“Tell me something I don’t know about being twelve,” I said as I stood in front of a class of middle schoolers this spring.
They exchanged glances, smug grins plastered on their faces, and whispered to each other.
“Do you know what it’s actually like for us to use social media?” one male student spoke up.
“I think so,” I replied, calculating the years of research and observations I’d compiled about it. “But you tell me. What’s it really like?”
A buzz of anticipation electrified the room. After some hesitation, my students started sharing.
That was the conversation where I learned that every single kid in the room—male and female—had been solicited by strangers online for nude photographs. For most of them, it had happened multiple times.
And that wasn’t all that some of them had encountered. Others had navigated lewd requests and concerning situations that made even me, their well-seasoned educator, cringe.
“Do your parents know about this?” I asked, curious how much they shared.
In response, my students shared guilty looks. They admitted that their parents occasionally knew some of what was going on but didn’t know just how much they encountered.
As one told me, “I’m being safe. I have privacy settings on, I’m careful with what I post, and I know how to block and report people. I’m doing everything my parents want me to do. But this is the real world for us, as teens. We can’t turn that off.”
That statement—“this is the real world for us, as teens”—rings true. And they’re right in that they cannot escape it right now. It’s all we have, as the primary outlet of community for all of us as many still work and learn at home.
Social media is both a blessing and a curse. It connects us and opens doors, but can create problems, quietly destroy people, and isolate us.
I can rattle off a list of ways I benefit from social media: insight into the lives of my students and leaders, more connection with friends and family, and an expanded knowledge of the world.
It’s a platform for sharing the Gospel, too. Whether it’s sharing a link to a worship service, speaking candidly about your faith walk, or connecting with someone who’s struggling, we have opportunity to witness to the entire world.
One can’t help but wonder what the apostle Paul or Martin Luther would have done with these opportunities to share words of forgiveness and truth in such an unfettered manner. Would they have wasted their time debating political candidates, when they held the message of mercy in their hands? I doubt it.
I’ve always resonated with the fact that Jesus’ last words on earth were about growing our community of believers. As Matthew 28:20 says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you.”
No doubt this command encompasses our current technology and social media.
We have a sense of urgency that comes directly from Jesus, when He tells us to go, engage with each other, and act—not lounge, scroll, and consume mindlessly.
Unfortunately, to enumerate the downside of social media would take just as much time as listing off its blessings.
Social media feeds our self-centeredness, stroking our egos. It gives us a false sense of importance, opens the door to jealousy and discontent, and steeps us in shallowness. It provides an outlet for anger and slander. The endless, mind-numbing distraction pulls us from what matters most.
For many, social media is an unrecognized idol. We care more about racking up likes than encouraging each other. Instead of building others up, we’ve used it to verbalize our difference of opinion in a way that does not honor God. We judge too quickly and assume too much about our neighbor, dismissing others’ efforts and instead assuming our way is the only right way.
Forgiveness is extended to those of us who are guilty of this sin, too.
In a nutshell, social media isolates and tears us down as much as it educates and connects us.
As high schooler Paige explained to me, “Technology nowadays is isolating us in a way where we aren’t alone but we feel alone. It allows people to misinterpret the information I put out and then twist it in a way where the words come off wrong. It’s like a giant game of Telephone.”
That feeling of being misunderstood is terribly lonely and frustrating.
On top of the isolation that social media creates, the danger that lurks online is real, too. From fueling the sex trade to creating toxic lifestyle habits to enabling predatory behavior, there’s much to avoid.
As we seek to help young people navigate through the quagmire of social media, we must be mindful that perspective is key.
“Social media and the digital world represent the new frontier in ministry. However, as with every frontier, there’s exciting new discovery but also tremendous peril. If not treated with respect, you can find yourself lost and alone. But to ignore it, you miss out on overwhelming opportunity,” says Rev. Tyler Moore, a pastor who has built a vast outreach ministry in an unchurched population via his social media platforms.
He wisely draws the analogy that social media is much like the Wild West: a place to navigate carefully, with danger mingled alongside beauty. We must be conscious that we can quickly perish in the dry, desert land if we aren’t connected to a life-giving source of water that sustains us on our journey.
We can’t pretend social media doesn’t exist, and that the addictive lure of it isn’t a real stronghold in our lives. It’s our duty to be mindful of what kids are utilizing and what they’re seeing online, and to point out the good, bad, and ugly—and the potential unknown effects—in what they consume.
But through this new frontier, we can continually point students back to Jesus, the Living Water in our lives. Right now, we have the opportunity to take advantage of this moment in history to share faith-based content with those we care about.
One of my favorite things to do lately has been to mark certain sermons that I know a particular student would resonate with, and fire them away to those teens with a message. It’s a small way to share Jesus in a personal manner, as I know the unique challenges facing those youth.
As most of the world is still operating at half-speed, we can spend these precious few moments connecting with each other in ways that share hope, encouragement, and the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
Don’t waste this opportunity by arguing about what is meaningless. Choose to focus on eternity.
The more I research youth culture, the more I see how desperately the Gospel is needed in the lives of our young people. According to a recent National Harris Survey, forty-five percent of teenagers report that their concerns about COVID are “excessive”—and over sixty percent feel it’s best to hide these worries from others, choosing to deal with them privately. In addition, two-thirds of teens believe that the anxiety they’re experiencing with this pandemic will have a permanent impact on their lives.
When we factor in the national rise in anxiety, clinical depression, suicide, cyberbullying, and stress over the last few decades, it’s evident that we have a generation of hurting kids who need to wrap their minds around the depths of God’s love for them, even in their pain and worry.
As Psalm 121:7-8 reminds us, “The Lord will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
And this is precisely what our students need to hear from us, as they lift their eyes up from glowing screens.
Our Almighty God outlasts every fear and failure, worry and doubt. He will endure beyond Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp. He’s Alpha and Omega, from the beginning through all eternity, and nothing can ever separate us from His love.
The message of God’s constant, steady love is one that hits home with this generation. Knowing that He walks with us changes the journey through social media from one of loneliness to one of hope.
The peace, acceptance, and freedom found in Jesus last for a lifetime.
So let’s share that message with the world.