Social media is a blessing and a curse. The positive sides are glorious. The downsides are very dark and destructive. So how can we help navigate this with our students and their parents? Whether or not your students are currently using social media, the fact is, social media in some form is here to stay. Therefore, we need to be wise and proactive when it comes to leading our students and families in this area.
This post has taken more time to write than anticipated. The breadth of approaches to this topic is wide, so how do I want to put this into a one-hit-wonder article? I have experienced the joy of students, including my own kids, use texting and social media to encourage friends and witness for Christ. I have also experienced the heartache of counseling families whose kids have been trashed and victims of being “left out” online. The emotions are real and the consequences are too important to gloss over how we use or are used by social media.
Before I give my points to consider I want to first say there is a bigger issue at play here than the nitty-gritty of analyzing pros and cons, contracts with your kids, the latest research and rules and boundaries. The bigger picture question to ask is, “Are we raising up students to be disciples of Jesus with their identity as the Image of God?”
We need to be proactive with the greater purpose in our student’s lives or we will find ourselves being reactive and parents will constantly be negotiating with their kids over online and social media use? We have to see social media as one extension of our purpose from God as disciples. When there are clear vision and understanding of this greater purpose, it becomes easier to release identity issues and addictions to social media to God in exchange for His greater purpose in our lives. Otherwise, we will be constantly checking our “likes” for validation and checking with our “friends” before proactively following the way of righteousness. See these verses for a conversation on this topic with your kids: I Corinthians 6:12-13, Ps 101:3, James 1:13-15, I Corinthians 10:23, I Corinthians 10:31.
So, having said that first, here are my thoughts when it comes to social media and online activity:
1. This issue is not exclusive to teenagers
Adults are just as guilty as students of being distracted and falling into the comparison game. How often do you see families at restaurants with separate members holding phones inches away from their noses? How many family nights are nothing more than being in the same house but on separate devices? How many times do you find yourself distracted by your phone while in the physical presence of students, parents or leaders? One common phrase I hear from frustrated parents is, “I don’t want to follow the restrictions I desire for my kids”. Therefore, they let things go and neglect to wisely oversee what is going on in their own home. We need to set an example for balancing our lives without being controlled by social media and our phones.
One characteristic of Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2010) is they feel used as commodities for others: school to take tests for funding, coaches for padding their records for promotion and bosses to use for their gain. When parents or youth leaders frequently post pictures of their kids it could inadvertently be sending them the message we are using their performance, social status, grades and other accomplishments for our benefit with our peers and friends.
The reality is teenagers want time with their parents and trusted youth leaders. They are NOT going to say it directly, but I often hear, “I wish we would just sit down to talk or have meals together”. I promise you, kids don’t want Disney. They want the time and experiences of learning things and doing things with parents and trusted youth leaders.
2. Social Media has caused a greater epidemic of loneliness and anxiety than ever before
More and more studies are revealing how alarming this cause and effect is. Our time online and on social media has exponentially increased anxiety, identity issues and isolation in people. This is especially true for adolescents at the most vulnerable time of their lives. Articles like these shed some light on this reality.
ther characteristic of Gen Z is a desire for authentic relationships. They know what is presented online is mostly fake. They know what fake news is. They know their number of “friends” on social media does not mean they are real friends. Therefore, face-to-face time in real relationships is essential. Your kids need and want time with their parents and youth leaders.
3. Replace FOMO with JOMO
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) needs to be replaced with JOMO (Joy of Missing Out). Lead yourselves and parents to take more breaks from social media and evenings spend online. Make the time to really be with our kids and talk to them about JOMO. Lead your kids to see themselves as disciples of Jesus, not the disciples of their friends. Help your kids see how the comparison game has affected them. Help them release the need to constantly check their phones with the real freedom time off brings.
Here is a recent article from Kevin Durant about his experience with taking a break from his 10 million followers: http://fortune.com/2018/03/21/kevin-durant-brainstorm-health-social-media/
I have never met anyone who is glad they are addicted to their phones or constantly checking social media. On the other hand, those who take breaks experience far less drama and become more joyful. They are choosing to escape the constant pressure of measuring up.
4. Excessive online and social media use changes us
Research is also showing how screens are changing us, especially our students. We need to pay attention to this fact. Social skills and actual face-to-face interaction needs to be learned. Have you ever had an angry or irritated reaction from a student when you talked with them about getting off their phone or the computer? How many conversations with parents are about their frustrations with the moodiness of their kids and phones? Are there addiction tendencies in you or your students with screens? This is a bid deal. Here are two articles to help us see this reality.
The behavior difference for students with and without their phones can be striking. Just this morning, in my men’s group, my friend said they took the phone away from their daughter for a week. Their interactions immediately changed for the better and the relationship grew because there was not the constant distraction and moodiness centered on social media addiction.
So, are we letting social media control us or are we using social media as one way of living out our God-given identity and purpose as believers? Are we seeing the bigger issue as raising up students to be disciples of Jesus with their identity as the Image of God?
To borrow a line towards the end of the movie I, Robot: “That detective is the right question”.
Craig Maart is a husband of 22 years, father of 2 (college freshman and high school sophomore) and is the middle school pastor at Hershey Free Church. He has been in student ministry for 24 years serving in churches in Florida, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. He loves developing leaders to multiply the disciple-making effort of the church. He has a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry and is a proud Vikings fan.