Our Context Shapes Us
On a recent hike in Colorado’s famous Garden of the Gods, my brisk pace was halted by a tree. I saw it when I emerged from the woods: a solitary evergreen, jutting out of the expanse of red sandstone. On one side of the tree were all its limbs, all pointing decidedly to the east. The west side of the tree was barren, its gnarly and ringed trunk fully exposed. Like a Picasso painting, the evergreen did not grow straight, but rather in an incongruent spiral, curving unexpectedly this way and that. The exposure to daily and steady winds determined how this tree would grow.
The scene proclaims an obvious but often ignored truth: living things are shaped by their context.
This truth applies to you and me too. We are shaped by the winds that blow around us. In the age of the omnipresent smartphone, the wind that shapes us most is online. And to be more specific, the wind is social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tik Tok, Snapchat, and more.
Social Media Stats
More than 70% percent of American adults use social media every day.1 Teens consume nine hours of entertainment media (this does not include education-related media) a day. And tweens consume six hours a day.
A study of social media usage last year reveals that Americans spend an average of 58 minutes a day (or 325 hours a year) on Facebook. Instagram is the second most popular social media app, especially amongst Gen-Z users, who spend almost 53 minutes per day (or 297 hours a year) there. Snapchat is also favored by younger users who spend 50 minutes per day (277 hours a year) on the app.2
Medical research reveals scrolling on our phones releases dopamine in the brain, which can negatively affect impulse control.3 Every smartphone owner knows the cycle of repeatedly tapping, checking, and scrolling.
The Online World of Women and Girls
As a mom of four girls and a minister to women in the church over the last two decades, I am especially concerned about how social media is forming the females in my sphere (while, of course, it’s discipling the men and boys too).
These small, sinister social media squares are discipling us. They shape the way you and I and our daughters think about ourselves, our identity, and our worth. Like the wind that shapes the lone evergreen, the consumption for hours a day of media held in our hands is carving how we see humans, the meaning and value of life, and what ultimately matters. We don’t have to be conscious of it to be greatly affected by it.
In American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, author and journalist Nancy Jo Sales says:
"The online world isn’t the screen of innocent fun so many parents believe it to be. It’s a hypersexualized world where validation, acceptance, and worth are inexorably connected to sexual appeal and appetite."4
One thirteen-year-old girl Sales interviewed said, “No one cares about being smart anymore. If you’re beautiful, everyone will love you.” The battle for our girls’ well-being is real. The most followed women on Instagram include Ariana Grande, Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, and Katy Perry.5 Our girls are spending a lot of time soaking in sexualized images of women they admire and want to emulate. I’m not suggesting we allow them to follow only the Land’s End Instagram account with its turtlenecks and full-coverage swimsuits, but we must reckon with the truth that nine hours a day of media consumption is discipling our teens (and likely you and me too).
Reels Aren’t Real, but Their Impact Is
With our social context now primarily online, we are free to construct ourselves by curating the images and moments we love best. We can create an online persona that may or may not match who we are in real life. On social media, we have endless options of filters and photo editing features. We can craft our image digitally, championing the appearance of who we are above and beyond who we really, truly are.
What we’re actually like in real life matters less than how we project that image online.
And as we mindlessly scroll and subconsciously consume others’ reels—which are not real, but are edited and filtered just so—we are inevitably shaped by them. It’s inevitable that you and I and our girlfriends and daughters (and all our male counterparts too) will be taught, discipled, and shaped by the social media we consume. And the impact is not neutral.
We are made in the image of God, but online it’s not his image we behold.
The findings of multiple recent surveys6 reveal the following:
- Teenagers who use social media for more than 3 hours daily are more likely to experience mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, aggression, and antisocial behavior.
- We saw a 25% increase in suicide attempts among teenagers between 2009 and 2017, which is the same time frame during which all social media apps grew considerably.
- Social media use is related to disrupted and delayed sleep, which impacts overall mental well-being, depression, and memory loss.
- About half of all teens experience bullying on social media.
- High social media use increases feelings of loneliness while reducing time online helps people feel less lonely.
As we ingest images online, we remove ourselves from in-person relationships and support. As we scroll in our isolation, we experience FOMO (fear of missing out on what others are experiencing), we compare ourselves to others’ edited images, and we count likes and loves and wonder if we matter as much as the next avatar.
As I write this, I am about two weeks into a social media challenge with a dear friend who’s in her twenties. We’ve each agreed to visit our social media apps only twice a day. We also send a screenshot of our screen time each night before bed and our goal is to limit all phone use to two hours or less (I confess I am usually over this limit). Even though my friend and I are almost a generation apart, we are both reaping great rewards from keeping this sort of social media budget and accountability. I have personally seen my addiction to clicking social media icons almost disappear, I am more present with the people in my real life, and I am less anxious because I am not carrying the weight of the most recent online debate. It has been good for my soul.
While changing my habits has helped, I am aware that so much more health and wholeness awaits, as I turn to my Creator and Savior. We are made in the image of God, but online it’s not his image we behold. Online we behold the images of so many lesser gods: outward beauty, ability, sex, politics, power, materialism—so many crafted images of the good life. But these lesser gods do not satisfy. We look to them for meaning and significance and they crumble under their shiny facades. We are made to thrive bearing God’s image, not theirs.
To be well—to live according to how we were made—we must “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind” (Rom. 12:2). Social media shapes us from the outside in. But let’s ask the Holy Spirit who lives inside us to shape us from the inside out.
The promise of God is that as we “[behold] the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). This will happen. We will become more and more like our Lord the more and more we behold him.
“The Word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12) and “it is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63). The Spirit and his word can be powerful shaping influences in our lives, far more powerful and enduring than the false gods found on social media. But we must willingly place ourselves under their influence.
Will we insist on standing only in the gales of social media? Or will we invite the Spirit to breathe new life into us? Let us choose which current of wind we will daily allow to shape our branches, growth, and fruit.
Jen Oshman is the author of Cultural Counterfeits: Confronting 5 Empty Promises of Our Age and How We Were Made for So Much More.
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