“Forty-five percent of teens say they use the internet “almost constantly” (Pew Research Study). Depending on who you ask, social media is a great way to stay in touch with friends or is the single source of all society’s problems today. So how do we make sense of social media when considering our mental health and the mental health of our families?
Snapshots & Highlights
Simply put, there are no amount of characters that can adequately capture our human lives and experiences. While we can try to present ourselves honestly on social media, the needed reminder for adults and teens alike is that we are seeing a mere fragment of who people are. Social media often presents a highlight reel of a character that we create. While highlights are fun and awesome, Christ came not just for our highlights. He came for us, brokenness and all. He came for the boring parts, the ups, the downs, the ugly moments too. He longs to transform the entirety of our lives, but often social media only presents an image of life that leaves us feeling inadequate or incomplete.
Not Just Entertainment
Left unchecked, the highlight reels of social media can leave us comparing ourselves to others on a daily basis. Online we see the best selfies, clothes, and experiences, which can leave us thinking: I’m not good enough, I’ll never look like them, I’ll never have friends like them, I don’t have a purpose. But, social media doesn’t just entertain; it educates. It can educate us on incomplete and unfulfilling expectations and standards about life, love, relationships, and identity.
These messages through social media have the power to break through cultures, beliefs, and values. Many studies show that teens who grow up in families with strong values will still find themselves inundated by the truths and ideologies social media supplies. Studies also show that more screen time can lead to unhealthy sleep cycles, anxiety, depression, and more. Young people are left with unhelpful conclusions about who they are or who they are called to be based on what is popular and shared online. They often are distracted or never truly discover their primary identity as beloved sons and daughters of an all-loving Father.
The Great Escape?
So do we recede to the Amish countryside, or what? Like most things, we are called to moderation and balance. There’s no quick fix or miracle tool for the dilemmas social media creates, but the small things do make a difference. Here are some reminders when considering mental health and social media for teens and adults alike:
- We are made for communion – Teens (and adults too) enjoy social media because they are made for connection. It’s natural, and they want to share experiences, interests, and ideas with others. It’s essential to validate this pursuit for authentic relationships while discerning what is helpful to our mental health and what isn’t.
- Just because it’s on the internet… – Teens need the reminder that the loud voices online might not be the majority at all, let alone truthful or helpful. They are called to form and develop their consciences in light of Christ. We are all called to form our consciences in light of what God has revealed to us, in Scripture and Tradition, and not just by what is being discussed online.
- Boundaries are essential, but keep the dialogue open – At the end of the day, it’s about having an ongoing, trusting relationship with your teen. Set firm boundaries and provide direction for what they have access to but keep the line of communication open. There are many great filters and tools for technology and social media accounts. Talk about and model what is helpful vs. what is not with screen time and content.
- Fostering a non-judgmental environment – Teens are hungry to bounce ideas around and explore their experiences. They need direction and healthy relationships to reason things out and provide a structure as they ask, who am I in this world? If your teen knows they won’t be judged and that you care, they will want to share their thoughts, emotions, and struggles. They will be able to explore the world with support and clarity.
- Be realistic and proactive – If your teen has access to any internet, it’s safe to say they are witnessing a lot of different ideas and values. So don’t be afraid to ask questions and address themes and values that the internet is exploring. An open-ended question can go a long way!
- We have bodies for a reason – God didn’t make us with minds alone. There is something powerful about being with others physically, sharing time, and breaking bread together. Digital relationships can help us stay connected, but we are made for the real thing. Getting out and away from screens can be tough at first but can make a world of difference.
- Explore the Otherworldly – Social media can often point us inwardly out of fear and insecurity. Making time for prayer allows us to listen to God and takes us out of ourselves. In the busyness of screen time, encouraging a few moments of silence or taking a prayerful walk can help cultivate a rich interior life and encounter the living God.
Social media has real implications in the lives of teens and families. It can affect how we relate to and love one another and view ourselves. Christ calls us to examine who we are in the light of His love for us and apply this as we navigate the messages and standards that social media presents.