My conscience has been rattled. Last night I watched a documentary called The Social Dilemma on Netflix. You need to watch it.
(You’re welcome. I just saved you 30 minutes of scrolling Netflix aimlessly.)
I’m seriously disturbed. And I fully grasp the irony of sparking this conversation on social media. But process with me.
Christianity has a fascinating history of using technological advances to share the message of Jesus. The printing press was first used to print a Bible. Some of the earliest radio stations in the world were to share the Gospel. Christians use technology to share Jesus. We’ve done it for hundreds of years. And social media helps us maintain a sense of community; most youth ministries only exist right now because of social media. So, why is social media different?
I have the honour of pastoring students grades 7-12. I’ve been using social media in youth ministry for the last decade. This conversation is not about consuming the good posts while avoiding the bad ones. This post is about whether we should engage with social media at all in light of how the system works.
Now, that idea may seem a little too black and white. No nuance? No how we engage with social media? Imagine this conversation is a seesaw. On one side sit 3.8 billion social media users. I’m actually one of them. But right now I want to jump with all my might on the other end of the seesaw to help shift the conversation ever so slightly. I want to consider whether anyone should use social media. You know who else paints this as a black and white situation? Tech executives. Their kids are not allowed on social media. End of discussion. That makes me reconsider my use.
See, social media is designed to be addictive. The goal of every social media platform is to get its users (a term only used for software and illegal drug customers) to stay online as long as possible. That’s how more data is gathered. That’s how more ads are shown. That’s how more money is made. The sad truth is that the teens you care about are worth more to tech companies if they’re hopelessly addicted.
“We’re all so addicted!” we laugh while reaching for our phones. Why are we nonchalant about our tech addictions? The Social Dilemma explains that when social media became available on mobile, anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide rates increased dramatically among teens. Our teens are dying more because of social media. That’s what the statistics indicate. One of the greatest health risks to our students is the tech device in their own hands.
As a YouTuber who strives to create thought-provoking and well-researched content, I’m horrified that fake news spreads six times faster on Twitter than true news. This is partly because social media algorithms are designed to keep you online longer. The algorithms are not trained to discern between true and false, safe and unsafe, love and abuse. If fear- and hate-driven posts engage you, so be it. Whatever keeps you online longer.
“Well, that’s not great, but we’ll use it for better purposes.” No, you can’t. The redemption of the system must come from the highest levels of the social media platforms. It means ethical and humane technology – tech that doesn’t prioritize money over lives. You’re a good leader with good intentions, but the social media company doesn’t share your goals. Social media will continue to be as destructive as ever while including your posts alongside everyone else’s. I personally follow theologians, apologists, and pastors. Their content is fantastic. But beneath the good, informative Christian content is a system designed to addict me.
“But how do we get them to engage?” Our social media presence either introduces or prolongs exposure to an addictive environment. When youth pastors share tips and tricks on how to create more engaging posts, we may be trying to capitalize on the addictive system. Like, if students are going to be addicted, they might as well be addicted to us. We may even feel as though our ministries are successful when our posts get a certain amount of Likes.
Social media platforms are designed to make money by driving usage. They benefit from our addiction. They are not designed to share the message of Jesus. They are not designed to put human well-being above money. It’s spiralling out of control and we can all see it.
I wonder if our lack of faith is being exposed. As a youth pastor, I think one thing that’s keeping us from moving away from social media is our own fear. Parents and churches are so afraid of “losing” students that we’re willing to accept a destructive, addictive connection. But the theological reality is that the Holy Spirit unites the church of Christ in a uniquely life-giving way. Do we believe in the power of that life-giving community enough to leave the destructive connection behind?
The social reality is that we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s pushed us all online. And yes, that’s wise from a health and safety standpoint. So this feels like the worst time to question social media usage. But I can’t help but wonder, in the face of outrageously addictive social media platforms, whether this is exactly the right time to ask these questions.
Now, I’m usually one for finding a creative solution. But in light of how social media platforms work, should we engage with them at all?