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Investing in Preoccupied Girls

Amid a spike in teen depression, AG ministries offer hope, help.

As a rising number of children and adolescents are connected at all times to social media, health-care professionals have discovered a spike in depression, particularly among teenage girls. That revelation comes as no surprise to those involved in Assemblies of God ministries to this vulnerable subset.

While social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, began as an online representation of off-line friendships, now it exasperates the teenage condition of defining ourselves based on others, according to Christopher McGough, assistant professor of youth ministries at Evangel University. The noun “friend” has become a verb.

“Our validity and identity can be hard to accept when we live our lives as a brand that needs validating by others to exist,” McGough says.

“Social media isn’t necessarily wrong, but the enemy can use tools for his purposes, and this is one significant area to pay attention to with teens,” says Casey Gibbons, 37, teen girl specialist with the Assemblies of God’s National Girls Ministries. “The social media aspect can lead people to Jesus, or the devil can use it.” Gibbons has worked 17 years in youth ministry. Five of her six children are girls.

“There can be a lot of pressure teen girls are not always ready to handle,” Gibbons says. She points out that even a girl who wants to honor the Lord can find plenty online to assault her convictions.

“She may be exposed to porn, somebody could pressure or pursue her, she may say things she didn’t think through, or she could connect with music or videos that aren’t appropriate,” Gibbons says. This all can occur without the knowledge of a parent, mentor, church leader, or trusted friend who could intervene and help.

“There’s nothing tangible where somebody could step in and say I noticed you went to this party, saw somebody was mean, noticed you had this magazine,” Gibbons says. “They may be exposed or involved in things and no one would ever know.” That drives guilt, hurt, and fear deeper and deeper, and can lead to depression, isolation, and anxiety.

This is the first generation with constant social media connectivity via smartphones, Gibbons notes. Some girls report their entire self-image comes from what others on social media think of them. Meanwhile, however, many parents fail to monitor their children’s online habits, which means young girls have unfettered access to the internet. Social media is a main way predators use to lure girls into sex trafficking.  

The key is for parents and churchgoers to invest time in young people.

“Girls are often seeing going into depression because they don’t have anybody to help them process their choices,” Gibbons says. “You can learn to have wisdom and self-control to monitor your own online activities.”

In local AG churches, schools, and homes, the ministry of Teen Girl Ministries as part of National Girls Ministries and in partnership with National Youth Ministries and National Girls Ministries, reaches girls between the ages of 11-18 through small groups and mentoring settings. The ministry uses age-appropriate resources such as theme booklets, Hot Topic downloads, devotionals, and retreat events for leaders to guide girls in biblical discussions about current issues, such as healthy use of social media. Mpact is the younger girls’ version of the ministry.

Gibbons urges parents to be vigilant and engaged, while offering unconditional love. She shares the story of 14-year-old Mary, whom she ministered to as a youth pastor. Mary had isolated herself from her siblings, wouldn’t listen to her parents, had run away from home twice, and had an abusive online boyfriend. Her behavior led her parents to inquire about sending her to Teen Challenge. Mary’s parents constantly criticized her and spent little time investing in her life. Gibbons reached out to Mary by listening to her and getting into her world. After that, Mary agreed to take essential steps she needed to regain emotional health that she earlier adamantly refused to take.

In addition, Gibbons counsels adults not to stop communicating with teen girls just because they’re going through an awkward stage, or they’ve become a little wilder. She notes that she still appreciates a teacher and mentor who impacted her 20 years ago.

“If a godly adult steps in to influence a young person’s life, she will be helped through any temptation that comes her way,” Gibbons says. “The principle is the same: love them, get in their world, then lead them to Jesus.”

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.