Unplugged: Encouraging Students Toward Offline Living

A recent article featured on The Gospel Coalition alerted us to five new statistics about teenagers and social media. In sum, teens are “almost constantly” online, most especially on the platforms of YouTube and Tik Tok. Albeit staggering, these statistics are not surprising; anyone who knows or loves a teenager can see that they are at best unhealthily dependent upon social media and at worst addicted to it.

In the article, author Chris Martin underscores the importance of offline living for the modern teenager: “celebrating the richness of off-line life is more likely to resound with teens than chastising them for spending so much time online. Discipling teenagers who are always online doesn’t require us to force them off-line, but it does require us to show them that the best of life is away from their feeds and apart from their screens.”

Those of us who work with teenagers have long been grappling with how to break the dangerous spell of social media. While there is certainly much good in screen time limits, prohibiting certain apps, and over-communication about the dangers of social media, perhaps one of the most effective tools is what puritan theologian Thomas Chalmers described as the “expulsive power of a new affection.”

In other words, the more we can show our students the life, beauty, and joy that is found offline, the less likely they will be to return to the life-draining online world of social media; their former desires will have been expelled by a greater affection.

As the false reality of the online world encroaches upon our students, youth workers have an opportunity to show them a better way—one that leads them away from their feeds and screens and towards the unending source of life in Jesus Christ.

Sabbath from Your Phone

I must begin with a confession. I recently attempted to have a phone-free day. And I failed. I knew that a day away from my phone would be hard for me, and it was therefore probably something I needed to try. I didn’t make it long past noon without giving into the temptation to check my phone.

This failure shone light on some idols in my heart: my need for control, my fear of missing out, my inability to be still with the Lord, and my obsession with work. Clearly, my own logs needed to be addressed before I tended to my students’ specks.

If we want to encourage offline living in our students, the best place to begin is to experience its richness for ourselves. If you have never attempted to go phone-free, learn from my failures and start small. Perhaps begin with a phone-less hour a day, then increase to the point of having a 24-hour sabbath from your phone.

Because God is ever-working, ever-protecting, and ever-sovereign, I can guarantee that the world will continue to spin even if your phone is not within arms’ reach. Putting away our phones is a physical rebellion against the lie that our devices are necessary for our well-being. If we want our students to join in this rebellion, we must first model it ourselves.

So, youth minster, go outside! Grab dinner with a friend and leave your phone in the car. Lock your phone in another room while you read or pray. Taste and see for yourself the richness of life that is to be found when our screens are put away, our minds are clear, and our eyes are able to behold the wonderful people and places the Lord has physically placed before us.

Hang Up and Hang Out

You’ve no doubt witnessed the phenomenon of a group of teenagers in public. Sure, they are physically together, but they are isolated and quite literally curved inward; engrossed in their screens and ignorant to the world around them.

God could not have made it clearer: “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). And yet, the online world has left us more alone than ever. To encourage offline living, youth ministers can help students do what they are often unable or unwilling to do for themselves: put the phone to rest and enjoy the physical presence of another human being.

Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that teenagers abandon their phones altogether. This is not only impossible, but unwise, as many use their phones to keep in touch with family and friends. Still, perhaps part of our discipleship with teenagers should include a designated time to shut off our phones and lovingly enforce screen-free communication.

 An old colleague of mine would often enforce a “hang up and hang out” rule in which everyone would place their phones in a stack—youth pastor included—not to be touched until it was time to leave. No doubt, asking students to put away their phones might evoke some eye-rolls and snarky comments; perhaps from students, youth minister, and parents alike, since we all stand guilty of an unhealthy dependence on our screens. However, much like the law of God, we enforce certain rules not for our students’ detriment, but for their well-being and flourishing.

In my ministry context, we take up students’ phones before every trip or retreat. Without fail, students initially grumble. A lot. And yet, by the end of the trip, most admit that the lack of a phone was an unexpected breath of fresh air. Away from the pressure and demands of the online world, students are freed to enjoy one another’s full presence, the glory of God’s creation, and the richness of face-to-face interaction. 

When in Doubt, Show Up

Text messages, calls, and comments on a post can indeed be edifying, but there is perhaps no ministry tool as effective as just showing up. The phone is simply no match for the physical presence of another image-bearer.

Remember Job’s friends? While certainly not the poster children for how to console a grieving person, they did get one thing right: For the first few days of their visit with Job, they simply sat with him in lament. No unhelpful advice, no flowery words, just presence (Job 2:13).

Sure, logistics, distance, and money will not always make is possible for you to be physically present with your students, but when given the opportunity, ministering with your presence demonstrates the comfort, support, and compassion that is available not screen-to-screen but rather face-to-face.

True offline living cannot be found if we are not willing to model the incarnational heart of Jesus, the truest human who came to offer an abundant life that cannot be found on a screen. God himself took on flesh to be physically present with his people, offering us his very life in exchange for our idolatrous, screen-addicted hearts.

Jesus is the ultimate “greater affection” that can expel our lesser desires; the only one who can direct our souls away from the deadness of the online world and towards life in him. For an online-saturated generation, guiding our students towards life with Jesus is offline living at its fullest.

Rebecca serves as the Ministry Development Coordinator/Assistant Editor for Rooted. Previously, she has worked in both youth and young adult ministries. She is a graduate of Furman University (B.A.) and  Beeson Divinity School (M.T.S). Rebecca is happiest on a porch swing, in a boat, or on the dance floor.

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