Why Teens Compulsively Use Social Media: To Feel Connected but Without Risk and Vulnerability

Recently, during our Wednesday night study, there was an illustration that really got our students talking [1].  Halfway through the lesson, we were asked to imagine a room full of screens.  In this imaginary room, ceiling to floor, crammed in every nook and corner possible, are screens and monitors.  Each and every one is projecting events from your life.  Everything you have done is open to anyone who steps in the room. There are some episodes that you would love to have recorded and played for every friend you have, but this room doesn’t only broadcast the good memories.  On the monitors are every text message you’ve sent, every website you’ve visited, and every sin you’ve committed when you thought no one else was around.

As you can imagine, none of these students would want such a room to exist.  We would be ashamed, embarrassed and distraught if our entire lives were on display for all to see.  But this gets at the heart of the social media irony.

Acceptance-Seeking Students (The Social Media Façade)

These same students who banished the idea of such technological sophistication putting their lives on display are embracing screens, gadgets and apps in order to feel connected.  They put their thoughts, emotions and heartbreak on social media for the world to see, without chancing the immediate discomfort of a disapproving look or gentle rebuke.

You see, social media allows students to “be themselves” with a low risk of vulnerability.  My wife has often described social media as an adult’s “imaginary friend”.  We tweet and update what we would want to tell someone who could never disapprove, and these are often comments and declarations we would never say person-to-person.  For most of us, social media unfortunately works as an imaginary buffer between our emotions and reality.

An Acceptance-Giving God (The Reality of a Gracious God)

At the heart of the issue are students that want to be loved, and loved deeply.  Scripture tells us that, like this imaginary room, nothing can be hidden from God.  We cannot hide in secret places from Him (Jer. 23:24) or disguise the secrets of our heart (Ps. 44:21).  Hebrews 4:13 tell us clearly, “No creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” While our screen-filled room may not exist, the omnipresent eyes of God do.  He sees us for who we really are: sinful, broken, hurting people.  Not people that this world would love.

Although teenagers often run to social media to feel connected and accepted, something far better is available to them.  In a way, Christ has seen this screen- and sin-filled room.  God has witnessed every terrible and shameful thing we’ve ever done, and He loves us still (Rom. 5:8; 1 Jn. 4:9-12).  He has told us that he knows all the terrible acts we’ve committed, and not only does He love us still, but He died for us (1 Jn. 3:1)!

Social media, in all of its wonder and benefits, cannot totally respond to a student’s hurts and joys.  Sure, you can get a “like”, a “favorite” or a retweet, but social media can’t cry, hug or laugh with students in the times that they need.  But God has provided for us in these areas.  Social media can’t fully empathize with exultation or suffering; God, however, helps us through trials and rejoices when we rejoice. God provides the response that we are truly looking for from Twitter followers and Facebook friends.  He accepts us and loves us when we are the most vulnerable.

Here is the crux of the issue.  Students too often over-indulge with social media to feel accepted without risking their personal vulnerability.  God turns this upside-down. With God, we are far more loved than we ever could have imagined precisely because we are vulnerable and fragile.

[1] The study is Christianity Explored’s SOUL study.

About The Author

Christopher Talbot is the Program Coordinator for Youth and Family Ministry at Welch College where he also serves as Campus Pastor. He is currently the Youth and Family Pastor at Sylvan Park Church. He holds degrees from both Welch College (B.S.) and Grace College (M.A.) and is currently working on a PhD on Apologetics and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He's the author of Remodeling Youth Ministry: A Biblical Blueprint for Ministering to Students. He and his wife live with their three sons in Gallatin, TN.

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