Why Teens Compulsively Use Social Media: To Craft Their Own Identity

Social media is a modern phenomenon like no other. In the last 10 years or so, nothing has shaped our culture as much as social media. It’s a good thing in and of itself, but the problem is that as sinners, we take good things and make them into ultimate things. I don’t know of anyone that worships Facebook per se, but I do know a lot of students that struggle with using social media to not only find identity, but to craft an identity. For middle and high school students, identity is a major idol. I would go so far as to say that identity is the idol that teens sinfully serve the most today.

Our students are hurting. They long for acceptance and desire to be known. But the pain of compromising who they really are is less difficult to manage than the pain of being rejected for who they truly are. So, they create a façade. They fabricate an identity. They wear masks. They do all of this in an effort to be accepted, and to be liked. But the scariest part is: They don’t even realize they are wearing masks!

False Identity 

Think of one of your students – any student. Now think of all the posts you have seen of that student on Facebook or Instagram. See any themes? The student I’m thinking of is constantly posting pictures or updates that make him look adventurous and exciting. On the internet, this student lives one of the most interesting lives you could imagine, but in the real world those moments are few and far between. This student just happens to be covering his wounds and pain from a reality of brokenness with a false identity of adventure and excitement.

Never before has the world that we live in provided us with such an ability to be autonomous over our appearance, which is to say that through social media we have complete control over what people know about us. Without question we use that ability to craft an identity. Social media is an environment where it’s so easy to dictate what others think of us, all the while never being authentic. As youth workers we must engage this issue with our students. Our students need to be shepherded away from the deadly web of identity fabrication, that entangles so many. They need to be reminded that their true identity is in Christ.

The Pressure to Measure Up

This deadly web of identity fabrication traps our students before they even realize they are in danger. Once trapped, Satan descends on his prey as a vicious spider would its next meal. And slowly but ever so steadily, he sucks the life out of his prey. Satan convinces those he feeds upon that they are not attractive enough, not smart enough, not athletic enough, or perhaps in our circles, that they don’t love Jesus enough. This constant message of not measuring up drains our students spiritually and creates in them a belief that they must strive, improve, and excel in order to have worth and value. 

This lie is an absolute contradiction to the truth of the gospel message. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” The truth of the gospel message is that we have no worth, nor will we ever have any worth in ourselves, or our works. The truth is not that we are not good enough, but rather that we are not good at all! Our worth is his worth, and his worth is a free gift. That is our identity.

A New Identity 

Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” This shows so clearly that our true identity is now in Christ, and that identity is nothing we earn, strive for, or craft ourselves, but is rather the free gift of God to us. 

The gospel is the hope of the world because nothing else has real power and brings us into fellowship with the only source of true intimacy and complete acceptance: Jesus Christ. As youth workers we must labor in prayer, conversations, and our teaching with students for them to grasp the transformative power of the gospel and how it gives them a new identity.

Inviting Students to a Gospel Identity 

For many of our students, social media is a clear window into their soul. As you get to know students at church, don’t neglect to get to know them online. For some of these students, you may find very noticeable differences in the identity they project at church and the identity they craft online. For others, it will take some time to detect the differences. I believe our charge as youth workers is to help our students see the ways in which their gospel identity is not coming through in their lives, and to set them free from the deadly web of identity fabrication they are stuck in by reminding them of the gospel. The great danger in this would be to seek external behavior change rather than internal changing of hearts. Let us truly labor towards the latter.

When our students begin to believe this gospel message deeply, things will change. Their friends may not like it, the world may reject it, and it may not get many ‘likes’ on Facebook, but if these students have truly met Jesus, then he is their true identity. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing a student joyfully find their true identity in Christ and disregard the world’s opinion. May we all labor towards that end, for it is foundational for their walk with Christ.

Luke Banner is the high school youth director at University Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida.  He is currently working on his Master of Divinity at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando also.

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