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Intersection of Life and Faith

Social Media Myth Busting

  • Brad Howell Associate director of Fuller Seminary’s Northern California campus.
  • 2013 13 Jun
Social Media Myth Busting
If you ask almost any group of people what the most depressing day of the week is, what answer would you expect to hear? Probably Monday, right? Well as it turns out, the biggest bummer is Wednesday. When you tell people this is the case, most agree and say it makes sense. Yet despite this seeming truth about Wednesdays, we still hold to the myth of miserable Mondays.

Social media is not immune to the world of myths. In the ongoing battle to frame social media as being either good or bad for adolescents, many myths abound. Here are some I keep running into:

Myth: Teens are losing the art of face-to-face communication.
Reality: You cannot lose something you never really learned. As young people increasingly are left to their own devices to learn how to interact, they are developing relational patterns that are foreign to how adults interact. G. Stanley Hall, the father of adolescent research, suggested that when adolescents most need adult guidance, society has been too busy pursuing its own dreams to mentor younger generations.

A century later, UCLA anthropologist Alan Fiske came to the conclusion that children and foreigners, as outsiders to the implicit patterns of adult interactions, are left to learn on their own about how to interact as adults in society. Stepping into the daily lives of adolescents, mentoring and guiding them into healthy interdependent adult relationships, needs to become the responsibility of every adult if this trajectory is to be reversed.

Myth: High school students are addicted to their smartphones; they are compelled to be up-to-date or they feel left out of the loop.
Reality: There is only one solution to addiction: abstinence. That is not a very helpful solution. MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, who has reframed her position from being a huge advocate of the Internet to one that is far more cautious regarding social media, suggests in her book Alone Together that addiction is not a helpful framework for discussing social media use among adolescents. Instead, we need to help young people develop healthy boundaries and habits of presence.

Myth: It is OK to keep your cell phone on and by your bed at night.
Reality: Teens need their sleep, and so do you. Constant, all-night texting is sleep depriving our adolescents. Additionally, the Internet is public space, while the bedroom is private space. Internet-enabled computers and smartphones in bedrooms blur this boundary of public and private space, sometimes with disturbing consequences.

Myth: A social media fast challenge is a helpful spiritual discipline.
Reality: First of all, if the word challenge is still in your lexicon, lose it. The Internet is authority neutral, and society has been heading post-authority for decades. A social media fast removes teens from their support structures, and rarely is a plan set up to accommodate the fallout. Instead, what teens need are opportunities to trust Jesus with their social media choices. For younger adolescents, this requires concrete opportunities to learn how to love and serve others appropriately alongside adult role models. High school students need training in navigating the intricacies of human relationships. Emerging adults need other adults to invite them to participate as peers in the adult world.

Myth: There is a battle between our online and offline lives.
Reality: There is no such thing as offline/online anymore. If you do not have an online relationship with a teen, you don't have a full relationship with him or her.

Myth: Teens experience social media the same way adults do.
Reality: This is not really so much a myth as it is an unexamined perception. The teenage experience of social media is dependent on the teen's stage of development, family of origin, and how his or her friends are using social media. The tendency among adults, however, is to lump teens into one group and treat them as if their social media experiences are the same as ours. That simply is not the case, and doing this hurts adult-adolescent online interactions and contributes to the adolescent belief that adults simply do not understand the Internet.

Myth: Sexting is an adolescent issue and gateway to becoming sexually active.
Reality: Sexting rates are the same among high school students and parents of teens, so it is not uniquely a teen issue. There are a lot of reasons why a teen may be motivated to send a sext message, not the least of which is the hope of a sexual experience, but the motivation is much deeper. At the core, sexting among teens is about using personal power as a shortcut to experiencing the legitimate need for intimacy. To develop spiritual disciplines that train the heart against the temptation to abuse personal power, check out Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus.

Myth: Teens pass around naked pictures of each other.
Reality: Many students say this has happened to somebody they know, yet only 2 percent of nude images are forwarded to someone. That is the same percent as the number of naked pictures that are accidently sent to the wrong person. Regardless, both experiences are personally humiliating.

Myth: Social media is inherently egotistical.
Reality: While talking about yourself is intrinsically rewarding, most high school students have no idea what to write in their status posts. They learn by copying their friends' posts. Junior high students, especially girls, decorate their online space in a manner similar to how they decorate their bedrooms. Peter Blos in The Adolescent Passage describes this decorating behavior as an outward way to demonstrate one's developing identity. The result is that to adults this identity expression can feel egotistical when it is really a process of individuation via experimenting with how others react to identity projections. Emerging adults are more confident in expressing individual opinions and are looking for avenues to engage with the broader society on topics that interest them. Teens are looking for examples of how to use social media well. We can help both groups by providing examples for teens and engaging young adults in public discussions.

Myth: Social media is inherently isolating.
Reality: While early Internet research focused on this, it has not been true since the dawn of Friendster more than a decade ago. Social media is done primarily within some type of friendship structure, and most interactions are with the same small group of people. However, using the Internet specifically to find new friends increases feelings of loneliness, causes fractures in existing relationships, and degrades a healthy personal identity. This has big implications for online dating.

Myth: Social media is a fad.
Reality: Social media in one form or another is a part of almost every high school student's daily life experience. The fad is really the popularity of any specific site. As long as teens are left to themselves to figure out what it means to live as adults in this world, they will continue to band together for survival. They will use some tool to mediate these relationships when they are not physically present with each other. It's unlikely adults are going to stop using mediated tools to stay in contact with others either. It is a safe bet that social media in one form or another is going to be an ongoing aspect of our lives moving forward.

Myth: Cyberbullying is out of control.
Reality: Yes, teens can be incredibly mean to one another. However, cyberbullying has become such a loaded adult agenda item that teens know the adult script well. It is next to impossible to understand how this is actually effecting youth today.

Myth: It's OK to be logged into your social media and keep it running in the background.
Reality: Not if you have any concrete-minded, validity-seeking middle schooler in your life. To a junior higher, if your icon is green and they are willing to risk reaching out to you with an instant chat, every second you don't answer is an eternity of anguish for them. In fact, the most common experience of teens perceiving they were mistreated online is of feeling ignored. The most common excuse given for lashing out online is that they were ignored. A concrete-thinking early adolescent, without being prompted, does not have the cognitive capacity to understand a person with a green icon by his or her user name may not be at the computer. Some adults have difficulty understanding this, too.

Myth: There is a right and wrong way to communicate online. If you can find the perfect social media tool, your youth group will follow you online, and you can communicate to the whole group this way.
Reality: High school students join social media sites as a friendship cluster. They need you in their lives on- and offline. The social media tools you use to communicate with the teens in your group need to grow out of your relationships with them, not from the advice of outside experts.

Myth: Having more friends makes you look more important.
Reality: This is a perfect example of how adults interpret teen use from their own experience. In this case, it is with high school popularity contests. The way teens accept friendship requests is more dependent on the ability of the social media tool or how a teen uses a site than it is about looking popular or feelings of significance. Most social media interactions are with the same group of six to eight people, regardless of the number of friends a teen has.

Myth: Young people naturally gravitate to the latest technology, while adults look ridiculous trying to speak into their world.
Reality: While in the past five years it seems most people who work with adolescents are opposed to social media, Christian youth workers are among the most prolific social media users; and teens relate that their interactions with their youth sponsors are among their most positive experiences with adults online. Keep hanging out with your teens when you have opportunities to be with them, and interacting online (as you are invited) when you don't. It makes a difference, and teens appreciate you in their lives.

As a long-time youth pastor and parent of two high school students, Brad Howell has been a passionate researcher and presenter of adolescent social media use, spending much of the past year consulting with youth pastors and churches as part of his final doctoral project. He lives in Sacramento, California.