Since the mid-1990s a powerful, addictive drug has been circulating among our nation’s population with its availability and influence increasing every year. While its earliest use was almost exclusively limited to adults, today children as young as preschool have become users—and teens everywhere are already hooked.
Their drug of choice is a smartphone. Their enabler may be you.
If you’re a parent, teacher, or youth group leader (frankly, if you’ve walked down a sidewalk lately), you’re aware: seeing a teenager without a smartphone in hand is about as rare as sighting Bigfoot—and nearly as shocking.
Behind Every Number Is an Image Bearing Teen
Depending on your proximity to teens, you may not need data to confirm that they’re growing increasingly addicted to their phones. You know it because you’ve seen it. But if you find yourself a little skeptical, the data from a 2018 Pew Research Center survey has an alarming story to tell.
- Ninety-five percent of teens surveyed had access to a smartphone.
- Fifty-four percent of teens self-reported that they spend too much time on their cell phones.
- Seventy-two percent said they check for messages or notifications as soon as they get up in the morning.
- About forty percent said they feel anxious or uneasy when away from their phone.
- Fifty-six percent reported that the absence of their phone led to at least one of the following feelings: loneliness, being upset, or feeling anxious.
- Forty-five percent reported being online on a near-constant basis.1
These statistics are from 2018, two years before the pandemic brought everything from school to youth group to driver’s education online.
With social media apps like Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, and others driving phone usage in the teen and young adult demographic, even the editors at the website Teen Vogue admit there is a problem. Britney McNamara opened a 2021 article on social media addiction this way:
We’ve seen studies for years telling us that social media can be bad for our mental health, but more than likely, we didn’t really need research to know that. Many of us have experienced the mental drain that comes with scrolling endlessly through social media—and worse, feeling like we can’t stop even when it’s noticeably bringing us down.2
Teens know they have a problem; they have no idea (and in most cases, no desire) how to do anything about it. For parents, admittedly, the problem feels just as insurmountable.
Relationship Status: It’s Complicated
Full disclosure—my interest in the relationship between young people and their phones goes deeper than research for an article. Like many parents, my husband and I push against its effects every day in our own home. But we have an additional window into the lives of kids as we minister to them in the Christian school where he serves as administrator and I have the privilege of directing the junior high and high school choirs.
A fabric chart with thirty pockets hangs in each secondary classroom at our school, where students are supposed to deposit their phones at the beginning of class. In the music room, rare is the student who walks in and does it every day without a reminder. (Ask me about students “secretly” trying to use their phones behind their choir music. Sigh.) At the first mention of free time comes the question:
“Can we get our phones?”
When the answer is yes, they’re scrolling within seconds. Their bodies remain in our classroom—bright and cheerful, filled with music, even if a little cluttered and chaotic at times— while their minds and hearts slowly fade into the shadows that fall over their faces as they step into what seems like another world.
We’ve been a part of this ministry for almost eight years now, and here’s the headline: the tweens and teens today are noticeably different than they were when we first walked through these doors. They’re not necessarily more sinful, more rebellious, or more rambunctious. (There’s nothing new under the sun, right?) Instead, they’re more anxious. More depressed. More easily distracted. More apathetic. More self-focused. They’re sad, angry, manic, oblivious, withdrawn, and everything in between.
A recent study of eight thousand high school students yielded sobering results. As an article in The Atlantic reported,
From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent, according to a new CDC study. This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.3
The same study found that more than a quarter of teenage girls seriously contemplated committing suicide during the course of the pandemic. Doctors are reporting an “unrelenting surge” in children and teens who need to be hospitalized because of mental health crises such as suicidal ideation.4 It’s commonplace now for teens to miss multiple weeks of school because of stress-related physical and emotional ailments.
Friends, our kids are not well.
Are their problems exclusively because of phones and social media? Likely not. COVID has been no small stressor, of course, and the consequences of man’s fall into sin rage on. Still, multiple veins of research suggest a strong correlation.5 Writer Derick Thompson agrees, closing his article in The Atlantic this way:
Social media places in every teen’s pocket a quantified battle royal for scarce popularity that can displace hours of sleep and makes many teens, especially girls, feel worse about their body and life. Amplify these existing trends with a global pandemic and an unprecedented period of social isolation, and suddenly, the remarkable rise of teenage sadness doesn’t feel all that mysterious, does it?6
Perhaps nothing I’ve said so far has been a shock to you, but consider this: if secular media is telling us the consequences are dire for kids who spend too much time on their phones, then to borrow a line from the movie Home Alone, “If Uncle Frank says it’s bad, it must be really bad.”
Physical and emotional consequences are no laughing matter, but as Christians our greater concern should be the spiritual implications of near constant online engagement. This deeper danger is exceedingly subtle; its consequences are severe.
A Deeper Danger
At this point you might be expecting a treatise on the evils of pornography. (It is.) Or a word of caution on how “exvangelical” influencers are trying to convince the young adults in your home and church to abandon the faith. (They are.) Harmful though these ills may be, my bigger concern for the TikTok generation, and particularly its young women, is this: near-constant immersion of their minds and hearts in a worldview that stands in complete opposition to God’s Word . . . a worldview that celebrates the things that break God’s heart.
Is social media the enemy? Of course not. You could be reading my words because social media brought you here. But by and large the messages that our kids receive on their phones crash like waves upon the shoreline of their hearts, eroding whatever healthy soil there is a little more with every swell. That’s why we need to fortify their hearts with God’s Word.
Social Media vs. Scripture: A Tale of Two Narratives
The content our kids interact with online is not neutral. It’s either promoting a worldview that’s in line with or in opposition to the Bible. Of course there are Christian content creators who are faithfully proclaiming God’s Word and putting truth in front of teens, but generally speaking . . .
Social media says: Follow the influencers. You need what they have.
Scripture says: Follow Jesus. He’s given you everything you need (and by the way, they need it too!) (2 Cor. 9:8).
Social media says: “Likes” equal love.
Scripture says: Love laid down His life for you (John 15:13).
Social media says: You do you.
Scripture says: You were bought with a price and are loved with an everlasting love; glorify God with your body, and love Him with your heart, soul, and mind (1 Cor. 6:20; Jer. 31:3; Matt. 22:37).
Social media says: God is a joke.
Scripture says: God is my rock (Psalm 18:2).
The average teen in the United States is deeply immersed in the first set of messages as they use screen-based entertainment eight to nine hours a day.7 Our kids need us to help them put down their phones and stay anchored to the Rock.
Social Media Q & A
As parents, we are cautious about where we would willingly drop off our sons or daughters, unsupervised, in a large city (if we would drop them off at all). Yet how often do we even take the time to ask good questions about what our teens are doing, seeing, and experiencing when we release them curbside on the “it” app of the hour? Do we ask:
- What do you enjoy watching/reading/doing there?
- Whom do you follow? People you know? Strangers? Celebrities?
- Who follows you?
- Do you use it to communicate? How? By commenting? Sending private messages? What kind of messages do you receive?
- How often do you see content that makes you feel upset?
- When you finally close the app, do you usually feel happy? Sad? Fulfilled? Empty? Do you feel good about who God created you to be?
- Do you see things you know you shouldn’t watch or read? What do you do when that happens?
- How much time do you spend on TikTok, Snapchat, or Instagram? How about on your phone as a whole?
Or for a good conversation starter, try this question: what do you see or whom do you follow that builds you up in your faith, that points you to Jesus, or that causes you to praise God? If your child can’t come up with an answer, it’s probably a sign that a conversation about stepping back from use or finding new ways to engage is warranted.
At this point it bears mentioning that before we can have an honest conversation with our kids about their media use, we first need to ask the questions above of ourselves. Are we modeling healthy phone and media usage? Are we practicing what we’re about to preach?
No parent I know would allow their child to step out into the city streets without questioning, coaching, and a healthy dose of warning. We owe our kids the same when sending them out to be immersed in an online culture that will do everything it can to attempt to take apart, brick by brick, the solid foundation we spend each day trying to build.
Point Their Eyes to Jesus
Fellow parents, teachers, mentors, youth leaders: there is no discipleship void when it comes to the current generation of tweens and teens . . . they’re being discipled by someone.
Either we’re discipling them or their smartphones are. We do not have the luxury of being complacent.
The task ahead may include intense conversations, difficult decisions, and perhaps playing the “bad cop” in their story for a time, but we must stop feeding our children’s compulsion simply because the problem feels insurmountable. We need to constantly point them to Jesus, getting truth into their ears and in front of their eyes at every opportunity. Only God’s Word has the power to drown out the crashing gongs and clanging cymbals of this world with His wondrous, glorious love.
Because He is enough. He is the only thing that satisfies.
While we’re on the subject of teens, did you know there’s a Teen Track at True Woman ’22? Get all of the details and join us in Indianapolis September 22–24! We’d love to see you and your teen girl there! Register today at TrueWoman22.com.
1 Monica Anderson and Jingjing Jiang, “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech (Pew Research Center, May 27, 2021), https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-tec
2 Brittney McNamara, “Social Media Isn't Just Addictive - It's Addictive by Design,” Teen Vogue, November 10, 2021, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/the-science-behind-social-medias-hold-on-our-mental-health.
3 Derek Thompson, “Why American Teens Are so Sad,” The Atlantic (Atlantic Media Company, April 14, 2022), https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2022/04/american-teens-sadness-depression-anxiety/629524/.
4 Greg Adaline, “‘An Unrelenting Surge’: Doctors Report More Kids and Teens Hospitalized for Mental Health Crises during Pandemic,” https://www.wistv.com, accessed March 25, 2022, https://www.wistv.com/2022/02/10/an-unrelenting-surge-doctors-report-more-kids-teens-hospitalized-mental-health-crises-during-pandemic/.
5 Shoukat, Sehar. “Cell Phone Addiction and Psychological and Physiological Health in Adolescents.” EXCLI journal. Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors, February 4, 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6449671/.
6 Thompson, “Why American Teens Are so Sad”
7 “The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens, 2021” (Common Sense Media, March 9, 2022), http://api.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/research/report/8-18-census-integrated-report-final-web_0.pdf.