When thinking about the internet, social media in particular, the Roman road analogy is useful. Built with the nefarious intent to move Roman armies to conquer the known world, the infrastructure nevertheless enabled much good, especially the spread of the Gospel.
Roman armies designed and built roads primarily to move their armies throughout the ancient world to conquer and subjugate people and nations. The road system was a remarkable feat of engineering, using concrete made with volcanic ash and with an elevated surface of tightly packed cut stones, cambered for drainage. Markers — milestones — placed every 1,000 steps allowed army commanders to keep track of their progress. These paved roads stretched more than 50,000 miles, longer than the U.S. Interstate Highway system, crisscrossing Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Many of those roads survive to this day, having long outlasted the empire whose imperialism prompted their construction.
The roads built for armies also expanded commerce and travel. More significantly, Christian missionaries used the roads to carry the Good News of salvation to the lost. The apostle Paul and fellow missionaries traveled countless miles on those roads in their missionary journeys. The Roman Empire is long gone, but the church thrives two millennia after the empire that built the roads.
Engineering a connection
In our day, another extraordinary feat of engineering, the internet, connects people around the world, with an estimated 4.5 billion users worldwide, most through social media.
Facebook is the most popular platform, with 2.7 billion active users, including 1.6 billion daily users. YouTube has 2 billion active users, followed by WhatsApp (owned by Facebook), Facebook Messenger, WeChat (Chinese mobile app) and Instagram (also owned by Facebook). Each of these six platforms has more than 1 billion active users. Other platforms — TikTok, Snapchat, Reddit, Twitter and Pinterest — have hundreds of millions of active users.
Unlike the Roman roads, which were built over hundreds of years, social media has reached every corner of the globe in less than a generation. But like the Roman roads, social media can be a useful means for carrying out the Great Commission — provided users are informed of the pitfalls.
Social media dangers
Social media is an insidious thief, stealing from Christian families barely aware it is happening. It robs families of the time and attention that belong to one another. The theft is intentional; social media deliberately breaks down our intellectual filters, making us susceptible to advertising pitches and ideological manipulation, and drawing us ever deeper into its clutches.
That may be a tough pill to swallow for adults who enjoy the blessings of social media. Christians use social media for mutual encouragement and admonition, sharing Scriptures and devotions, and celebrating milestones in the lives of loved ones. During the pandemic, churches have taken advantage of social media — Facebook and YouTube in particular — for online worship services, proclaiming God’s Law and Gospel directly into the homes of parishioners when in-person worship is not feasible.
But social media’s stealth means followers of Christ must be discerning.
Attentive parents have long been aware of the dangers of social media to their children, thanks in part to studies that came out a decade ago revealing the risks: online predators, peer pressure, bullying and pornography. But adults may be less conscious of ways in which they are personally being manipulated by social media. Parents have a responsibility to monitor and limit not only their children’s access to social media but their own.
Christian parents in particular should remember their high calling as parents, which is above all other vocations in their lives. Martin Luther wrote: “To the position of fatherhood and motherhood God has given special distinction above all positions that are beneath it” (LC I 105). The emerging phenomenon of social media has created a new obstacle to parents living out that vocation.
A social dilemma
In the eye-opening August 2020 Netflix docu-drama “The Social Dilemma,” former social media executives, engineers and product designers reveal how intrusive and manipulative social media are and warn users to beware:
- “What I want people to know is that everything they’re doing online is being watched, is being tracked. Every single action you take is carefully monitored and recorded.” — Entrepreneur Jeff Seibert
- “Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers.” — Justin Rosenstein, former engineer for Google and Facebook
- “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.” — Jaron Lainer, computer scientist and author of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
The intrusion is more subtle than other forms of advertising. The more time someone spends on social media, the more tailored the platforms evolve to match a user’s interests and opinions, reinforcing their confirmation biases and stroking their egos, pulling them back more frequently and holding their attention longer.
Social media engineers design highly sophisticated algorithms to track every “like,” every emoji, every click, every scroll, every comment to determine what content to feed users — in the appropriately named “news feed.” The algorithms even track whether one scrolls past certain content or pauses a moment to look.
The problem accelerated in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of Americans to work from home. The pandemic has been a boon to social media companies and their advertisers. Multiple studies found a spike in use of social media directly traceable to the move toward telework. A Harris poll in May 2020 found that in just the first two months after the outbreak began more than half of U.S. adults reported using social media more, with the increase highest (64%) among those aged 35–49, followed by those aged 18–34 (60%). Subsequent surveys confirmed the findings.
Adults aren’t the only ones being forced to work from home and lured to social media. With schools across the U.S. moving to virtual classrooms at least part of the time, children also have more opportunities to engage in social media platforms, with less awareness of the peril than their parents.
Parenting in a social media age
It’s not surprising, then, that two-thirds of parents surveyed by the Pew Research Center said parenting is harder today than it was 20 years ago, naming technology as the chief culprit. The July 2020 report revealed that the two top reasons given for the increased difficulty in parenting were technology in general (26%) and social media (21%). Both these were cited more than “changing morals, [and] more violence and drugs.” Parents also cited more device distractions (screen time), smartphones, cyber bullying and online predators.
The Pew survey also found that 71% of parents are very concerned (31%) or somewhat concerned (40%) that their children spend too much time in front of screens.
Despite those fears, the majority of parents allow their children to have smartphones and allow them to use social media, according to the Pew survey. Nearly a quarter of parents, 22%, say it’s acceptable to give smartphones to children age 11 or younger, and another 45% say it’s acceptable for children aged 12–14.
Fortunately, a large majority (86%) of parents of children age 5 to 11 say they limit the time of day or length of time their children can use screens. Three-quarters of parents of children in the 5–11 age group who are allowed access to the internet say they check the websites their children visit and the mobile apps they use. But 25% do not monitor their children’s screen time.
Parents also admitted that their own phone use can get in the way of spending quality time with their children; 68% said they are sometimes or often distracted by their smartphones during family time.
Recognizing the dangers, many Christian parents have chosen to eliminate screens altogether from their households. Others allow but monitor their children’s use. But too many adults fail to monitor their own habits, spending an inordinate amount of time on social media, scrolling through posts for hours, feeding the platform more data to make the experience even more addictive.
God’s Word instructs us: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8–9).
The vocations of marriage and parenting require Christian adults to beware of all threats to their households. That must include awareness of the subtle hazards inherent in social media, and to strictly monitor their children’s use. It also means Christians should make an honest assessment of their own online habits. For most, that means curtailing their time in front of the screen for the sake of their families. And all Christians on social media must use it to serve and build up others (Eph. 4:29).
“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.”1 Thess. 5:11