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Keeping Children and Teens Safe While Ministering Online

Six ways to minimize risk while fostering teaching and community during the pandemic and beyond.

Keeping Children and Teens Safe While Ministering Online
Image: Strauss/Curtis | Getty

With the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders being issued by various states and local municipalities, 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 interact with their members in real time. Even when the stay-at-home orders are phased out, the need for online ministry will continue. Online ministry is especially beneficial for youth and children’s ministries due to the familiarity and comfort children and teens have with technology.

However, technology also brings with it both known and hidden dangers that pastors and youth and children’s ministry pastors/directors should be aware of and investigate before starting or continuing any of their ministry activities online. To protect both your church and the young people you serve, you will need to make certain your child protection policy is up to date and covers, with appropriate modifications, your online ministry, including all communications.

This article will briefly cover six practical questions regarding a virtual children’s and youth ministries. Note that the guidance given is general. Youth and children’s ministry pastors/directors, church boards, and appropriate committees will need to work out the specific policies and procedures in consultation with its legal counsel.

1. What are the hidden dangers in virtual settings for churches and youth and children’s workers?

The explosion of digital 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 members, the local community, and the world. Conversely, it also may tempt individuals to make statements that are inappropriate, immoral, harassing, and potentially illegal because they think they are “invisible” behind the screen of their computers or smartphones. Social distancing has limited inappropriate physical contact, but it has significantly increased inappropriate forms of online communication leading to child abuse, especially 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 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 misused.

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. To avoid such issues, those leading youth and children should prohibit the use of one-on-one chat/text features, so as to keep all correspondence (as best as possible) viewable by everyone in the virtual meeting. Better yet, if possible, turn off the one-on-one message functions.

Tip. Church leaders should train youth and children’s ministry pastors/directors and 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 and children’s ministry pastors/directors and workers should be instructed to watch for behaviors or statements from participants that violate church policies and may suggest efforts to groom minors and the parents or guardians responsible for them.

2. What precautions should churches take in conducting virtual children’s and youth ministries?

First and foremost, a church should have a written child protection policy which provides reasonable guidelines for screening, training, and managing staff and volunteers to oversee children’s and youth ministries. Along with handling all areas of in-person programs, this policy would be modified where needed to handle various unique aspect of virtual youth and children’s ministries. This means that any volunteer or church employee hosting or attending the virtual ministry has been properly vetted by the church, which includes a criminal background check.

If possible, any virtual ministry should have two adults present. One worker would lead the group while the other could assist in presenting materials and monitoring participants.

As mentioned above, text chat can be helpful in communicating to a large group, but youth and children’s ministry pastors/directors and workers must be extremely vigilant when using it with minors. Without the ability to interpret inflection, tone, and context, a neutral text can be misinterpreted by the reader. For these reasons, a youth or children’s ministry pastor/director or worker should never initiate a one-on-one text message with a minor, whether through a virtual meeting platform or a mobile device.

Tip. The church’s communications policy should require all text communications to be in a group setting, or at a minimum, should include one additional adult (either another youth worker, a pastor/director, or the minor’s parent) in the response.

Beyond messaging capabilities, other issues require attention. For instance, youth and children’s ministry pastors/directors and workers should ask the following questions when broadcasting a virtual ministry program:

  • Is my appearance and clothing reflective of someone presenting the gospel to minors?
  • Is there anything in the background that would be considered inappropriate to view?
  • Are we saying things to teens or children online that we would not say to them when we are with them face to face in a public setting?

These and other questions related to child safety and appropriate behavior should be answered and resolved prior to launching the video meeting.

Finally, churches should also consult with their insurance agents regarding whether virtual children’s and youth ministry activities are covered in general liability policies (or, if the church has a specialized policy for sexual misconduct, then under that as well). This is an important consideration even when child protection rules and policies are followed. If an allegation of impropriety still arises, and a church finds out the insurer issues a “no coverage” letter for failing to follow some unknown rule or notice requirement, the church could end up paying for its own legal defense when that could have been easily avoided.

3. What online service platform should we use for virtual youth ministry?

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

If your church is considering launching or currently conducting a virtual children’s or youth ministry, it would be wise for your leadership to conduct its due diligence on the choice of platforms. One particular concern should be the ability for the host to control:

  1. participants entering and leaving the meeting,
  2. the ability to record and limit recording of the meeting, and
  3. the ability to control what is shared or broadcast by 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, the ability to limit who can record the meeting, and the ability to remove a participant from the meeting.

Caution. While Zoom is working through a number of security issues, there are still concerns. As pointed out in this article by IT expert Nick Nicholaou, users should consider alternatives or at least follow Nicholaou’s Zoom usage recommendations.

The church should review and compare competing digital platforms to determine which ones 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.

4. What are the privacy concerns for virtual children’s and youth ministry?

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 must provide a privacy policy outlining the information it collects and must get parental consent before collecting personal information if it is either:

  1. directed to children under 13 years of age and collects their personal information, or
  2. directed to a general audience but has actual knowledge that it collects personal information from children under 13 years of age.

COPPA stipulates that “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 nonprofit religious activities are not considered “commercial,” which is true unless online postings collect personal information which could be used for marketing or other purposes. 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:

  • a description of the personal information collected and how it will be used;
  • a list of all operators collecting personal information (both the church and any third parties); and
  • a description of parental rights in regard to the personal information.

To be COPPA-compliant, the church also must obtain the parent’s verifiable consent before collecting the minor’s personal information. COPPA does not provide one specific method to obtain consent. It only states that the method used reasonably ensures the person giving consent is, in fact, the child’s parent or legal guardian. Like with most youth activities, the most common method would be by providing parents or guardians a written permission form prior to the activity 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.

Tip. For more on COPPA, along with other guidelines and precautions, see attorney Frank Sommerville’s answer in this Q&A.

Recording Audio and Video

Recording should only be used for private, internal purposes and should not be posted/published in any public forums (e.g., church website or private social media). As discussed above, most digital platforms allow the host to control 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 and children’s ministry.

Tip. Prior to virtual meetings with minors, the host should state upfront that the church’s policy prohibits participants from recording the event on any device.

Since recording laws vary by state, ministers and directors for teens and children 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, where we practice law, 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 directors or ministers of youth and children’s ministries record and save all virtual ministry sessions for a certain period of time. If an allegation is ever made against a children’s ministry or youth pastor/director or worker suggesting inappropriate comments or actions occurred, the church would have objective evidence to investigate the allegation. The church’s 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 children or youth on camera without a warrant or subpoena.

5. How should churches respond to online bullying?

One of the most prevalent problems with online activities for young people is cyberbullying. Church leaders should first and foremost reflect Jesus Christ in their interactions with youth and children and encourage the members of their youth and children’s ministries to do the same on any digital platform.

All 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 a text or on video. Sessions for children and teens should invite parents or guardians to attend digital ministry events and encourage them to attend.

Tip. Monitor all posts on digital platforms, noting statements that could be construed as harassing to one or more participants. Afterward, have a discussion with the individual or individuals who posted such statements. Having at least two adults present during meetings will provide a second set of eyes and ears, making it easier to pinpoint inappropriate language and behavior and help reduce bad actors from participating in these ministries.

Leaders of virtual meetings should encourage young participants to let them know if they receive harassing or bullying messages from their peers or adults. If it’s 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 it’s a peer who sends messages that could be seen as bullying or harassing, the church should approach the situation with appropriate discretion and Christian understanding. There are numerous resources and nonprofit organizations dedicated to educating parents and organizations on cyberbullying such as:

6. What other basic guidelines should be included on a checklist for online ministry?

  • Do not use texting/electronic communication to discuss or post sensitive topics, including any of a sexual nature.
  • Notify parents and guardians if texting/videoconferencing may occur and give parents and guardians the opportunity to opt out on behalf of their child or teen.
  • Try as much as possible to communicate online in groups and with another adult present.
  • Help children and youth be aware of appropriate boundaries in online communication and enforce the boundaries. (Expectations regarding boundaries should be clearly spelled out—with pertinent examples—in the children’s and youth ministries protection materials.)
  • Tell parents and young people who to tell if a violation occurs or if they have concerns about any online communications.
  • Conduct all social media posts and exchanges through existing groups, such as through a ministry Facebook page. Adult leaders should not befriend (or “friend”) or directly message minors. Adult leaders should keep their profiles private to limit access to private information.
  • Scan recorded conferences after events.
  • Encourage other ministry leaders in the church to drop in on videoconferencing sessions with minors and adults.
  • As stated above, adapt all child protection policies and measures to the online setting. And remember: Don’t say or type anything online that you would not say in public to a teen or child.

Be intentional, be vigilant

If your church has launched and plans to continue virtual children’s and youth ministries, leaders and workers in these ministries 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. Also, always be aware that the virtual arena is still a public area and what is said and done online should be the same as if said or done in person.

Finally, you may have set up your online ministry with the pure intentions to serve children and youth in a difficult time. The majority of the people you work with may think likewise; however, it only takes one bad apple to derail your ministry. You must be intentional and vigilant about implementing and consistently carrying out appropriate guidelines and policies. In doing so, you will help to greatly reduce your church’s risk for liability as you provide ministry to children and youth during this time of social distancing and virtual ministry and outreach.

Robert Showers, an advisor at large with Church Law & Tax, is an attorney and principal with the law firm Simms Showers, LLP. Justin R. Coleman is an attorney and an associate with Simms Showers.

This article is adapted the “Conducting Youth/Children Ministry in a Digital Age”—an article on the Simms Showers blog. Used with permission.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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Posted:
  • May 18, 2020

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