Social media likely shapes the people you love and disciple more than you do. What are you going to do about it?
I think there are, simply speaking, two wrong ways to approach social media: 1) uncritical embrace and 2) passive ignorance. These are two ends of a spectrum.
First, some of us may be guilty of uncritically embracing various aspects of social media. We overshare intimate details about our lives that make friends cringe and maybe even hurt our gospel witness. We don’t think about what mindlessly scrolling every night before bed is doing to our hearts and our minds. Social media asks very little of us, and so we ask very few questions of social media and its effects on us. We are wrong if we embrace social media with such uncritical fervor.
Likewise, we are wrong to passively ignore social media and the internet, especially if we are in ministry leadership. If we write off social media as a fad or as some lighthearted icon of popular culture that teens are addicted to, we will grossly underestimate the effect of social media in the lives of the people we love.
So what do we do then? What is the right answer? Between the uncritical embrace and passive ignorance ends of the spectrum, I want to advocate for intentional engagement. If we hope to be wise as we engage with social media and avoid as much sin as possible, either as an onlooker or an average user, we must be intentional. Because of our temptation to sin, flippantly using social media can be dangerous. We ought to be thoughtful and careful about how we handle such a powerful tool. What does this look like practically? It looks like asking questions such as, “What is the purpose of Instagram in my life?” or “In what ways does Twitter shape the way I think about current events?”
In addition to being intentional, we ought to be engaged. Now, this doesn’t mean I think everyone needs to be actively using social media. By no means. There are plenty of ways to be engaged with social media without being an active user of it. If you and I are in positions of authority and influence in the lives of our churches, our families, or otherwise, we are responsible for understanding what social media is, how it works, and how it may be impacting the people in our care. This is engagement, even if you don’t have any social media accounts! We are intentionally engaging with social media even as we observe and study platforms on which we do not maintain accounts. Refrain from uncritically embracing every new social media platform and feature that pops onto the scene. Ask hard questions of these platforms. Reject the temptation to slide into passive ignorance because you don’t want to put in the work to understand these ever-evolving means of communication and entertainment. Find a healthy middle ground of intentional engagement that keeps you above the fray, but not unaware of how social media and the broader internet may affect you and is certainly affecting the people the Lord has given you a responsibility to lead.
Social Media Changes How We Think
The primary way our relationship with social media changes the way we think is by aligning our values with its values. This happens in any relationship, if you think about it. When you get married, or even just when you’re dating someone, what you value is shaped by your significant other. Our values are shaped by the people (and things) with whom we spend the most time.
The premise of the social internet is to be a virtual platform for us to socialize with other people. We understand this, but we overlook the relationship we have with the actual platforms themselves. The average social media user spends about two-and-a-half hours a day using social media, and that’s more than enough time to have our values shaped by what it values.
The triplet cornerstone values of the social internet are entertainment, attention, and identity. These three values are, of course, related. That which is most entertaining is given the most attention, and how much attention one receives has become an important part of one’s identity. That which is given much attention is seen as more valuable than that which is given less attention—we see this in the celebration of virality on morning news programs and afternoon talk shows.
What’s the most reliable way to accumulate the most attention and thus the most positive sense of self? Be entertaining—post funny content, fight with people, or do whatever else you need to do in order to acquire the attention of the crowd you hope to attract.
These are the values of the social internet that drive the trends we see on social media. When we spend two-and-a-half hours a day engaging with a form of communications technology that values entertainment and attention above integrity or humility or patience or kindness, our values will begin to reflect the values of the social internet. We will come to think something that is entertaining or viral or otherwise popular is inherently more valuable than that which is gentle and lowly and unknown.
Social media changes what we value and it changes how we think about the world around us. But the formative power of social media doesn’t stop at our brains. It shapes our hearts too.
Social Media Changes How We Feel
As social media has aged and more studies have been conducted regarding its effects on mental health, the prognosis is not good. It is difficult to demonstrate any causal relationship between one’s relationship with social media and negative mental health side effects because there are so many variables at play that can affect mental health. But without bombarding you with statistics, know this: there is a correlation between poor mental health and time spent on social media.
Our relationship with the social internet can make us feel like we are never successful, pretty, or interesting enough. This goes back to the cornerstone values of entertainment, attention, and identity that we explored before. Successful, beautiful, and interesting people are the ones who are the most entertaining online and, therefore, get the most attention. This leads to feelings of discouragement and discontentment within our own hearts when we don’t get the attention we feel we deserve. It can make us feel defensive and light the fuse of anger. It can make us feel unworthy of love or perhaps even life itself.
Our relationship with the social internet is profoundly changing us, often away from Christlikeness, not toward it. The stories I have heard from pastors, parents, and other Christian leaders are heartbreaking. Pastors are watching church members turn into different, unrecognizable people. Parents weep as their children slide into addiction and distress, and they watch their time with their children slowly slip away. We, as Christians with some measure of authority, must lead by example.
CHRIS MARTIN is editor of BibletoLife.com and a content marketing editor at Moody Publishers. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChrisMartin17.