This is Your Brain on TikTok: Christianity in the Age of 20-Second Videos

“Tucker, did you know there were three humans in the Garden of Eden?”

I’ve been a youth minister for almost five years, I’ve had formal theological education, and the first few chapters of Genesis have been a personal interest of mine for some time now, so you can imagine my surprise that, despite having read the creation account more times than I can remember, I did not, in fact, know that there were three humans in the Garden of Eden.

So I asked, with not a little curiosity, “No, I sure didn’t. I’m familiar with Adam and Eve, but who’s the third person you have in mind?”

“Lilith! She was Adam’s first wife; we learned about her on TikTok!”

The fact that Lilith is, best I can tell, a medieval Jewish tradition to be found nowhere in the Bible and least of all the creation account aside, this back-and-forth raises several questions about where our students are getting their theological education for the many waking hours each week during which they’re not being discipled by their parents or pastors.

A TikTok Catechesis

Social media is amoral. There is not anything inherent in most social media platforms which makes them either morally good or morally bad. At bottom, platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok are tools to be used, but they can be used either for good or for ill.

With that being said, everything we do and everything our students do on social media is catechizing us in one direction or another. Every video we watch is directing our affections toward Christ or away from him. Sometimes this catechesis is as blatant as bizarre and ignorant videos about Lilith, but sometimes this catechesis is as subtle as a video that plants in our souls an outsized desire for the next and newest thing or for the approval and affirmation of social media users whom we’ve never met.

In a lot of ways, we are what we consume. If we eat a diet rich in Skittles and Waffle House, our body will respond accordingly just as it will in the other direction if we eat a diet rich in whole foods. It should not be a surprise, then, that our souls are the same way. If we’re consuming—that is, watching, listening to, or reading—material which points our hearts to Jesus, then we’ll begin to look more like him as we love him and rely upon him more and more. On the other hand, if we consume content on TikTok that sets our affections on this world and only this world, then we will reap a harvest of comparison, discontent, and anxiety.

Anxiety as a State of Being

In a recent article on Vox, Rebeca Jennings observes that our society, especially in the modern West, is characterized by an emphasis on what she calls self-soothing, or pursuing a more peaceful state of mind. What Jennings calls the “anxiety economy” has exploded over the past decade or so. Following 2012, meditation became the top wellness trend in America. It’s self-evident to any youth pastor or parent that our students (to say nothing of ourselves) desire peace and quiet over against the cacophony of modern stimuli perhaps more than anything else.

Or so we would think. We would probably expect that the prescription for such chaos would be something like a walk in the park on a sunny day or getting lost in a good book. Interestingly though, for most of our students, the prescription is more stimulus in the form of TikTok. Jennings says, “When I want to feel and think nothing…I go on TikTok.” She goes on to call TikTok a “mental pacifier,” comparing it to “a video so captivating you no longer have any desire to do anything besides watching it until you lose your mind.”

In the New York Times, Kyle Chayka puts his finger right on the pulse of the issue here. He says, “No one seems to want anything; there is no enthusiasm for desire in this culture, only the wish that we could give it up. It’s an almost Buddhist rush toward selflessness with the addition of American competition and our habit of overdose: as much obliteration as possible.”

For many of us, and for many of our students, TikTok is what it is for Rebecca Jennings: a form of escape from the stressful and chaotic world around us. That said, it can quickly and easily turn into a desire-obliterating machine. It’s important to think, and to encourage our students to think, about what our TikTok consumption is catechizing us into. Is it a more robust knowledge of and joy in Christ? Or is it a descent into mindlessness?

An Antidote – Partnering with Parents

Many of our students enjoy TikTok a whole lot. Like anything else, though, too much of it can orient our hearts away from Jesus. I don’t know if there is a one-size-fits-all solution to our students’ love for TikTok. For some, TikTok is not at all an issue. They don’t have it on their phone, they don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on it, or their parents regulate its usage. However, for others, TikTok is a staple of their free time such that they spend multiple hours each day scrolling through the most recent videos.

Though there might not be a prudent, generalized solution, there is a clear place to start. It’s important to partner with parents especially when it comes to what your students are doing when they’re not at church. Advising, “don’t allow your students to have TikTok,” while in some cases necessary, is not likely to work on a large scale. Instead, open lines of communication with parents. Ask them what trends they see with their students and their phones. Ask them why they think their students are so interested in TikTok and other social media.

In addition to that, it might be wise to teach them about the impact that social media can have on their students, both for good and for ill. Increasingly, studies are giving us more information on the psychological and social effects of TikTok and other social media on both students and adults. Keeping an eye on this growing body of information will help both pastors and parents think well about social media and its effects. Perhaps then we can move toward a helpful way forward for individual families and churches.

More foundationally, though, it’s important for us as pastors (and parents) to ask just what it is about TikTok that’s so intoxicating. What is it about this continuous loop of short videos that keeps our unbroken attention for hours on aggregate? The answer to this question might differ from person to person. For one it might be the mindlessness of easy entertainment that’s so attractive, for others it might be the escape from other problems, and for still others the draw might be as benign as a common interest with content creators on TikTok.

Each of these categories requires a unique pastoral touch in more ways than one, but what remains consistent across each approach is the necessity of the grace of Christ and partnership with parents if ministry in this area is to be successful.

Tucker Fleming was raised in the Atlanta area and attended both Mississippi State University and Beeson Divinity School. He's lived and worked throughout the country in schools and non-profit organizations, and has worked with students for a decade, with over half of that time being in the local church.

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