Teens and adults use social media very differently. Where adults tend to see social media as a place to keep in touch and share funny memes, many teenagers see it as a way to figure out how they fit in the world. The concern is that they’re interacting with kids on these channels who may have poor judgment, raging insecurities or be using the channels to bully their peers.
This means that social media can be a place where all the negative parts of teenage life converge. It’s normal for teenagers (and adults if we’re being honest) to compare themselves to other people. However, with social media, it’s easy to assume everyone else’s life is more exciting, more interesting or more meaningful.
Rev. Jon Schweigert of Faith Lutheran Church in Knob Noster works with many college students. By his estimation “Seventy percent of pastors don’t realize the extent of the problem [with social media].” Statistically, depression and anxiety are on the rise in American teenagers.
Teen’s Perceptions Shape their Use of Social Media (and their Sense of Self)
For example, SnapChat’s story feature has a way of making young people feel like they should have something interesting to say or film. On this channel, in addition to sending photos with cartoonish filters, users can string photos and videos throughout their day to fill their “story.” If there’s nothing exciting going on, Rev. Schweigert says kids feel like they have to make something up. Because SnapChat famously deletes everything after 24 hours, it creates an almost constant burden, a never-ending string of your internal critic challenging if you’re good enough.
And yet the problem is larger than anyone one social media platform. Rather than focusing on whether something is happening on Instagram or Facebook, it’s critical to understand the types of behaviors that can lead to problems for teenagers. For example, some of the local middle school kids have a “smack talk” channel, where they post memes about each other. It’s pretty easy to imagine how this behavior could get out of hand.
There’s also no denying social media is a fact of life for today’s teenagers. Rev. Schweigert says, “The most often given—and least useful—advice is ‘Just don’t use social media.’ But the kids know that if they don’t use it at all, they will miss out on things.”
Finding a Healthy Balance for Social Media and “Real Life”
Like so many other things in life, not all social media use is created equal. Social media tends to create problems when teenagers overdo it. The desire to constantly be checking their profiles can lead to other problems, including an overall sense of anxiousness.
Even when teenagers turn to social media to feel more connected, it can have the opposite effect. If you notice that the teenagers around you are becoming more withdrawn, missing out on time with friends or activities, this will make them feel even more alone. The teen can then fall into a destructive cycle, where they retreat further from their real life relationships, seeking acceptance and camaraderie on social media even more, while not finding the fulfillment they seek.
The Value and Perspectives of Caring Adults Can Help Guide Teens
As adults, we know that such a strong focus on yourself is in direct conflict with our understanding of our self in terms of being created in God’s own image, redeemed by Jesus’ death and resurrection and re-created as God’s child in baptism.
With our congregational programming and relational ministries, we can teach our children from baptism to adulthood not to turn to likes, followers and posts, for their identity, but to know they are God’s children, precious and valuable to him.DCE Dan Kreienkamp say, “Youth ministries are effective when adults take the time to be a part of the lives of our youth, and more specifically, to affirm that your identity is in a God who loves you more than you could ever know. No amount of anxiety, likes, dislikes, mistaken posts, distorted images—nothing—can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Savior.”
DCE Kreienkamp saw many reasons for hope recently at the National Youth Gathering in Minneapolis. Approximately 22,000 LCMS youth converged for fellowship, bible study and worship. How many of them would have attended without the influence of the adults in their life?
What You Can You Do?
Start by talking to teens and truly listening. Rev. Schweigert observes, “[As adults], we often think we have the solution before we’ve truly understood the problem.” He suggests hearing them out once fully before making any suggestions. He points out, when teens talk to adults, “They’re testing the waters with the small stuff before they’re willing to share the big stuff.”
When it comes to starting the conversation, Rev. Schweigert recommends simply saying, “I want to talk to you about this issue, but I don’t know how.” This means that you’re asking the teenager for their help and being genuine. Rev. Gene Wyssmann, the Assistant to the President for Church Worker and Congregational Health suggests starting with the phrase, “Can you help me understand…” So instead of telling a student they’re not sleeping enough, you could say, “Can you please help me understand how SnapChat is affecting you? Like when you’re trying to sleep?”
When you see teenagers engrossed in their phone screens and almost constantly bathed in the gentle glow of their screens, they may actually be staring at themselves. They’re looking at their life, self-image and sometimes their self-worth through the lens of social media.
The Missouri District is working on a free guide outlining for information about this critical issue. To sign up to receive the free resource upon publication, go to mo.lcms.org/social-media-youth/