If you are looking for tips and tricks to control your teenager's social media accounts, this isn’t the post for you. If you want a list of rules or the “10 Commandments of Social Media,” this isn’t the article you are looking for. However, if you want to have meaningful conversations with teenagers about how to use social media wisely, this article may help you start a discussion.
Before Saying Anything
As a high school teacher, one thing I have learned from talking to teenagers about social media use is how important it is to go deeper than a list of do’s and don'ts. Telling a teenager, “you need to spend less time on snapchat at night so you can get enough sleep,” or “don’t post that kind of picture on Instagram,” is at best, minimally effective. If there is any hope of making a real impact, you need to have a conversation about the why behind our choices. You can tell a teen what they should or shouldn’t do all you want, but until you respect them enough to talk about the reason why, your words will likely be ignored.
Below I share a few ideas and questions for sparking discussion. Before that, however, I would suggest two things you must be willing to do if you want to have a meaningful conversation with teens:
- Be willing to listen to their point of view on these issues and accept that their opinion may be right and yours wrong. Teens can tell when you are really taking them seriously and when you are only pretending too. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll teach them anything about using social media wisely if you are only waiting till they stop talking so you can correct them.
- Be willing to answer the questions too. You need to be brutally honest about your shortcomings and failures when it comes to wisely using social media. If you won’t take a hard look at your own social media habits, then you can’t expect a teenager to. There is no quicker way to get ignored by teenagers than by trying to hold them to a standard you don’t hold yourself to. Don’t be hypocritical.
With those two things in mind, here are a few discussion questions:
How do the social media platforms that I use shape me as a person?
It’s been said that knowledge consists of knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put tomato in a fruit salad! To be wise is not merely to know a lot about something, it is understanding how to use that thing in the best possible ways. When it comes to social media we need more than knowledge about different apps and accounts. We need to discern if, how, and when they ought to be used. To do this we need to ask which social media platforms, if any, help us honor God and grow in holiness. Of course, we need to know facts, but to have wisdom we must take that knowledge and apply in our habits and decisions. We should ask ourselves things like: How does (insert social media platform) shape me as a person? Does it encourage me to grow in faith, hope and love? Is it a tool that leads me to be a more virtuous, godly person? Or, does it tend to do the opposite? To give a practical example: does scrolling through Instagram make me more grateful to God for his provision, or does it lead me to covet what others have and be discontent with my own life?
As Christians, it is important that we answer these questions honestly. If social media is shaping us into a more sinful and less holy person in any way, we must make changes. That might mean cutting it out of our lives entirely. Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that our whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). Jesus’ point is this: if something in our lives leads us into unrighteousness we should stop at nothing to put that sin to death!
Does my social media use encourage in-person relationships and community or replace it?
There is a growing body of evidence from surveys and studies that show teenagers are spending increasingly less time hanging out with their friends outside of school. Why is this? With the advent of smartphones and social media it is no longer necessary to leave the comfort of their room in order to communicate. Though the convenience, speed, and ease that social media offers may sound like positives, the actual effects of extended social media use are not good. Studies have linked social media use with anxiety, less satisfaction with life, loneliness and depression. For Christians, these findings should not be shocking, rather, they are right in line with what the Bible teaches about humanity.
Genesis teaches that God made man in his image. Among other things, this means that, just like God, humans are personal beings. Humans are made to exist in relationships with one another. After all, God himself said it is not good for Adam to be alone (Gen. 2:18). To flourish as an individual we need other people. Why is it then, that when relationships are mediated through social media they make many people more lonely and depressed? Why don’t teenagers seem to feel known, connected, and happy when they can constantly communicate with their friends? The answer, I believe, is that communicating primarily through electronic means treats humans as if they are a disembodied soul or mind.
Genesis tells us that God created Adam from the dust. To state this another way, humans are physical beings. Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith puts it vividly when he says, “We are not conscious minds or souls ‘housed’ in meaty containers; we are selves who are our bodies.” If we don’t merely have bodies, but are our bodies, it follows that interacting in person is important. The latest data on the effects of social media use seems to indicate that it's not enough to interact with friends online, we need to spend time face-to-face with one another if we want to thrive and be healthy physically, mentally and emotionally. It is worth taking time to reflect on the way you use social media. Does it encourage and facilitate in-person relationships and community, or, does it replace it? God himself taught us the integral importance of face-to-face relationships when he sent his Son in the flesh to dwell among us. Christ became truly human, in both body and soul, in order to serve, teach, minister, and redeem sinners. Salvation, a renewed and healed relationship with God, is only possible because the Son came to us in a physical body and died for our sin!
Am I the same person online that I am in real life?
One way to evaluate the health of your social media use is to ask yourself you ever become a different person when you interact through a screen. As a Christian, we are called to holiness all of the time. There are no exceptions, no compartments of life that are exempt. The Apostle Peter said, “as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15). The Christian life should be marked by consistency in thought, word and deed. No one, of course, is perfect, but we should strive to grow and mature in godliness. The way we use social media has the potential to help and the potential to stunt sanctification. Sometimes this is obvious and sometimes it may be subtle. Let me give an example to make this more tangible.
It is fairly common for teenagers to have multiple accounts on a social media platform. A teen might have a “rinsta” (real Instagram) that their parents follow or that is open to the public, and a “finsta” (fake Instagram). There may be perfectly legitimate reasons to have two Instagram accounts, but it may also be a way to hide sinful behavior, language, or pictures. If you have multiple social media accounts on any platform, why is that? Are there things you post in one account because you want to hide them from specific people like your parents, pastor, or youth leader? For Christians, this should not be the case. As an example, consider the words we use. If one account is full of good, positive, clean, “Christian” things and the other account contains, harsh words, inappropriate jokes, or profanity--there is a problem. James wrote, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” If we are Christians we have been born again. The Holy Spirit has given us new life and united us to Christ. As a result of and in response to this reality, Christians are able to do works that are good and pleasing to God. Our hearts have been freed from sin and are being renewed in the image of Christ. Does our behavior on social media flow out of this reality? Do the words we write or the pictures we share reflect this? Or, are there ways that we still live like the old sinful man or woman when we are online? It is so important to evaluate our social media use in order to answer these questions honestly and accurately. As the wise King Solomon taught, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23). May we be ever vigilant, having the wisdom to discern the ways social media is impacting and shaping our hearts.
1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, an Cultural Formation, (Baker Academic, 2009), 62.