One Teenager’s (Supremely Brilliant) Perspective on Social Media
This past Sunday, April 23, our church sponsored a public forum entitled, Life Through a Screen: The Benefits, Risks, and Wounds of the Internet. Our speakers included author Annie Downs, counselor and seminary professor Dr. Mark Pfuetze, and panel moderator Elisabeth Hasselbeck — all pictured above. Also pictured, on the far right, is Anne Florence Brown, a senior at Christ Presbyterian Academy and giver of — truly — one of the most compelling, convicting, insightful, and potentially life-giving talks I have ever heard on her subject.
Her subject? “A Teen Perspective on Social Media.”
Please take a few moments to read the transcript of Anne Florence’s talk. Better yet, read it together, out loud, with your loved ones, your friends, and your colleagues. I think you’ll be very glad that you did.
A TEEN PERSPECTIVE ON SOCIAL MEDIA
By Anne Florence Brown
We live in a technology-driven world. Gone are the days of snail mail and landlines with tangled cords. Teens are now surrounded on every side by the influences of the internet, social media, and smartphones. According to commonsensemedia.org, “Almost all teenagers in America today have used social media. Nine out of 10 (90%) 13 to 17 year olds have used some form of social media. Three out of four (75%) teenagers currently have a profile on a social networking site.”
With so many teens in our community enveloped in this world of technology, we must examine the effects of social media, not only for the sake of this generation but also for the next. Living through the screen can damage our hearts and magnify our sin.
But even though social media has its flaws, there is hope for redemption.
Two years ago, I was sitting on my bed with a computer in my lap. I was weighing two options on my Instagram settings: “Deactivate” or “Return to Profile”. Slowly, I dragged my mouse across the settings page and pressed a button that freed me. I have been without Instagram for two years and without Snapchat for one. Living without them has given me freedom because for years I suffered from the harms of social media.
Instagram was an effective trigger for my already struggling self-worth as it provided me with a tangible measure of how many friends I had and how many people liked my life. It was a tool I used to damage my self-esteem daily. The most dangerous part was I did not realize how much I was controlled by this social app. I felt immune to its addictions, its allure. But I found myself at the beach, spending the entire time “fixing my feed” with new pictures and filters. While waiting in the doctor’s office, I tried to come up with the perfect caption for a picture I was planning to take that weekend with a certain popular friend at a party. I imagined how cool I would look to my Instagram followers once I posted it. I lost sleep because I stayed up late every night before bed, refreshing my screen for hours on end.
Every scroll of my thumb brought a new judgment, comparison, or observation that was followed by a feeling of either self-righteousness or self-degradation.
When I finally spent a week “unplugging” from my phone, I realized that the withdrawals I experienced from disengaging from the app were a sign of the control it had over me. This control scared me and made me angry because I had willingly put myself in an unnecessary position to compare my insides to others’ outsides, to be controlled by my appearance and people’s opinions, and to hurt others and myself with my comments, posts, or digital footprint. This unnerved me because it was a dangerous trap that had been disguised by an attractive, socially acceptable, and necessary staple of popularity.
After I deleted my social media accounts, I began to notice how other teenagers my age were trapped in the same digital world that I was. I wanted to understand why this was happening. What exactly are we as a society risking with the constant attachment to our screens?
We are risking both practical and emotional problems by our screen habits. Social media and the internet are very recent inventions, which means studies are just now emerging about the physical and psychological effects they have on us. Studies have shown that looking down at a phone for an entire day has the same effect on the spine as carrying an eight-year-old or four adult sized bowling balls on your neck. “Neck muscles, in their proper position, are designed to support the weight of your head, about 10 to 12 pounds,” Dr. Bolash, a pain specialist at the Cleveland Clinic said. “Research shows that for every inch you drop your head forward, you double the load on those muscles. Looking down at your smartphone, with your chin to your chest, can put about 60 pounds of force on your neck (health.clevelandclinic.org).
Furthermore, studies show that when your phone receives a notification, a small dose of serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for happiness, shoots through the brain, causing a small high. Psychologically, “New research suggests that comparing yourself with others on Facebook is more likely to lead to feelings of depression than making social comparisons offline” (psychcentral.com).
These growing risks show that due to the internet’s short existence, we cannot foresee the amount of risks involved in something we have integrated so deeply into our lives. If this is true, should we not treat our national “epidemic” more seriously? These risks combine to show that we are raising generations addicted to potentially harmful devices.
Children are growing up without privacy as their parents digitally document every moment from birth on—sometime even before birth. Speaker, author and cyber expert Tyler Cohen Wood explains, “Children now have an entire life history, down to the pregnancy announcement before they were born, on social media. The ramifications of this can be far-reaching” (Care.com).
Teenagers own an all-access pass to bullying, sexting, and pornography because even the most strict parental controls can’t fully block every vulgar website, TV show, post, or profile on social media apps. Kids also observe parents obsessing over their own social media—texting during dinner, or checking twitter while driving. Children conclude that, like their parents, they need validation from a virtual world in order to be accepted. We are fostering a generation that lives through a rectangle in their hand and believes that they cannot live without it.
With all of this being said, the true problem here is a heart problem, not a device problem. The smartphone and its apps are not inherently evil. In fact, used correctly and in moderation, these are beneficial devices that cultivate education, connection, and community. In a world where people seldom journal, social media can act as a way to document our lives—as something to look back on years down the road. Social media can also produce confidence in young people as they share their thoughts, feel heard, and project themselves to others. Digitaltrends.com said “there’s universal agreement on one thing: [social media sites] promote both honesty and openness. It seems people really enjoy being themselves, and throwing that openness out there for all to see.”
I have experienced these successes firsthand. I have seen new sides of people through Snapchat that I never would have seen before, which grew our friendships. I have seen others longing to be more authentic in their profiles in order to combat shallow connections. Despite these significant positives, people are often grateful for opportunities to “unplug”. Why is it that every time we leave our phones behind for a weekend, or a week, or a month, we feel set free for that time? We rave about how beneficial it was to our heart and soul, but then we go straight back to them without skipping a beat.
Our hearts are crying out for relief. As we spend day in and day out trying to control our image, we grab it and hold it in a fist, unwilling to let it go and give it to Jesus. Even those without any accounts, like myself, struggle with image control by posting nothing. Therefore, eliminating social media from life isn’t the perfect answer either.
Instead, we must each address our hearts and our approach to our phones. Jesus said in Revelation that he has come “to make all things new” (Rev 21:5). That includes our image and how we try to present it. So maybe we can take part in bringing redemption to the digital world together. We are called to be in this world, but not of it. Maybe that means we are called to be a people who bring redemption to a technology-driven world. Maybe it means putting our phones away, looking up, and being wholly present wherever we are. Maybe it means deleting our accounts all together. Maybe it means sharing the words of Jesus on our digital platform. Jesus said, “let your yes be yes and your no be no”, so maybe living out the gospel means communicating full truths on our profiles, not half-truths, or the best versions of ourselves.
As we go forward, learning to navigate our technological lives, let us be mindful of our heart problems, celebrate others who overcome, and encourage one another to be image bearers of Jesus by cultivating one of the greatest skills of our time: using social media with grace, confidence, moderation, and love. And as we do, may we remember that the “greatest of these is love.”