Parenting in an age of social media and virtual mobs

March 25, 2019

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.

Watching eyes

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.

Virtual mobs

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).

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

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