Why Teens Compulsively Use Social Media: To Live in a Fantasy World of No Consequences

Back in 2006, something really strange happened. Sara Andrews created an online group that was “LGBT friendly” in a game called World of Warcraft. Blizzard, the makers of World of Warcraft, threatened to ban her from the game if she didn’t disband her group (because it was gay friendly) and there was such an outcry that the BBC reported that Blizzard apologized for being “heavy-handed” and allowed the group to continue.

Now, I’m not a “gamer” by any stretch of the imagination, but I found this global story fascinating because at the time it challenged one of my foundational assumptions about the Internet: I believed that the Internet wasn’t real.

An Online World

Not to sound like a crotchety old man sitting on a porch with a broomstick in his hand shouting at the neighbors kids and reminiscing about “the good old days,” but there was a time when what happened online stayed online. Your online experience was contained and could be nearly anonymous. And because of its anonymity, it represented this landscape where you could participate in a world with no consequences. It was an escape from the real world and this fantasy became, for many, an obsession.

But what World of Warcraft revealed for me was that what happened online was, in fact, real.

At that point, tracking software hadn’t been developed and people hadn’t harnessed the Internet as a mechanism for selling us things. The idea that the words inscribed through these sequences of ones and zeros could do anything more than connect one nerd to another was preposterous. But last week, I met with a couple that met online, started dating, and recently got married. And month ago, I sat with a crying kid who was devastated that a picture she took on Snapchat had been posted on Facebook.

Transformative Power 

Technology has leaped and bounded past anything I would have imagined seven years ago. And that anonymous impulse that made this online world a fantasy is gone. Moreover, it reversed, and the desire to be known became the dominant driver – so much so, that the notion of reality has changed.

Back then, cyber-bullying was completely under the radar. Now, lives are taken because of it. Back then, Facebook was just a thing for college students. Now, if something isn’t on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, if it isn’t hash-tagged, posted, or liked, then it’s not real. And not only has reality changed because of these technologies, but there is now a permanence that has come with this change.

And yet, despite this reversal, the mythical notion that you can do something online without consequence has endured. Kids still think that there are no consequences to what happens online.

During the past decade, we have witnessed the transformative power of the Internet. 

Organizations like charity: water have raised millions of dollars through social networks. Celebrities have gotten their start on YouTube. And everyday people have been empowered to provoke change on the other side of the world.

The Internet has lifted us out of ignorance. It has provided access to anyone with a smartphone. It has united us, healed us, and brought us forward. But it has also destroyed lives, perpetuated stereotypes, and emboldened bigotry and racism.

Permanent and Real

Sadly, I don’t know what will happen next. But I know that the Internet is no longer a fantasy. It isn’t without consequences. The Internet is permanent and real. And we need to acknowledge this new truth and respond accordingly. We need to prepare and equip youth to engage within this new landscape. We need to shepherd the next generation to navigate through this terrain responsibly. We need to ask youth questions like: “Is this person online the person you want to be ten or twenty years from now?” or “Is this person online really you?” Because the stakes are higher then ever; our Internet fingerprint has the potential to follow us forever.

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to come to this realization. I withdrew from Facebook for a while. I wrote a snarky “Dear John” letter to Facebook and posted it on my Tumblr. I half-heartedly resisted technological advances in an attempt to be “counter-cultural,” but really, I was just trying to be some combination of cool, mysterious, or distant. But the more I interacted with the teens at my church, the more I realized I couldn’t escape it. Books like Criag Detweiler’s iGods convicted my heart and I’ve come around with a deeper commitment to the people behind the status updates.

And that is what all of this really comes down to. Behind every tweet is a person – a real flesh and blood person. They might try and hide or pretend to be an avatar or play silly games online. But when all is said and done, the people behind these screens are made in the image of God, and that ontological declaration is what is ultimately the most true and real.

Christopher Esposito-Bernard is the Director for Children, Youth and Family Ministries at All Angels’ Episcopal Church in Manhattan, NY. You can check out other articles he has written at Heretical Christianity. Christopher has written for Relevant Magazine, Christianity Today, and the Episcopal Commons.

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