If you are a teenager (or if you have teenagers) you know about social media and that it’s not going away anytime soon. As a youth pastor I’ve read studies and articles. I’ve heard the podcasts and watched videos. And more importantly, I’ve witnessed it first-hand. I have seen social media have a negative effect on many of our students. Whether it is their behavior or attitude towards it, the content they encounter, or how other people engage with them, I’ve watched as social media takes a toll on the teenagers in your ministry. For parents, you’re probably watching it happen in your own home.
But I want to remind us of a truth we know, a truth that will not only help us view social media in a new light, but may enable us to change our students’ attitudes and behavior when it comes to their social media habits.
Here’s the truth: students don’t have a social media problem; social media is merely a symptom of deeper problems.
I know that at times I’ve felt that It’s easier to vilify Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and so on. But there are plenty of people using these mediums to further the Gospel and glorify God. So social media isn't always the big bad wolf we make it out to be. And yet, we all have students for whom social media is harmful to their spiritual and mental wellbeing.
What support do I offer for my statement that social media isn’t a problem but a symptom of a larger problem? Glad you asked . . .
There are three main problems that students have that social media exacerbates.
First, our teenagers have an identity problem
Part of what makes the teenage years so tricky is the insecurity inherent with identity formation. So many teenagers struggle with who they are. For students who struggle with their identity, which is most of them, social media can pour gas on this fire. We’ve all seen students seek validation through likes, comments, and number of followers. We watch students seek fulfillment through the shaping of false narratives with them at the center. It’s excruciating to watch because of how hollow it is. Teenagers will never find the identity they seek if they are looking for it in the responses to their Instagram stories.
Here’s the awesome thing. In Christ, we find our longing for identity.
Colossians 3:3 says,
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Galatians 2:20 says,
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Our identities are completely and utterly found in Christ Jesus. Our challenge is to help students embrace this truth and internalize it. When they grasp that their identity is found in Christ, they will be much less hungry to search for it elsewhere.
Second, our teenagers have a value problem
At its best social media is a fun distraction, and a way of connecting with friends and the greater world as a whole. At its worst, social media reinforces our culture's misplaced values. Materialism. Misplaced attitudes toward sexuality. Twisted ideas of self-worth. Students encounter these values and more and can easily fall into the trap of pursuing them. But if students could only grasp the amazing value God places on them, it has the potential to free them from the traps they fall into.
How much does God value them? First off, He created them. He certainly didn’t have to. But He did. Second, He sent His Son, Jesus, to die in their place, ransoming and redeeming them. Third, He desires to be in relationship with them is so strong that He sent His Spirit to live within them. Our students have immense value. If we can help them truly own this truth, maybe they will cease to look for their value through the medium of social media.
Finally, our students have a boundary issue.
One thing that is becoming too common in our culture is that even well-meaning Christian parents can be pretty crummy when it comes to helping students establish developmentally appropriate boundaries when it comes to social media. One of the truths of parenting is that children need guardrails. They need the consistency of rules, even if they don’t realize it. Establishing clear boundaries when it comes to social media is essential in developing healthy habits. It’s hard to fault teenagers for unhealthy social media behavior when they aren’t being helped by consistent boundaries implemented with their best interest in mind.
As youth pastor, there are a few things that I recognize as my role in this situation. First, there is the education of our students, as well as our parents. I want both to understand the issues that are at play here and know what challenges we face. Second, is my responsibility to address the theological issues raised here. I want to make sure that I am preaching to our students about how to find their identity and value in Christ. And third, I want to be a voice of encouragement. Navigating the waters of social media can be tricky at times and mistakes are going to be made. While the goal is correction and a pursuit of godly things, I want our students to know that God is gracious and forgiving. He wants the best for our lives and He wants us to find hope in Him.