to answer this question, it is important first to understand how young people are using the Net.

How Often Do Teens Go Online and What Do They Do?

If the Internet is exerting such a growing—and potentially permanent—influence on young adults’ lives, it would seem important to know how often teens go online and what they do when they are connected to the Web.  Surprisingly, few parents know how often their teens are online and what sites they visit on the Internet.  In a recent survey, 50% of parents reported having no idea how much time their children spend online each week (Hickman, Levin, Rupley, & Willmott, 1998).  As for parents knowing what sites teens visit, a 1997 poll showed that 62% of teenagers say their parents know nothing or little about the Web sites their teens visit (Buechner et al., 1999).

Often it is not parents who keep track of adolescent Internet use, but rather market research firms.  By understanding the patterns of young adults who are online, marketers can more effectively tap into this lucrative market.  After all, youth are often impressionable and have a relatively high proportion of disposable income.

Yankelovich Partners, a market research firm, has attempted to track teen Internet use.  It found that 75% of young people aged 12-17 surf the Web at least once a week, and 41% are going online every day (Overton, 2000).  A study for the Journal of Advertising Research suggests that when teens are online, it is most frequently for fun (La Ferle, 2000).  Compared with other forms of media such as magazines, newspapers, television, and radio, the Internet, according to La Ferle, is consulted more frequently by teens who are doing research or homework, a particularly impressive finding given that the Web is such a relatively new source of information.  La Ferle also found that when seeking information, teens turn first to their peers, then to their parents, and then to the Internet, followed by counselors and teachers.  Yet La Ferle cites a study done by Simmons Teen Research who found that 25% of teens find Web sites via word-of-mouth, 19% via advertising, and 17% via online browsing (Business Wire as cited in La Ferle, 2000).  La Ferle reconciles these conflicting findings by saying that they demonstrate the need, when trying to make teens aware of a particular Web site, to use many different channels, for example, a wide variety of media and word-of-mouth communication.

Media have also shown an interest in studying teen Internet use.  In the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, in which the aggressors used the Internet to find out how to make pipe bombs, popular news media surveyed teen Internet use as part of their reporting on the tragedy and its cultural repercussions.  These organizations sought to find out how often young people used the Web to access harmful information.  The Columbine High School shooting took place on April 20, 1999.  One week later, on April 27, Time/CNN commissioned a telephone poll of American 13- to 17-year-old teens to ascertain what American adolescents find when they go online.  The survey, however, asked only about harmful Web sites.  Forty-four percent of the teens surveyed reported seeing Web sites that are x-rated or have sexual content; 25% reported seeing sites with information about hate groups; and 14% reported seeing sites that teach how to build bombs (Buechner et al, 1999).

Librarians and educators also try to assess adolescent Internet use so that they can help young adults find what they need where they are looking for it, namely, on the Web.  Mary Arnold, president of the Young Adult Library Services in Cuyahoga County, near Cleveland, Ohio, says “students have an idea when they come into the library that everything they need is on the Internet” (Leibovich, 2000, p. G6).  John Lubans Jr., deputy university librarian at Duke University found in a research study of college freshmen that more than two-thirds said they use the Web for school-related research “because the Internet helped them find more sources” (Lubans, 1999, How often do they use the Web? Section, para. 2).

How Do Teens Relate to the Web?

In order to understand teen Internet use, market researchers are studying why teens go online and why they frequent certain sites.  In her study analyzing how young adults use media, La Ferle explains that teens use media to meet two fundamental adolescent needs:  socialization and identity formation.  Through radio, television, and the Internet teens can explore the world around them.  They can access information that helps them form their values, i.e., what is important to them, how they want to live, what groups they want to join, etc.  Summarizing teen use of the Internet, La Ferle asserts, “teens are looking to the media for relevant information that will impact their lives. […S]ites that provide for teens’ needs are more likely to be visited” (La Ferle, 2000, p. 62).  Thus, it is very important to understand that young people are not surfing the Net merely because it is in or cool; they are using the Internet to fulfill fundamental needs.  Web sites that respond accordingly are  sites teens will visit.

However, since adolescence is a time for forming independence and identity, teens do not want to be told what to think or what to do.  They want quality resources that will let them decide for themselves.  As Lubans points out, “students want freedom, but they want guidance” (Lubans, 1999, Introduction section, para. 6).  In his study of students aged 14-19, Lubans found that almost all were strongly in favor of having live Internet links in the library catalog.  The majority of the students, for example, agreed with the proposition, “librarians should provide access to all relevant information.”  Yet as one focus group member pointed out, “If it’s in the catalog, that means it’s a worthwhile source” (Lubans, 1999, What students want from librarians section, para. 4).  Teens do not want just to be led to more sources of information; they want those sources to be relevant and worthwhile sources.

How teens determine whether information from the Web is relevant and worthwhile is a complex question.  A Time/CNN poll of teens shows that young adults have a healthy skepticism regarding the information they receive on the Web.  Only 13% of teens surveyed said they trusted information from the Internet a great deal, compared to the 83% who trusted information from their parents a great deal.  Information from teachers, religious leaders, friends, and traditional forms of media is more trustworthy than information from the Internet (Buechner et al., 1999).  It must, of course, be taken into consideration that the Internet is a relatively new source (La Ferle, 2000).  Therefore, the fact that many teens do not use the Internet or have been using it for only a short time may have a lot to do with why only 13% of American teens trust information on the Internet a great deal.

Whether or not they trust the information they find online, many teens demonstrate some skills for evaluating Web resources, suggesting that even if they trust information on the Web, they do not trust it blindly.  Lubans (1999, How they judge sites section, para. 2) found that students view the following criteria as most important for evaluating a Web site (in descending order):

  1. The site is based in or on a respected print source.
  2. Peers or teachers suggested the site.
  3. Ownership of the site is explicit.
  4. The site displays a recent date for the posting of information.
  5. The site’s URL includes “edu” or “org.”
  6. The site has links to other sites.
  7. The site includes an e-mail link to its owner.
  8. The site has a professional look.
  9. The site has a lot of pictures.

It is important to note that for adolescents the recommendation of a site by peers or teachers (i.e., people whom teens trust and respect) is very important in determining the quality of a site.  This belief among teens helps explain the following anecdotal evidence offered by Karen Scheider, the director for technology at Shenendehowa Public Library near Albany, New York.  Schneider worries that though they are extremely sophisticated in their use of new technology, teens are often vulnerable when it comes to judging the information they find there.  Schneider claims that if you “show them a list of the presidents out of order on a Web site, then show them a correct listing in a book, they’ll believe the computer” (Mendels, 2000, para. 9).  This does not necessarily mean that young people blindly trust all that they find on the Web. It could show that teens are looking for guidance on how to surf the Web, and they trust sites that are shown to them by respected sources, whether a respected print source (the number one criteria that students identified), or a respected peer or adult, the second most important criteria.

As marketers become savvier regarding adolescent Web use, teens become more suggestible to their pitches.  Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education points out, “Teens don’t like to be marketed to, but in response to that, marketers are creating sites that don’t look like marketing.  Kids may not know what this is all about” (Overton, 2000, p. 52).  Others interested in influencing teens, including destructive ideological organizations, may follow the marketers by using sophisticated persuasive techniques on the Web.

Even if the marketing/persuasion dimension is set aside, teens are still at risk of being influenced by dubious Internet information sources because so many teens surf the Web without supervision or guidance.  John Geraci, who oversees online polls of young Internet users for the Harris Interactive market research firm, says that students who had Internet access at home preferred to do online research and homework from home, rather than from a school or library computer.  Such young people are thus isolated from the teachers and librarians who could point them to worthwhile and relevant online resources (Leibovich, 2000).  As more and more families obtain Internet access at home, young people will need Web sites maintained by respected and trusted sources to guide them through all the online junk.

Teens, Religion, and the Internet

Tom Beaudoin (1998), a noted spokesperson for Generation X, discusses the spirituality of his generation through an examination of fashions, use of the Internet, and music videos.  According to Beaudoin, GenXers are comfortable with cyberspace because they have grown up with computers and video games.  He writes:

Although the number of Americans on-line has been frequently exaggerated, GenXers have generally constituted around one-third of the total number of those in cyberspace…. The components of cyberspace that we will consider include virtual communities, virtual conceptions of space and location, religious sites in cyberspace, types of discussion and interest groups, individual virtual communication, the cyberspatial “self,” the significance of hypertext, and the bodily experience of being on line.  (Beaudoin, 1998, pp. 43-44)

Beaudoin sees cyberspace as chiefly characterized by speed.  When computers bring people all the speed they seek, they will then find “a fullness of presence on-line” (Beaudoin, 1998, p.87).  The search for speed and full presence becomes a metaphor for two human quests:  Buber’s I-Thou relationships and transcendent meaning.  Beaudoin believes Xers have often imagined the Web as a metaphor—however imperfect—for God: “What we are suggesting, then, is that cyberspace is not just a playful diversion for Xers.  There is something deeply theologically compelling about this medium with which Xers are so comfortable” (Beaudoin, 1998, p. 87)

Teenagers today (called Millennials or the Net Generation, as well as GenXers), follow the footsteps—as do all youthful generations—of those ahead of them.  Today’s teens are heirs of the first postmodern and Internet generation.  Though the spirituality of both generations is unorthodox, it is strong and creative.  That this spirituality manifests itself on the Web should not surprise us, for the Web is part of this generation’s identity.

Despite this fact, few studies address the subject of teens, religion, and the Internet.  There seem to be two main reasons for this.  First, studying this subject is not likely to bring much of a monetary return, so commercial organizations have ignored it.  Second, the subject of spirituality is complex and subjective.  It is, for example, difficult to make even rough estimates about the number of spiritual seekers of any age on the Net.  One sociologist asserts, “Reliable figures just don’t exist at this time.  We don’t yet even have a working taxonomy describing all the things people are doing, spiritually speaking, on the Web” (Strand, 2000, p. 89).

Nevertheless, some data exist.  A study in American Demographics reports that 4% of teens currently use the Internet for religious or spiritual experiences (Gardyn, 2000).  Like the general trend toward increased Internet use, the number of teens going online for spiritual purposes seems likely to increase.  Gardyn claims that overall, 16% of teens say that the Internet will substitute for their current church-based religious experience in the next five years.  This is true for 31% of black teens and 8% of white teens.  Though these statistics are very interesting, it is nevertheless important to note that they refer to teens using the Web for spiritual experiences, not merely spiritual information.  It would seem that the percentage of teens going online for spiritual information could be much higher.

Though research on the extent to which teens surf the Net for spiritual information is quite limited, there is some evidence that adults in increasing numbers are looking for religion online.  For example, William Fore, director of Religion-Online.org, a site which daily lists religious news and essays, reports that between October 1998 and March 1999, activity on the site grew from 8,533 page views to 51,891.  Judy Gill, director of Christianity Online says her site has experienced similar fast-paced growth.  In 1998, the number of hits and the number of users were, respectively, 670,000 and 220,000 per month.  In 1999, the numbers had grown to 1.5 million hits, and 266,000 users per month (Strupp, 1999).  Research also shows that chat rooms and e-mail discussion were the most common online activities for those adults who used the Internet for spiritual purposes (Derk, 1998).

Assuming that, like adults, teens are using the Web in increasing numbers to search for religious information, it is important to look at what teens encounter when they go online looking for religion.  They are likely to run into the same challenge that face adolescents looking for any sort of information on the Net:  how to find a manageable number of worthwhile, quality links.  When the word “God” is typed at Alta Vista (a search engine), it lists 4,538,970 pages.  How are teens to evaluate the vast number of sources? They need resources that are recommended or endorsed by trusted adults, peers, and organizations.  J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, CA, laments that “we’re overwhelmed with information on the Web, but we don’t know where much of it comes from” (Strand, 2000, p. 122).  In an article from the Dallas Morning News, Jeffrey Weiss observes that people frequently forget—or do not know how—to evaluate critically information about a topic as seemingly subjective as religion.  Weiss writes that it is important to remember, “the Net is as filled with misinformation about religion as it is about any other topic” (Weiss, 1999, Religion section, para. 3).  In his article on online spirituality, Clark Strand sums up the difficulty of seeking spiritual information on the Web: “there are a lot of opinions in cyberspace, but few ways of verifying which are well-founded and which are not” (Strand, 2000, p. 122).

As Begley reports in Newsweek, today’s teens are more spiritual than their parents, yet their spirituality can be less conventional.  “Many put together their own religious canon as they would a salad from a salad bar” (Begley, 2000, p. 55).  The Internet seems particularly conducive to developing such an eclectic spiritual identity:  at the click of a mouse, teens have access to information on all different types of religions, many quite obscure.

The Net may be most valuable to those who practice or are interested in faith traditions that aren’t well known where they live.  Someone interested in the basics about Islam, the Bahá’í faith or even renewed worship of Norse and other pagan deities can find them easily online. (Weiss, 1999, Religion section, para. 2)

Young adults may also pick-and-choose to form their own spiritual identity because ours is such a consumer culture that teens treat religion as just another consumer product.  Modern teens move “among Christian, Jewish, and Oriental religions with ease […] and act as ‘consumers in the broadcast marketplace of belief systems’” (Webber, 2000, p. 12).

An informal survey conducted by the Center for Youth Studies asked 46 youth educators and 45 youth workers questions designed to assess their use of the Web and their perceptions of how teens use the Web, particularly with regard to religion and spirituality.  Approximately 60% of youth educators and youth workers thought that teenagers “occasionally” use the Internet for spiritual/religious purposes.  Approximately 15% thought that teenagers used the Internet a “great deal” for these purposes. The results are somewhat surprising and contrary to what the general public would believe about teenagers and the Internet, namely, that they primarily use the Internet for instant messaging, e-mail, and games/entertainment. An overwhelming majority of respondents supported the establishment of a Web site where teenagers and others could find credible and reliable educational information about the world’s major religions and spirituality.

The following anecdote highlights the difficulty that young adults have in critically evaluating the religious information available on the Web.  J. Gordon Melton, also quoted above, says:

You can go to Reverend Moon’s Unification Church site, which represents somewhere between 5-10 thousand Americans, and then you can go to the Web site of the Methodist Church, which represents 10 million, and the Web sites are about the same size and quality.  If anything, the Unification Church site might be just slightly better. (Strand, 2000, p. 89).

How would a teen with little or no religious background compare, sort, and weigh the information available on these two Web sites?  Recently on a Jewish bulletin board, Jeremy, “a self-styled ‘new age intellectual Bohemian,’” articulated this very dilemma:

Who’s writing this stuff anyway?  They could be Ph.D.s or they could be nothing.  They could just be lost souls out there surfing like the rest of us—but with a home page and a little HTML know-how, suddenly they’ve got a doctrine patched together out of who-knows-what and a soapbox as big as a rabbi’s.  It’s not like there’s anybody checking up on them to make sure it’s for real. (Strand, 2000, p. 122).

Conclusion

Although there is a need for more research into how and to what extent teens access spiritual information online, some important conclusions can be drawn from the existing data.  Teens are searching for spiritual information in increasing numbers with spiritual styles that can be very eclectic and fluid (which is conducive to the way religious information is presented on the Web).  In addition, more and more teens are going online, and the teens that are already online are using the Internet more frequently as a source of information.  Given the finding that religious Web sites are seeing more and more activity (although that activity is not broken down by age-group), one may reasonably infer that the number of teens who use the Internet to access religious information is increasing and will continue to do so.

The research reviewed above suggests that people who want to help teens more effectively use the Internet should: (1) develop and promote educational programs that teach teens how to separate the wheat (however drab in appearance) from the chafe (however glitzy); and (2) develop and promote credible and useful information sites dealing with subjects important to teens, including sites dealing with religion.  It is especially important that educators, librarians, clergy, and other trusted sources of information be made aware of these sites so that they can recommend them to teens.

In summary, if our culture is “obsessed with tracking what teens buy, what crimes they commit or what they do in bed, [even though] this search for faith may be the generation’s most important signature,” (Leland et al., 2000, p. 63), then someone should be helping teens sift through all the religious information available online. 

References

Beuchner, M., Christian, N., Cole, W., Sieger, M., Harbert, N., Krantz, M., et al. (1999, May 10). Raising kids Online: What can parents do? Time, 153, 38-39.

Begley, S., Wingert, P., Scott, H., Figueroa, A., Gordon, D., Meadows, S., et al.  (2000, May 8). A World of Their Own. Newsweek, 135, 53-56.

Beaudoin, T. (1998). Virtual faith : the irreverent spiritual quest of generation X . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Capone, L. (2000, December 10). Sexuality in youth popular culture: Web offers perilous—and safe—passages to adulthood. The Boston Globe, pp. NO1, NO7.

Derk, J. (1998, July 18). Internet surfing carries teens to religion. Minneapolis Star Tribune, p. B6.

Ebenkamp, B. (2000, September 18). The Ugly American URL?:  European teens not interested in generic Web-marketing. Brandweek, 41, 24.

George Gallup International Institute.  (2000, March).  Youth Views, 4, 2.  

Gardyn, R., Fetto, J. (2000, April). Somebody say Amen! American Demographics, 22, 72.

Hickman, A., Levin, C., Rupley, S., Willmott, D. (1998, Nov. 3).  How much are your kids surfing? PC Magazine, 17, 10.

La Ferle, C.  (2000) Teens’ use of traditional media and the Internet.  Journal of Advertising Research, 40, 55-65.

Leibovich, L. (2000, August 10). Choosing quick hits over the card catalog.  The New York Times, pp. G1, G6.

Leland, J., Wingert, P., Gatland, L., Weingarden, J., Reno, J., Nelson, M., et al. (2000, May 8). Searching For a Holy Spirit. Newsweek, 135, 60-63.

Lubans, J. (1999, September). When students hit the surf: What kids really do on the Internet, and what they want from librarians. School Library Journal, 45, 144-147.  Retrieved July 21, 2002 from http://slj.reviewsnews.com/index.asp?layout=articleArchive&articleid=CA153025.

Mendels, P. (2000, April 19). Librarian, long an Internet booster, sees clouds on Web horizon.  New York Times on the Web. Retrieved July 21, 2002, from http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/00/04/cyber/education/19education.html.

Nash, S. (1999, October 10). Keeping kids safe online.  PC Magazine, 18, 35.

Overton, R. (2000, April). Minor markets. PC Computing, 13, 52.

Strand, C. (2000, July-August). Cyberspirituality. New Age, 86-89.

Strupp, J. (1999, May 15). Wealth of online sites offer a personal pew. Editor & Publisher, 132, 30-31.

U.S. Department of Commerce and Economic Statistics Administration Bureau of the Census (2002) “Current Population Reports,” Table 2, p. 56 shows the number of 13-19-year-olds to be 28,226,000.

Webber, R. (2000, September-October). Finding Hope in the Coming Generation.  Worship Leader, 12.

Weiss, J. (1999, June 27). Life it or not, everyday life tangled up in the Web. The Dallas Morning News.  Retrieved July 21, 2002, from http://nl9.newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives?p_product=DM&p_theme=dm&p_action=search&p_maxdocs=200&p_field_label-0=Author&p_field_label-1=title&p_bool_label-1=AND&p_text_label-1=Ready%20or%20not,%20everyday%20life%20tangled%20up%20in%20the%20Web&p_field_label-2=Section&p_bool_label-2=AND&s_dispstring=headline(Ready%20or%20not,%20everyday%20life%20tangled%20up%20in%20the%20Web)%20AND%20date(06/27/1999%20to%2006/27/1999)&p_field_date-0=YMD_date&p_params_date-0=date:B,E&p_text_date-0=06/27/1999%20to%2006/27/1999&p_perpage=10&p_sort=_rank_:D&xcal_ranksort=4&xcal_useweights=yes

Acknowledgments

This paper was produced as part of a joint project of the American Family Foundation (AFF – www.culticstudies.org) and the Center for Youth Studies (CYS – www.centerforyouth.org).  The project was funded by the Bodman Foundation.  The authors wish to thank Dr. Michael Langone, Executive Director of AFF, for the planning of the paper and editorial assistance, Joseph Wang, a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, for collecting and analyzing survey data related to this research, and Anne Montague and Jonathan Ketcham for clerical and research assistance.  The project to which this paper contributed produced a Web site designed to help young people find credible sources of information on religion: www.faithresource.org. The Web site is still in the developmental stage.

Alison Lutz earned a B.A. from Emory University in Atlanta and is currently in a M.Div. program at Emory’s Candler School of Theology.

Rev. Dean Borgman is the Charles E. Culpepper Professor of Youth Ministries at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and director of the Center for Youth Studies.  He has spent his life in youth work, training, and as professor of youth ministries in seminaries around the world.  He is an adjunct professor at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary (Brookline, MA), Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA), and DayStar University College (Nairobi, Kenya).

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