Once or twice a year, I volunteer at the lovely Chapel in the Hills in Rapid City, SD. The Chapel is a wooden church of architectural significance as it is replicated from the 800-year-old Borgund Stavkirke of Laerdal, Norway down to the wooden nails. One of the duties as volunteer pastor at the Chapel is to preside at weddings during my stay. After marrying nine couples in a couple days, I noticed something unusual: many of the couples (and all of the younger ones) requested that I ask guests to power down their phones—completely! They wanted no video, no snapshots, no posts.
That’s a big change and suggests a new trend in the 20- and 30-somethings who have come of age surrounded by technology: a weariness of having everything broadcast to everybody.
Here’s the thing: we’re still figuring out how social media affects developing brains. We know that pediatricians tell us to limit kids’ daily screen time (which includes TV) in part because it has replaced physically, mentally, and cognitively important time running around and playing. We also know that technology is designed to addict us. If you close an app when you see a picture of a cat surfing, then your app won’t show you pictures of cats surfing in the future. I’ve written before about my concerns seeing parents staring at smartphones instead of smiling and talking to their babies. No study could convince me that isn’t going to reverberate across the developing brains of infants and children.
Regarding the effects of social media on kids’ mental health, self-esteem, and suicidal ideation, the data is diverse and complicated. I think it’s safe to say that social media use is potentially helpful and harmful to different kids at different times and can certainly interfere with sleep patterns. Many parents of teens have witnessed the FOMO moment: your child is enjoying a relaxing night at home until catching a social media post, at which point it suddenly feels like EVERYONE is at some event when your child is not. This can create a sense of anxiety, insecurity about friendships and popularity, etc. We’ve also seen kids—and adults—use social media as a tool to seek out new friends, to rise up against injustices, and to stay connected when a pandemic quarantined the lot of us. But at some point, will those same kids say they’re just a little bit sick of it? Have you noticed the relief and changes when you send kids to camp and they power down phones for a week?
So I wondered from my chapel experience if we are in the midst of a pivot. With so many younger adults asking to make their big day social-media free, a few saying outright that they wanted to enjoy the moment and just “be,” maybe there is a growing awareness that we lose something tangible when we live our lives through the lens of a phone camera instead of enjoying and taking in each God-given moment.
What are you hearing from your youth group kids and confirmation classes? Are they inherently wanting a better balance? How can you help them?
Viner RM, et al. Roles of cyberbullying, sleep, and physical activity in mediating the effects of social media use on mental health and wellbeing among young people in England: A secondary analysis of longitudinal data. The Lancet. Child & Adolescent Health. 2019; https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanchi/article/PIIS2352-4642(19)30186-5/fulltext.
Riehm KE, et al. Associations between time spent using social media and internalizing and externalizing problems among US youth. JAMA Psychiatry. 2019; https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31509167/
Hoge E, et al. Digital media, anxiety, and depression in children. Pediatrics. 2017; doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758G.
Teens, social media & technology 2018. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/
For Teen Girls, Instagram Is a Cesspool https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/08/opinion/instagram-teen-girls-mental-health.html
Apple investors want the company to respond to youth phone dependence. Last spring, Anderson Cooper reported on the ways tech companies keep you hooked. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/hooked-on-your-phone-this-may-be-why/