Seeing the Deeper Longings Behind Teenagers and Social Media
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On a fundamental level, most of us who serve or parent teenagers would agree we want to walk with them in the complexities of technology from a place of loving compassion and empathy.
And yet, so often our gut response to students’ constant use of their phones, and particularly their affinity for social media, is exasperation and frustration. “Get off your phone!” comes out of my mouth more often than I’d like to admit. I really do want them to get off their phone when they’re at youth group, but there are better ways of engaging with them about it.
I serve and lead students more faithfully when I step back, empathize, and consider the “why” behind their phone use in any given moment. There is often more than mindless scrolling going on, and it’s on me to discover if there are deeper reasons a student is spending so much time on social media.
Engagement online tells us about searching in real time
To zoom out for a minute, let’s talk about adolescence and some core ideas about this life stage.
Adolescence as a developmental stage has long been about answering three core questions:
- Who am I?
- Where do I belong?
- What power and influence do I have?
Or as FYI likes to sum it up, teens are grappling with their identity, belonging, and purpose.
This set of questions is not particularly new. Teens have also long fostered a world apart from adults. For generations, older adults have lamented how things have changed since “I was your age,” and what “kids these days” are doing or not doing. On top of that familiar tension, increasingly in the last twenty or so years, adults in every arena expect teens to act a certain way, whether in class, on the field, on stage, at work, at home, or at church. In response, teens seek “hidden” spaces to connect, away from adults telling them who or how to be—spaces like the cafeteria, the mall, or the football game.
What is new is that both this search for identity, belonging, and purpose and this world apart from adults are largely taking place online, in spaces like social media. Many of us are already aware spaces like Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube can be platforms for exploring young people’s big questions. They are platforms which let people try on different persona, express their voice, or find a resonant online community—perhaps especially when belonging may be hard to find in person.
Yet social media is also a primary space where teens connect away from adults. This is evident even in recent social media usage trends among teens. Among my own youth group, I have noticed students hardly ever use Facebook, and even their Instagram use is becoming rare. I asked some students about this, and they said primarily they send Snapchats to their friends, and if they use Instagram they mostly use their “finsta” not their “public”.
(Translation note: a “finsta” or fake-Insta(gram) is a private account typically limited to a much smaller circle of friends. This is usually more unfiltered content and can ironically be a more authentic expression of self, despite being the “fake” account. The “public” or “real” Instagram account often has a much higher number of followers, and posts are more carefully curated.)
This hunch was confirmed by PEW research’s recent study on teen (13-17) social media usage. They found YouTube is the most popular online platform among teens, with Instagram and Snapchat close behind (Facebook and Twitter took spots 4 and 5 respectively). YouTube is slightly different in that it is both a place to post and connect, as well as a place to take in content, serving as the TV or Netflix equivalent for many teens. So setting YouTube aside, according to Pew’s survey 72% of teens currently use Instagram and 69% use Snapchat. When asked which platform they use most often, Snapchat was the winner.
Students are increasingly turning to social media in search of connection. We can see this in the rise of platforms which allow them to connect in more private ways, along with the declining use of more adult-saturated platforms like Facebook and Twitter. While many adults are concerned about teens using private message apps (and for valid reasons), for many young people the reason for this trend is not primarily to send illicit messages. Rather, it is—as teens have always wanted—to connect with each other without adult eyes watching. Nowadays even Facebook and (public) Instagram accounts have become overloaded with adults. It’s like having your grandpa, your soccer coach, your youth leader, and your mom all sitting in the cafeteria with you and your friends, listening to or even jumping into your conversations.
When I was their age … I wouldn’t have wanted that, either.
At this point, you may be shouting, “But that’s not real connection!” This is both true and untrue. As digital immigrants, many of us underestimate the very real connection and social power of these platforms. People are authentically expressing themselves, and finding deep, meaningful connections with others online—sometimes more than in-person spaces. We should be careful not to undermine or trivialize this.
On the other hand, there is definitely a unique significance to physical, in-person connections. Even our students know this, and many long for better, deeper, more frequent in-person connections. But they struggle to know how.
Help students form connections offline
When we stop and dig a little deeper into why students may be on their phones or constantly on social media platforms, we can go beyond “get off your phone!” and better address the real longing.
- Are they turning to their phone for belonging because they don’t find it in the people sitting next to them right now?
- Is an online platform a safer place for authentic expression of identity?
- Are they connecting with people who can relate to them?
- Are they scrolling out of boredom or a desire to procrastinate? (Because let’s be honest, avoiding homework is also nothing new.)
At some point, students are probably using social media for each of these reasons and more! We will still set limits and ask them to get off their phones sometimes, but it may look different when we recognize that the request is like saying it’s time to come home from hanging out with friends.
When we step back and look beyond the scrolling, we can better lead, support, and empathize with our students and their technology habits. We can better guide and nurture them by assessing what the true need or desire is at any given time.
This is complex terrain for all of us. Smartphones and social media bring a complexity to adolescence that none of us had to grow up with like today’s teens. On the other hand, the core questions of identity, belonging, and purpose are universal, beyond cultural or technological trends. When we remember this, looking at the heart behind some of our teens’ social media habits, we can bridge our differences and meet them where they truly need us.