Article  Human Dignity  Marriage and Family  Parenting

How to protect your children from social media’s harms

Delay, prepare, and disciple

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.

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