Why Teens Compulsively Use Social Media: To Hide From Reality

Last April, author Shauna Niequist wrote a poignant article highlighting the deceiving effect that social media can have on all of us. She writes,

My life looks better on the Internet than it does in real life. Everyone’s life looks better on the internet than it does in real life. The Internet is partial truths—we get to decide what people see and what they don’t. That’s why it’s safer short term. And that’s why it’s much, much more dangerous long term.

She also went on to say that the times when we find ourselves checking in to the cyber-world is when our lives are less than exciting. We tend to spend an hour scrolling through our Facebook or Twitter feeds when we’re bored, lonely, or wanting some temporary relief from a stressful situation, rather than when we’re having the time of our lives on vacation or having an engaging conversation with a friend. When our realities leave us feeling disillusioned, we scramble to find another story to be a part of.

A Different Story 

Social media allows us to tell a different story than the one we’re actually living, which is precisely the point that Shauna makes in her article. It’s why it can be both dangerous and inviting.

Think about it: Have you ever seen an Instagram photo of a girl with tears streaming down her face, mourning the break-up that happened moments before? Have you ever watched a Vine posted by a student of their parents screaming in the kitchen? I never have. It’s because we purposefully choose what to post so that we put forth the version of our lives that we want others to see, even if that version is a far cry from reality.

Social media often enables us to hide from the hard and uncomfortable pieces of our lives. Too many times, we use social media to escape from reality rather than to engage it. And, in a day when technology is the norm—even the expectation—our students only know a world in which social media plays an integral part. In this context, I wonder if teens are losing the ability to be present in the stories in which they find themselves.

The Desire to Hide

One thing that our students’ constant social media usage can tell us is that life is hard. This is not new information. Hardly. But I think that we need to realize that in the face of the difficulties of life, today’s teens are hiding behind selfies and snapchats. They are detaching through likes and tweets.

The desire to hide isn’t new; in fact, it goes all the way back to Genesis 3. As soon as Adam and Eve bought into the devil’s lie and rebelled against their Creator, they were filled with immense shame, driving them to run from God rather than run to him. When the fabric of the world began to fray and their story took a turn for the worse, the chaos was simply too much for them to handle. And so they hid.

In an effort to manage the disaster, they covered themselves in fig leaves, which were a far cry from what was necessary before a holy God. They were ashamed of what they had become, and so they masked the mess. But God knew that it would never be enough. In their hiding, God sought his children out. In their nakedness, God clothed them.

When their story took a turn for the worse, God doesn’t scrap it. He doesn’t give them a new one. Instead, He makes a promise—a promise that one day, He would send One who would enter into The Story to bring redemption.

Jesus Enters In

In Jesus, we have a God who willingly enters the hardness of life. We have a God who sympathizes with our weaknesses, so that we can have a merciful and faithful high priest. We have a God who walked headlong into darkness, even when it took him all the way to a rugged cross. And when he hung on that cross, mangled and in unspeakable agony, he chose to feel it all. He was offered something to ease the pain, but He refused. He turned it down because he knew that in order to conquer it all, he would have to drink it all in.

But it didn’t end there. Three days later, the Sufferer emerged the Victorious One—the empty tomb guaranteeing that for all those who trust in him, suffering is never the end of The Story.

And because the hard things don’t have the final word, we don’t have to hide from them.

The reality of the Gospel—the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—allows us and our students to actually enter into our stories rather than hide from them. Because the Gospel is real, it challenges how we view our individual realities, whatever those may be. No sin or suffering, no matter how deep or wide, is a match for the redemptive power of Christ.

Inviting Students to More 

The most glorious Story enables us to embrace our own, for it tells us that we are not stuck, but that we are going somewhere. In fact, everything is groaning and being made new, even as you read these words. Knowing the end means that we don’t have be scared to face the page that we’re on right now.

So, as we enter into relationships with students who are learning about the difficulties of life in a broken, fallen world, may we display the truth of the Gospel by being safe places where they can come out from behind the screen. May our churches be places where they can speak honestly about what makes them want to escape. But even more than that, may they be places where our teenagers realize they don’t have to.

Rachel Cohen is the Student Ministries Intern at Orangewood Church, PCA in Maitland, FL. She has a Bachelor’s in Psychology from Covenant College and is currently getting her Master’s in Theological Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. She plays guitar on the sidewalk for extra spending money and regularly watches ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars (but only so she can better understand the culture of today’s youth…).

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