My childhood was filled with significant and meaningful relationships that were important to my development. Like many kids my age I had normal community interactions at home, school, sports, and church. Whether it was through reinforcement, discipline, risk, or even peer pressure, each of these relationships contributed in small or big ways to helping me understand me. They helped to shape and fashion my identity.
That’s part of what it means to be human. We were created into relationship — not only with God but with one another. In his book The Image of God, Anthony Hoekema helpfully wrote: “Men and women cannot attain to true humanity in isolation; they need the fellowship and stimulation of others. We are social beings […] Man cannot be truly human apart from others.”
The example of Victor of Aveyron — the French “Wild Child” — illustrates this perfectly. Victor was a feral child who was discovered in a forest around the age of twelve. It’s believed he had been abandoned by his parents at a very early age, and he likely lived in solitude for almost seven years. His extraordinary behavior resembled a wild animal far more than a man, and he made little developmental progress after his discovery. Victor became a fascinating example of the effects of social isolation. Citing his story Hoekema added: "It would appear that apart from contact and fellowship with other human beings a person cannot develop into normal manhood or womanhood."
It’s this observation — from both the Bible and nature — that should sound the alarm about the influence of social media. The statistics are actually mind-boggling. Young people aged 8 to 12 spend an average of six hours a day on technology, and teenagers aged 13 to 18 spend an average of nine hours a day streaming videos, looking at pictures, listening to music, and playing games. That's more social time in a given day than is spent with parents, peers, or sports teams.
Yes, adults use social media too. Nearly 70% of adults in the United States have a social media account. But there's an important difference. Adults use social media to putz around about fairly meaningless and inconsequential things. That's not how the iGeneration uses it. Like the isolated forest that shaped Victor's lonely identity, social media has become the dominant force behind the younger generation's development of identity.
That's probably hard for a lot of adults to understand. Even as a Millennial who had ICQ and MSN Messenger, most of my generation's development was spent without social media – including our pivotal adolescent years. While technology dependence and addiction is likely a problem for adults, there was a time when we learned about ourselves without the use of social media. However, the iGeneration is using it to shape and form their identity.
This is the concern that Abigail Shrier raises in her book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. To be clear, Shrier isn't writing from a conservative Christian perspective. She writes as one supportive of the LGBTQ+ community who is, nevertheless, concerned about transgender affirmation that has a choke hold on society. In a large part she credits the modern gender dysphoria phenomenon with the identity shaping power of social media: “For up to nine hours a day, today’s teens slip down a customized internet oubliette, alone. They browse glamorous pages that offer airbrushed takes on the lives of friends and celebrities and internet influencers. They tunnel into YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Reddit, and Tumblr, imbibing life advice from the denizens that wait them.” She goes on to make the point that prolonged social media immersion is changing our children.
The iGeneration isn't logging onto social media to argue about politics, post memes, or catch-up with long lost friends. They're logging on to find themselves – to form, shape, and define their identity. Tragically, like Victor, most of our young people are abandoned by their parents in this forest of technology where unsupervised they try to figure out who they are. And make no mistake. Social media and its influencers are all too happy to assume the role of Creator and Redeemer. They're happy to tell your children who and what they are.
That matters. It matters because social media cannot be the influence we give our children up to. The "reality" it creates is a facade; it's a mirage that doesn't offer the meaningful human relationships we need in order to develop into normal men and women: face to face relationships. It's a deeply held Christian conviction that God has created us both soul and body – physical and non-physical. It would be verging on neo-Gnosticism to think that the physical can be ignored in the relationships we need in this life. If we allow social media to be the dominant force shaping identity, our kids will lose their humanity – they have lost their humanity.
No, I'm not exaggerating. A generation that is more immersed in technology than any before it, is is also a generation of teenagers who are unhappy, lonely, depressed, and anxious. They lack critical social skills, are emotionally underdeveloped, and don't have the deep and authentic friendships that are vital to normal life. These are the conclusions being drawn from all kinds of research, together with the warning of the dangers of increased social media use. Anecdotal evidence even suggests that when young people are "socializing" with their peers they're really not. That's because they're still plugged in and connected to media when in closest physical space with their friends. It's like they don't even know how to have unmediated friendships.
Unless the sons of this world prove more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light, Christians need to pay attention. Social media – like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, Omegle, Reddit, etc – has flooded our society like a tsunami. Most weren't prepared for it. As a parent and a pastor I admit it's hard to know how to keep our heads above water.
So what can be done? I understand the appearance of godliness that reduces the solution to a couple of simple rules: "Do not handle" and "Do not touch." But I'm not convinced the identity crisis can be solved by simply not giving our kids phones, or limiting their use at the dinner table and bed time. That isn't all bad and some of it can even be useful. But it's a bit superficial, and I fear it may lack the power of true godliness (see 2 Timothy 3:5).
One solution is to ground our young people in public worship. We need to parent and shepherd them with an appreciation for what happens when God’s people gather. Why this? For this reason: public worship is the place where in community we fellowship with one another and with God our Creator and Redeemer through the one mediator, the God-man Jesus Christ. In the highest sense worship engages both the vertical and the horizontal relationships we were created into.
When we do that by faith it's identity forming. That’s because it’s in public worship where we who are baptized into the name of the Triune God encounter him, where by Word and Spirit he shatters the mirage and facade of transient things, where the secrets of the heart are laid bare exposing the identity of our sinful nature, and where through the gospel we are re-created in identification with Jesus. Simply put, public worship is where the reality of God dispels our counter-realities like the chasing away of a shadow by the rising sun through the glory that shines in the face of Jesus Christ. People who worship in Spirit and truth are a people whose identity is being conformed to eternal things.
“'Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken — that is, things that have been made — in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:27-29).