I try to avoid thinking of the past as the good old days. While it is often tempting to do so, I realize that, undoubtedly, any particular point in history wasn’t good for someone. In most cases, it wasn’t even as good as we might nostalgically remember it. But even so, it feels relatively safe to say that I’m glad I grew up in a world without social media. And I wish my kids could too.
I realize I could, as many parents already do, refuse to allow my children to have their own social media accounts. That is an issue of wisdom, and one which all parents have to deal with for their own families. But even if one chooses to cut out social media entirely, it only solves part of the problem. And that is because, even for those who choose to abstain, there is no way to insulate one’s self from the watching eyes of the internet.
The episode with the students from Covington Catholic High School is a recent example. In that incident, as with so many others, a video clip began to circulate on social media, and a narrative of how the events transpired quickly took on a life its own. Before facts were made clear or even accounted for at all, snap judgements were made, battle lines were drawn, and condemnations were issued. But predictably, after the initial frenzy abated, it became clear that the facts were much more complicated than they first appeared.
Yet as with most viral stories, the damage was done. And this is because the internet isn’t interested in clarifications or retractions. It just moves on. Time and again we watch as photos and tweets are liked, retweeted, and shared by hundreds of thousands of people only to be retracted sometime later, with the retraction being all but ignored.
It hasn’t always been this way. In previous generations, many of the things that garner so much scrutiny and attention today by going viral would have occurred in obscurity. And in incidents involving young people, decisions about guilt and restitution were left to the discretion of parents or principals or other adults who had a vested interest not only in meting out punishment, but in the individuals themselves. This is the problem with virtual justice.
We should never brush off bad behavior or excuse our children’s sin simply because “kids will be kids.” But nor should we want them subjected to the cruelty of the faceless mob on the internet. A digital jury only knows how to bring forth one verdict: guilty. And this is because the crowd on social media isn’t interested in redemption or restoration, only retribution. It is deeply sad that we live in a time where people are routinely pressured—against their better judgement—to hastily pass sentence upon a person or group lest they appear sympathetic to hate or bigotry or injustice, or whatever else the internet deems unacceptable.
This awful state of affairs is our children’s reality. They are growing up in a digital age. One thoughtless act, captured on video and posted in an instant, can forever alter the trajectory of their lives. The cold reality is that the internet, and social media in particular, brings forth a kind of accountability and scrutiny that previous generations did not have to face. And no one is exempt.
A word to parents
What this calls for is caution and communication. Life is never easy, but there are periods of adolescence and young adulthood where our children will face unique points of temptation and vulnerability. Emerging into adulthood carries its own kind of danger. As our kids mature, there will come a time when they begin to experience the freedom of adulthood apart from the wisdom and experience that come along with age. But unlike previous generations, any moment of their lives is able to be captured via smartphone and made available to the world.
In the digital age, parenting requires an extra step.Our kids need to know that at almost any time, their words and actions can be subjected to public scrutiny. As Christians, we strive to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Just as we teach and remind our kids that they live their lives before the face of God each day, we must now teach and remind them that the world is not only watching but eager to harshly judge, condemn, and criticize. Careless words and thoughtless acts can carry a higher price than they used to.
None of this is to imply that young people aren’t liable for their own actions. Quite the opposite is true. There is, however, a clear warning here: because of social media, our kids are always in danger of an accountability that is more severe than they deserve. And this should shape the way that we parent them, and the way we pray for them.
I pray my own children will never face the cruelty of a virtual mob, and I want to do all I can to protect them from it. But even though this is a new problem, the best strategy to hedge against it isn’t new at all. In fact, it is ancient.
The best thing that Christian parents can do to protect their kids from the online mob isn’t necessarily to cut out social media. Instead, it is to make a commitment to be present in their lives. This means being committed to shaping their character and faithful to train them in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6). But this is not an easy thing; it actually takes decades. None of us can be there to witness every moment or correct every mistake, but we can prepare our kids well to live in a digital age. This means walking beside them as they learn how to follow Jesus and how to live in the world (Deut. 6:7).