By Crispin Ketelhut
How to develop an adult electronic communication policy
There has been a momentous shift in communication in our society in recent years. We have traded in-person, face-to-face relational interaction for a virtual and technologically advanced world of electronic exchange. Contrary to the thoughts of some, we are not in the midst of a “cultural fad.” This virtual world has become a foundational, cultural reality that is here to stay, and technology will only continue to advance before our eyes.
The question that is often asked is if the organization will or will not participate in this online conversation. If we do not enter into this realm and learn how to use its assets, we will have lost the opportunity to engage the contemporary culture in the new agora. Moreover, we would be doing a great disservice to our ministries and to the people we serve — particularly our youth.
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There is no disputing how powerful social media or electronic messaging can be. It has increased educational opportunities; provided the capability to communicate with practically anyone anywhere in the world, at any time; it has changed the face of business and marketing — the list is quite extensive.
Therefore, as organizations who work with youth, a better question is not whether we should enter into this electronic medium of conversation, but rather, how do we appropriately and safely engage others? The real issue concerns organizational and individual transparency as it relates to the establishment and continued maintenance of boundaries for meaningful electronic communication.
Some of you might already have an adult electronic communication policy at your locations, while others may not yet have integrated them into your code of conduct documents. Whether or not you already have one of these policies in place, the following are some important items to remember.
It has been a long-held philosophy of The National Catholic Risk Retention Group, Inc., and NCS Risk Services, LLC, that access to any ministry should be supervised administratively through proper screening and clear policies.
Every organization that has a relationship with youth should adopt an organization-wide policy that requires professionalism, and espouses the virtues of prudence and transparency through a marriage of ministry and safety. From the ministerial perspective, there must be a proper framework in which all individuals can thrive. Through transparency and the establishment of boundaries, an organization may freely evangelize and deliver the message that has been entrusted to that organization for others.
One of the challenges with regulating access to electronic communication is that one may never know the true identity of the other person with whom one is interacting. Another concern is the intrinsically isolated nature of the communication and the fact that the “contact” is usually outside of the sight and hearing of others. Seemingly innocuous conversation about school or ministry between the organization’s staff or volunteer member and a minor can easily move to conversations of a more intimate nature. This direct access makes it easier for a potential threat to interact with children in ways and places that used to be considered private, such as the home. At its very core, electric communication provides the opportunity for the potential predator to enter our private realms without restriction, and breach our physical walls that traditionally have been the first line of defense.
Practical questions to consider
Do all adults take advantage of the rules or the vulnerabilities of others? No, of course not.
Do some adults feel that they are above the rules? Sure, we see that people often disregard rules when there is little chance of being caught — perhaps most often on the road when people disregard speed limits.
Do adults ignore specific rules when it comes to ministry? Not all, but some do.
Does that mean that anyone who puts themselves in bad situations, or who does not follow the rules, is a child abuser who is grooming children? No, not necessarily.
So, is there really any harm? If you have good intentions, why are you unable to interact or communicate in the way that you want through the Internet with youth affiliated with your organization? What is the “big deal”?
It is important to understand that an adult is always in a position of authority over a child through the very nature of being an adult. This is even truer as an official volunteer or staff member of the organization. It is an elevated role that all adults must respect and acknowledge, particularly through some form of a code of conduct and / or a policy. Not only is there a due diligence concern here, but also even possible issues regarding the adult’s modeling of proper behavior in line with the values of the organization. More important, there is at least one discrete obligation of any organization or adult with ministry or contact with youth: protection. We collectively have a responsibility and privilege to protect youth and children and, as adults, an ethical duty to know and respect proper boundaries.
One adult’s indifference for policies and boundaries could be teaching a child to tolerate certain types of inappropriate communication or contact from other adults. Some behaviors actually could condition children and youth to accept behavior from another that they would normally resist. Couple this with the fact that in our society many youth do not understand what boundaries are, and we have a serious issue. Even worse, perpetrators will take advantage of these actions. Thus, adults who interact with youth should exercise extreme care.
Making the private, public
The next essential question is this: How do we convert something that is intrinsically private — such as electronic communication — into something transparent within a public forum? The overarching administration of an organization should create and promulgate a written policy that embraces transparency, organically grows to sustain policies for emerging technology and houses a system of checks and balances. It should denote the administrative procedures for submitting a policy violation and the rights and actions that are available for all parties. Having a policy creates accountability for the organization and the individual.
Also, the organization should create and distribute a code of conduct with clearly established appropriate and inappropriate behavior. All these procedures should have a signature page to be returned back to the organization and kept on file, that acknowledges receipt and that indicates understanding of the material. These types of documents are valuable because they reduce inappropriate behavior by innocent people since they provide a standardized foundation of expected behavior from all adults.
Familiarity with them also makes it easier for caring adults to communicate their concerns to the appropriate contact person regarding a warning sign / red flag or inappropriate behavior.
A procedural outline
A set of procedures specifically outlining social media use or electronic communication on behalf of adults should encompass, but not be limited to, the following:
Definitions and parameters: The overarching organization must create a policy that has accountability for each method of communication, which also means that there should be a lengthy and encompassing set of definitions and parameters. For example, communication facilitated via laptops, smart phones, tablets, gaming consoles and sites, the Internet, including interaction through any type of cell phone, mobile device, email, webcams, social networking sites (Facebook, Vine, Instagram), content-sharing sites, blogs, microblogs (Twitter), etc.
Permission: Written permission should be obtained from the parent / guardian to communicate with the adolescent minor(s) electronically or via the main phone of the household. This permission form — signed by the parent / guardian — should include what forms of communication are preferred to contact the children. In the case of young children, only parents should be contacted. There should be additional language denoting that there will be an attempt to call the home’s landline number as much as possible to reach the youth.
Record keeping: Copies of all electronic communication must remain on file (either physically or electronically) for an indefinite amount of time at the sponsoring organization.
Checks and balances: It should be the policy of the organization to create a public social media account for the adult in public ministry using the name of the organization, along with oversight of more than one non-related person with access to the messages, content and passwords. Additionally, there should be regular accountability checks by another individual. The organization must also provide regular oversight and monitoring processes, and provide a clear natural chain of command in case of issues and concerns.
Personal accounts and phones: People within ministry should not use personal email addresses or accounts. Unless an extraordinary circumstance (which should be defined), personal cell phones should not be used to consistently communicate with youth. Additionally, clergy members should always self-identify their clerical role.
“Friending” students and private messaging: Parameters should also include the “friending” of students. No adult should “friend” a student from a personal account unless that person is older than 18 and no longer a “youth” participant. Additionally, if adolescent minors are contacted, parents should receive a copy of the communication. There should be no private, one-on-one messaging.
Appropriate timeframes: Specify the hours that youth may be contacted. A good rule of thumb involves the hours that one would also be able to call a home’s landline. If one would not call the landline phone to speak to the parent at 9 p.m., then one should not be calling the youth, either.
A joint effort
Let us partner together to prevent conditioning youth and children for abuse and setting them up for failure. Seemingly harmless electronic communication might have a devastating long-term impact on children and youth. Becoming more aware, behaving transparently and intervening when behavior seems risky or inappropriate helps protect children and those who genuinely care for them from unsafe or even dangerous situations.
The use of an electronic communication policy is not useless, extra paperwork. Rather, it’s an essential tool that can be used to protect our children and youth.
Crispin Ketelhut is the Associate Director of the VIRTUS® Programs, NCS Risk Services, LLC, in Tulsa, OK.
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