In Avengers: Endgame, the main villain – Thanos – says, “I am inevitable!”

There are not many things in this world that are inescapable, unavoidable. In today’s world, social media, like Thanos, is inevitable. You probably use social media every day – personally and professionally. Often, we connect phone use with social media use. A fair pairing since I know most days I’m not using my phone to make phone calls or text, but to scroll Twitter for Packers news and updates or check out YouTube.

Social media is inevitable – especially to teens who have grown up with smart devices in their hands! Teen’s activities and school work is tied up to apps and websites. Health & wellness apps allow you to share your workout to Facebook – some even have community tabs. YouTube allows users to engage with others in the comments section and for creators to post stories.

When we talk about social media, phones, and technology we often make it out to be the boogieman. Screens, social media, and technology all have their place in society – for bad and for good. Many of our churches are heavily relying on social media to bring church services and programs to people because of the pandemic. We can share the love of God to so many more people just with the click of a button – that is wonderful when done right! Technology can certainly be dangerous and used as the scapegoat to many of life’s problems, but it isn’t the big bad of the world.

Instead of talking about social media as the boogieman, let’s talk about how we can process what we see and consume through the filter of our faith and set Christ-centered boundaries. Barna estimated that young people experience 10 times more screen time than in spiritual content like worship, Bible study and prayer, each year.[1] Young people need to be equipped with a powerful lens to see that screen time through their faith in Jesus. If they do, not only will the see clearly through the fog of social media, but they will be able to reflect God’s light into it.

Barna studies also show us that youth struggle with the time they spend on social media, the content they watch, how they interact with people, and so much more. The question shouldn’t be, “How can we remove social media from their lives?” but rather, “How can we help our young people navigate social media – especially Baptized children of God?”

As we guide Youth to a life of healthy social media use, we need to help them see and repent of ways social media becomes an idol. Connecting with family, sharing moments of friendship, and better understanding the world are all wonderful benefits of social media. However, over time we may fall into caring more about what influencers say than God’s Word or more about creating an aesthetic than about sharing the Gospel. When we sinfully idolize likes over God, we need to confess our sin and search for ways to set clear boundaries and reflect God’s love.

Here are five ways youth leaders can help create this filter and support healthy social media usage.

#1 – Be the Example.

Youth look to their elders as an example. As the example.

If you spend free time on your phone in the presence of youth – they’re going to spend their free time on their phone.

If you are on your phone at a restaurant or during family time – they’re going to be on their phone at restaurants and during family time.

If you create or share posts from others that are angry, malicious, gossipy, divisive, polarizing, inappropriate, etc. – they’re going to create and share posts the same way.

If you take your phone to your bedroom – so will they (and probably stay on it until they fall asleep (if they fall asleep)).

If you consume content that is inappropriate – they will too.

Little kids don’t learn how to swear from the magical swearing plant. It’s from hearing an older person swear. No one is born with an innate knowledge of how to navigate technology in a healthy, Christ-like way. Youth look to Christian supportive adults for guidance on how to talk, act, and live life – and we need to be the example of how to live for God in all things.

It’s estimated that, on average, 13-19-year-olds spend between 7-8 hours on their phones a day. That’s a 9-5 job if you have a paid lunch. Often, I hear adults place the brunt of the blame for this on youth. But it starts with US – the ADULTS!

Ask yourself: 1) How long are YOU on your phone? 2) What are you consuming? Should you be consuming that? 3) (This is the big one) What are you posting/sharing on social media? How does it show Christ to others? DOES it show Christ to others?

#2 – Talk About It Using Colossians 4:5 as a guide

Being the example is great – it is needed! Talking is equally as important.

I once had a mentor tell me, “If you aren’t going to talk to them about it, someone else will – and it probably won’t be from a Christian perspective.”

As Christians we are tasked with making the most of every situation to shine the light of Jesus – including social media. Colossians 4:5 says, “’ Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time.” We need to be aware that our posts, pictures, videos, and shares help paint a picture of who we are and what we believe, and Who we believe in with others. Through the Holy Spirit, those outside the faith can see Jesus through us! Through the Holy Spirit we can set good limits as well. Encourage youth to use verse like Colossians 4:5 and others as a guide when consuming and posting on social media.

#3 – Help Youth Set Boundaries

Again, it is estimated that teens spend 7-8 hours a day on screens. Over-indulging in anything that isn’t God is sinful. Setting limits and boundaries on the things that can sweep us away from God, but are not inherently bad (sports, movies, social media, sex, alcohol, etc.) is healthy. Here are some helpful tips for setting boundaries and what boundaries to set:

  • Turn off notifications. Notifications are used by social media to get you back on apps. The algorithms that make and send those doesn’t take your overall screen time into consideration – they just want you on the app so more ads can play and make the app more money. Seeing notifications or hearing the ding triggers and rewrites the reward center in your brain. This leads to constantly checking for notifications – then the “mindless swipe” is on. Turn off notifications for social media and see what happens with your screen time.
  • No phones in bed. Loads of people use their phone as their alarm clock. It’s convenient and you never miss a call, text, or notification. That’s the problem. Devices next to our beds, or even across the room, doesn’t allow us to have healthy distance from them. It also presents the temptation to be on social media into the late hours of the night. I’ve had many youth admit that this happens to them. Help yourself and youth fight the temptation, get an alarm clock, and keep devices out of bed.
  • Set time limits. Many phone and internet providers give parents the ability to set time limits on apps or even whole devices. I would not recommend a “hard shift” to this, as it would probably create negative conflict. However, talking about time limits and slowly integrating them helps the effort be collaborative and better received.
  • Do it as a family! This is a big deal when setting boundaries. Often older people set rules for young people but let themselves bend and break them. This often leads to negative confrontations with the youth we are trying to protect. We are not above rules or boundaries for social media and technology just because we are older. Remember – we are the example.

#4 – Thoughtfulness

Do you think about what you are watching while watching it? You might – good for you if you do! However, many of us have binged an entire season of a show in only a few days. Youth are no different. They often seek out a video and eventually are swept into a sea of videos and content. This can be a good thing – it can broaden horizons, help them learn, etc. But it can also be dangerous.

Social media doesn’t care what you see – it just cares if you’re seeing it on their app. The absence of thoughtfulness on social media can lead to viewing things we shouldn’t – self-harm videos, pornography (yup, it can be found on social media), extreme violence, etc. Talk with your youth about what they’re watching and why they’re watching it. Ask them, and yourself, to consider what the content is. Is it dangerous, promoting something immoral, or tasteless? What value does it have? Help the next generation think about what they are consuming.

#5 – Admit That Adults Make Mistakes

We need to share with youth that we are struggling with the same problems. Many of us would probably look at our screen time and be ashamed. When we talk to youth about vocation, setting boundaries, and thoughtfulness we need to be honest about the ways we fall short as well. Calling out sin around social media can make youth defensive, so take a proactive step and let them know that you are not perfect and struggle. It can also come off as judgmental if we call them out for doing something wrong, but they can point to specific examples of us doing the same thing. We share and trust together in Jesus’ forgiveness. Conversations like this are great opportunities to share confession and forgiveness and consider how, with God’s help, we can do better.

Remember, social media is not the boogieman. It isn’t the ultimate evil. The ultimate evil has already been defeated by the risen and victorious Jesus! Instead, help your teens to see their screen time through the filter of their Baptismal faith and set God pleasing boundaries to help keep their usage from being an idol.

[1] Kinnaman, David, and Mark Matlock. Faith for Exiles: 5 Proven Ways to Help a New Generation Follow Jesus and Thrive in Digital Babylon. Baker Books, 2019.