To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Every year on Valentine’s Day, the age-old question seems to feel a bit more urgent: Does anybody out there really love me?
According to Nancy Jo Sales’ harrowing book, American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, an overwhelming majority of young females in our country are looking to their flat screens in search of answers.
Sales spent two years talking at length to more than 200 girls, ages 13-19, in ten different states. With their permission, she followed what they posted on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and Vine.
What she discovered is no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the youth scene over the past 15 years: Social media has become a dominant force in how girls make up their minds about their bodies, their relationships, and their very identity.
“We’re on it 24/7,” said one 13-year-old. “It’s all we do.” That may not be literally true. But digital culture is where all too many girls (as the apostle Paul once said about relating to God) “live, move, and have our being.”
“It’s like someone constantly tapping you on the shoulder, and you have to look,” said another teen. My phone just dinged. Who texted me? Who likes and who hates the picture I posted 20 minutes ago? Where are my friends right now, and what are they doing? Who’s having fun without me? Do the guys at my school think I’m Hot or Not?
“It’s an extraordinary new reality, and it’s happened so fast,” writes Sales. “For the first time [almost all] American girls are engaged in the same sort of activity most of the time.”
Girls may exchange more than 300 texts a day. Sociologists hesitate to use the word addictive when it comes to technology, but numerous smart phone users cannot imagine life without their devices.
The most poignant aspect of social media is the way it has become the primary means of shaping one’s identity – essentially, inventing and sustaining a personal brand.
There’s a lot at stake.
Have you gotten a few hundred likes today for your most recent selfie? “You’re gorgeous!” “What a fox!” Or have you been thrown into the cyber purgatory of being rejected, ridiculed, or bullied? “You’re a pretender.” “Why don’t you just drink bleach and die?” All too many kids hear such messages from other kids in the unfiltered, uncensored, unimaginably painful world of social media “conversation.”
Self-esteem skyrockets or crashes based on a few numbers: Do my social media accounts and postings have as many followers and likes as everyone else I know?
Sales points out that most girls are conscious of the sheer phoniness of this system of ranking and rating. After all, everyone knows that everyone else is posting primarily the highlight reel of their lives. “It’s funny it’s called a selfie,” said a girl named Riley, “because half the time it doesn’t even look like you.” Girls can purchase apps that allow them to change their physical features (often to hypersexualize them) before they hit Send. “You want people to like this picture of you that isn’t even real.”
And if you don’t get as many likes as you like, you can always buy them. Anxious moms, in particular, might go online and anonymously purchase hundreds of fabricated likes to help their daughters have a better day. Social media, for many, thus becomes a never-ending exercise in impression management.
Psychologists have long spoken of the phenomenon of the Looking-Glass Self. It goes like this: We tend to think of ourselves according to the way we think the most important person in our lives thinks of us.
If you yearn more than anything else in the world to be loved or respected by a parent, a teacher, a friend, or a lover, you are giving that person incredible power over your sense of well-being. If that person turns on you or betrays you – or perhaps worst of all, acts as if your existence doesn’t even matter – you will be crushed. If a teenage girl longs for the attention of her peer group or a special boy, but receives only rejection, she may begin to see herself as a Non-Entity. As a Person of No Value. As Irreparably Damaged.
But there’s another way to go.
If the Looking-Glass Self tells us that our identity is linked to how we perceive the thoughts and feelings of the person we most admire, then our self-image can be healed as we begin to shape our lives around the reality of Jesus’ love. He will never betray or reject us. He will never dismiss us with Dislikes or Unfriends. It’s impossible to overstate the power of Romans 8:38-39: “I am convinced that nothing – not death nor life nor angels nor demons nor the present nor the future nor height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation – absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is a love that never fails.
Finally, there’s a sense in which the obsession of keeping up with every new flat screen communication is deeply ironic. It’s often driven by FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out.
The irony is that social media fixation really can cause us to miss out:
We miss out on taking walks.
And reading books.
And learning how to read body language.
And developing a rich interior life.
And being fully present, right here and right now.
And being still and knowing that God is God.
Mostly we miss out on waking up every morning with the deep assurance that even if no one says they liked our most recent post, we are loved and treasured beyond all reason by the God who created us and sustains us.
Which turns out to be a Valentine like no other.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.