1. Another Week, Another Warning
What it is: The Surgeon General has issued a warning on the dangers of social media for teenagers.
Why the alarm bell is reaching a fever pitch: People have been wary of social media’s impact on developing brains for two decades—so why are highly-visible tone setters, like the Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association, issuing big, sweeping statements now? Part of it could be because we are getting more quality data on how social media shapes a young person’s brain. One newer study that’s been getting some buzz suggests that individuals who received their first smartphone at a later age have better mental health as young adults. Several big bills that aim to protect minors online will be voted on this year as tech giants face increased scrutiny over their safeguards (or lack thereof), for younger users. Kids growing up even a decade from now may encounter a completely different digital landscape when it’s their turn to learn about online literacy.
Start the conversation: Who is someone who you think has a good perspective on social media? How do they approach it?
2. Sounds Legit
What it is: Teens are posting like influencers, even when they don’t have high follower counts, in an effort to fake it til they make it.
What it looks like: The New York Times describes behaviors commonly adopted by Gen Z as “influencer tics.” Making frequent product recommendations, setting up an online storefront to earn commission from affiliate links, and having a separate email for business inquiries may seem like strange behaviors for teens with less than 10,000 followers. But for young people, managing your personal brand is seen as a sign of entrepreneurial ambition, not a cry for attention. Mega-influencer tools of the trade are free, user-friendly, and accessible, letting teens try on an “influencer” persona whenever they post. You can also get free stuff. Since most teens don’t have any media training or a brand manager, they also don’t have protection when things go wrong, as seen last week when Bioré came under fire for a controversial partnership that exploited a school shooting survivor’s experience.
Start the conversation: Do you know anyone personally who tries to sell products in their posts? Would you want to do that if you had the opportunity?
3. Facebook Babies
What it is: Teens who were born during the heyday of Facebook and Instagram oversharing are now horrified to discover what’s been posted about their childhoods.
Why it’s becoming a rite of passage: It’s always been a little weird to realize that your parents are real people, completely separate from you, with a backstory that dates back before you were cognizant. But for a generation that is discovering their parent’s social media accounts, that realization can be a lot more complicated. People who posted baby photos, embarrassing stories, or complaints about their early parenting experiences a decade ago might now have a mortified teen on their hands. An article in The Atlantic describes how young people often joke about the embarrassment of their friends finding their parent’s Facebook page—because many are filled with pictures and videos of themselves from when they were younger. Teens understand that what’s posted on the internet will live on as a public record, and often try to adjust their content accordingly. Posts that depict their early lives may be part of their parent’s personal journey, but ultimately, those baby photos and funny toddler stories belong to them just as much, if not more.
Start the conversation: Have you ever found something embarrassing posted about you online? How did you handle it?
Song of the Week
“All My Life” by Lil Durk, ft. J. Cole: Reaching #1 on Apple, #2 on Billboard, and #4 on Spotify, this song is the lead single from Lil Durk’s new album “Almost Healed.” With an uplifting chorus about persevering through difficulty, the song is about Lil Durk’s attempt to reform his life and change his image, at one point urging kids to “stop trying to take drugs” because of his own negative experiences with them. J. Cole’s verse continues a reflection on the difficulty and fragility of life, as well as the need for humility in the face of it. The rappers have released an explicit version and a censored version of the song. For the full lyrics, click here (language).
Finding an archive of your early childhood online can be embarrassing for a number of reasons. For one thing, it violates a principle that Gen Z holds quite dear: their ability to have autonomy over how they present themselves, especially online. Much about this desire is normal and natural; in many ways, God made us to become more independent and self-determined as we grow older. But in our modern world, “self-expression” is now often regarded as less of a preference and more of a right, ranking with other modern notions like the right to “speak your truth,” and the right to completely reinvent yourself in any manner and at any moment.
The problem with these self-focused modern virtues is, as Alan Jacobs wrote in his book “How To Think,” that no one ever truly thinks for themselves: “When people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.'” In other words, “thinking for yourself” usually means to stop thinking with one group of people and to start thinking with another group. For some Gen Zers, that second group ends up being the collective of online influencers. How ironic that autonomy over online representation could look like hawking products the way so many others have.
As uncomfortable as it may be to find that our parents (or even friends) have posted embarrassing footage of us online, the desire for pure and total autonomy about how we represent ourselves and who we are can’t be fulfilled, because it does not exist. And in the end, total control over our “personal brand” is downright exhausting. (Look no further than the small library of emerging research on the harms of social media for proof.) Insisting on our own uniqueness or chasing the idea that only we control our image is a fruitless pursuit. But Christians can gladly lay this burden down; after all, we serve the God who said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.”
Here are some questions to spark conversation with your teens:
- Do you agree that “thinking for yourself” usually just means to stop thinking with one group and start thinking with another group? Why or why not?
- Do you agree that pure and total autonomy does not exist? Why or why not?
- What do you think Jesus meant in John 15:5?