I can still remember the angst leading up to middle school yearbook picture day, when we’d each take one photo a year that would mark us...quite possibly even haunt us forever. I had spent hours the night before debating between outfits, wondering how I could both stand out and disappear all at the same time. Like most students, I wanted to be recognized, but not recognized for the wrong things, like so many yearbook photos tended to masterfully capture. I’m convinced that the photographers took bets as to how anatomically awkward they could pose middle school students. My experience often felt a bit like a trip to an unlicensed chiropractor.Of all my wishfully suppressed yearbook photo-taking experiences, I’ll never forget 7th grade. In a middle school class of roughly 400+ students, I found a way to wear the same exact shirt as the person who would alphabetically be next to me in the yearbook. Needless to say, when the yearbook was finally published in early June, I was demoralized (or should I say, WE were demoralized). Two middle school boys wearing the same exact outfits in the yearbook...vertically. striped. outfits.
One photo each year that the entire school had public access to was more than enough to thoroughly decimate one’s self esteem. Today, our teenagers have grown up in a world where social media has demanded they make their entire lives publicly accessible. Instagram, having originally been designed to creatively express yourself and share photos with friends, has become for many a popularity contest, a daily yearbook photo that we hope trumps the yearbook photo next to us.
If you are over the age of 21 and reading this, you need to know that your experience on social media is very different than today’s teenagers. For many teenagers, social media has become a barometer of success, a kind of measurement of worth. Whereas before, one photo might have formally followed you and me around school, now hundreds of photos and their corresponding “likes” and comments literally create for today’s teen a clearcut stat list. How many “likes” you get on photos or followers you have frames for the rest of the student population your ranking in their world. Thus, students will delete photos that they feel don’t get enough “likes” and get offended if someone popular likes the photos of friends above them or below them and not theirs. Luke, a Sophomore at Gonzaga College High School, even spoke of a friend who would make Instagram accounts and then sell them once they reached a desirable number of followers. When most of us grew up, home was a refuge from the popularity rate race at school, but now, a student's ranking reaches into every minute of their existence.
I’ve recognized in the past five years in youth ministry that the dominating snares of smartphone technology are not apps that lead to pornography, sexting, or even inappropriate relationships (although it often ends up here). The real problem is the meat grinder social media can be to a teen’s self image, leaving it mangled and unsure.
On yearbook photo day, everyone was attempting to capture the best version of themselves, even if it was a dishonest version of themselves. My prayers the night before consisted of “God, I will become a monk so long as I don’t have a pimple in the morning.” Similarly, students are building the best version of themselves on social media, except every day. Their lives are being scrutinized, measured and adjusted according to the over-exaggerated highlight reel of the person above and below them. The danger becomes, as a dishonest view of yourself is slowly nurtured and maintained, it begins to call into question who is the real me? Is this me or not me? Which me am I? Am I the social media me or the regular me? Micah, a sophomore at Blyth Templeton says, “Social media is the perfect mask.” I’ve met students whose online persona was starkly different than than the person I knew in person. An obvious struggle of identity was at play.
A few years ago at around midnight, I was scrolling through Instagram and ran into a photo of a former student holding a jar of moonshine. At the time he was a freshmen in high school. I immediately called the parents to ask if they knew where their child was and what they may have been up to. Turns out the child had taken the moonshine from their parent’s cabinet to pose for the “risky” photo. The photo was a complete set-up, an attempt to show this kind of James Dean, “I’m a bad mama jama,” completely untrue side of him. If we’re honest, we’ve all tried to make it seem like we are someone we aren’t. The difference is, we likely lived different in smaller spurts or in specific crowds, but life still gave us margin to think clearly and recalibrate. Today, our students are living on a constant siege of pressure to produce a praiseworthy version of themselves.
These kids are the first generation to navigate social media in their teen years. There is no textbook for them to follow. As adults in their lives, the best thing we can do is be available to have real conversations about what they are posting and how if affects the way they view themselves. And then, most importantly, tell them what you see in them. Seize what social media has stolen. In Psalm 139:17, what becomes precious to David is God’s thoughts towards him, essentially what God thinks of him. In order to accomplish this, David has to shift his vantage point to see himself as God sees him, fearfully and wonderfully made. Our jobs become to drive students back-up that winding and difficult road again and again to that vantage point, pressing into their hearts what is actually true of them, that they are most certainly wonderfully made no matter how many “likes” or comments they get.
Here are five conversation starters if you know a teen with social media accounts:
- Why do you enjoy using social media? What was your original motivation for getting a social media account (Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook)?
- Do you ever recognize how people you know are different on social media than they are in real life?
- How does social media allow you to express who you really are?
- After you make a post, how does the number of “likes” or comments affect the way you feel?
- What are some ways that you have caved to the pressure to produce a better version of yourself on social media?
- If you could be free to use social media the way you wanted, after having removed all the pressure to perform, how would you use it?
Steffen was born and raised in the Sunshine State. He studied at Trinity International University and has been working with students for over 5 years. Steffen loves watching grace capture students! He is married to his lovely bride Celeste and they are both currently living on Capitol Hill, serving as the Youth Pastor at National Community Church.