How to protect your children from social media’s harms

Delay, prepare, and disciple

January 5, 2022

In the fall of 2021, while pouring my morning coffee, I barely noticed the newspaper headline about Facebook — near daily reports made it easy to ignore. But 24 hours later, the multi-part series in the Wall Street Journal caught my full attention: “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic For Teen Girls, Its Research Shows.” The lengthy two-page exposé reported that Facebook’s own research reveals its photo-sharing platform, Instagram, is to blame for a host of dangers, including contributing to clinical depression, eating disorders, and self harm. 

It should come as no surprise that a photo-sharing app — built around filtering and editing selfies to their best effect — causes comparison and negative physiological effects among teen girls. What makes this news is that Facebook knows about the harmful effects but isn’t willing to stop because the very thing that causes problems also generates huge profits.

“The features that Instagram identifies as most harmful to teens,” reported the WSJ,  “appear to be at the platform’s core.” And Facebook isn’t interested in lowering its income: “Expanding its base of young users is vital to the company’s more than $100 billion in annual revenue, and it doesn’t want to jeopardize their engagement with the platform.”

Alarmed, but not surprised

Christian parents should be alarmed by this news, but not surprised. This story follows a biblical pattern. Scripture teaches us what life is like in a fallen world where people are motivated by selfish gain. Paul speaks candidly about the danger of loving money, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). 

Facebook likely won’t curb its own magnetic and wildly profitable platforms. But even if Facebook were motivated to place children’s welfare above revenues, parents would still bear the responsibility before God to guide their children in stewarding this and other technologies for their good and his glory.

The wise author of Proverbs urges his son saying, “listen to me,” “give ear,” “do not turn away.” This example of ongoing, repeated conversations between father and son about the way of the wise is a model for all parents to follow, especially in our cultural moment. There is a battle raging for the souls of the next generation. Before we even consider giving our children phones with access to social media, we must teach them wisdom so they can use them well, and not be used by them.

Delay, delay, delay

The first thing parents can do is simple: “Delay, delay, delay.” That’s the advice of author and psychology professor Jean Twenge. Author and psychoanalyst Erica Komisar echoes her advice. She recommends parents “not allow social media until at least middle adolescence, or ages 14 to 18, and only allow it in a limited way from the beginning.” Contrary to the embrace of digital devices so common in American homes, Komisar says, “the longer you can delay it the better.” 

Waiting until children are more mature protects them while they are still vulnerable and unprepared for the pressures of social media. Delaying means more time to mature. But also, it creates space for instruction and discipleship, and time to discern if your children are ready for the responsibility. Maturity and wisdom are what’s needed to steward technology in a way that keeps it a tool.

Tool, not taskmaster

Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, is encouraging a generation of “digital minimalists” who “see new technologies as tools to be used to support things they deeply value—not as sources of value themselves.”

He says most apps’ benefits are dwarfed by their costs — what they take from you is far greater than what they give. He urges people to use them sparingly. “Don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into [your life].” He advocates for “applying new technology in highly selective and intentional ways that yield big wins.” 

Children need parents who model this sort of digital surgical strike. They need to see us using apps sparingly, with wisdom, when they serve worthy purposes — and avoiding them when they don’t. They need to hear us talking about social media with the language of if, rather than when. If we get on Instagram. Not when we do. And once there, we need to use those platforms for God’s glory, not our own (1 Cor. 10:31).

We can’t expect our children to apply digital discernment if that’s not what we’re modeling for them. This begins with us not assuming every app is worth downloading and not handing over our time without first determining if the app is a tool that will serve what we value most.

We, and our children, need the freedom to decide if something is worth giving time to. The prevailing assumption seems to be that everybody will get on Facebook, everybody will have Instagram, everyone will be on Twitter, and whatever else the newest trend is. But that isn’t true. Every family is free to opt in, or not. And if opting in, to have a better reason for it than “everybody is doing it.”

All of life discipling

Delaying smartphones and social media is an important strategy when children are young. But it’s only part of the solution. If your children are still young, this is the season for laying a foundation of biblical truth. 

Do they know they are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psa. 139:14) and created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26)? Are they convinced that they, like all of us, have a sin nature (Rom. 5:12), are under God’s wrath (John 3:36), and are powerless to earn his favor (Rom. 3:20)? Teach them that “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses,” (Eph. 2:4-5) sent Jesus, the divine Son, to take our place on the cross (Rom. 3:25). Tell them that he paid the price we could never pay, opening the way for us to be restored to God (Col. 1:19-20). And exhort them with the amazing news that everyone who believes in him and calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13).

These are the truths they need for all of life, and beyond — certainly before they venture into the virtual world. Give them the gospel. And ask God to help them to desire the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5). Weave it into conversations when you sit in your house, walk along the way, lie down, and rise up. That’s the all-of-life discipleship Deuteronomy 11:19 commands, and it’s no less needed in the virtual world than in the physical one.

Before you send them out, equip them to be in the world, not of it (John 17:14-16). This is the call for every Christian parent (Psa. 78:4, 6-7).

Count the cost

The pull of social media is strong on adults. How much stronger must that feel to the youth in our lives? Despite any good of staying connected with friends, social media can feel like slavery to a teen. Twenge said teens used “an addict’s narrative” to describe their Instagram use — they wanted to stop but couldn’t. “Your teen likely knows the downsides of social media,” says Twenge, “but [she] needs your help to manage it wisely.” Be alert to signs that your child needs help to break away.

If your teen is already on Instagram, be there with her. Talk to her about what she’s seeing, any pressure she feels, how she responds to negative emotions and defiling images, and if she ever wishes she could take a break. Share your approach to social media. Pray together for the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom. Ask God to help you steward the technology and, if necessary, to take a break from it. 

We can’t expect social media companies to tame a problem that also generates huge revenues. But even if Facebook were to change Instagram, something else would take its place. This is a problem with technology that can’t be solved by technology, because at root, it’s a spiritual problem. 

Thankfully, God’s Word contains the solution. Parents need to prepare their children for the world before sending them into it. Ground their identity in Christ before they go out into the world, both virtual and real. If they go looking for their identity anywhere other than God, there will be trouble.

If your teen has the maturity to use social media sparingly, for intentional purposes, it may be a place she can shine like a light in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation (Phil. 2:15). But don’t let the pressure of peers or marketers or even your own friends be the reason you say yes to social media. 

Don’t send her in early or unprepared. The cost is too high.

Candice Watters

Candice Watters is the Fighter Verses blog editor. She is a wife and mom, and author of Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help it Happen, and co-author with her husband Steve of Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies. The Watterses have four children and are passionate about … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24