More than 70% percent of American adults use social media every day.[i] Teens consume nine hours of entertainment media (this does not include education-related media) per day. And, likewise, tweens consume six hours per day.

A study of social media usage last year (2022) reveals that UK adults spend an average of 2 hours per day on Facebook. Instagram is the second most popular social media app, especially amongst Gen-Z users, who spend almost 1.5 hours per day on the site. Tiktok is also favored by younger adults who spend 1.25 hours per day on the app.[ii]

Medical research reveals scrolling on our phones releases dopamine in the brain, which can negatively affect impulse control.[iii] Every smartphone owner knows the cycle of repeatedly tapping, checking, and scrolling.

According to Pew Research, YouTube is the most commonly used online platform asked about in this survey, and there’s evidence that its reach is growing. Fully 81% of Americans say they ever use the video-sharing site, up from 73% in 2019.

When asked about their social media use more broadly—rather than their use of specific platforms – 72% of Americans say they ever use social media sites. In a pattern consistent with past Center studies on social media use, there are some stark age differences. Some 84% of adults ages 18 to 29 say they ever use any social media sites, which is similar to the share of those ages 30 to 49 who say this (81%). By comparison, a somewhat smaller share of those ages 50 to 64 (73%) say they use social media sites, while fewer than half of those 65 and older (45%) report doing this.[iv]

Biblical Discipleship, Fighting Temptation, and Using Social Media

Social media presents real challenges to people who are enslaved to pornography and to fighting temptation. We live in an age when screens compete for our attention from the minute we wake up. Updates abound, feeds fill up with news, and information is always at the tips of our fingers.

Since social media began to explode into society, I have watched controversy after controversy unfold over opinions, news stories, and rumors, some of which have resulted in full-on character assaults. This isn’t something merely happening out there in the world; it’s also happening within Christian spheres. We, however, have an opportunity to be light in a world marred by confusion and division. Yes, we too are divided, but we know the end of the story and can begin to work toward that end—toward unity and peace.

So, how do we share our convictions, passions, and differing opinions, and still maintain brotherly love and affection? We start by naming the problems and then praying for gospel solutions. Here are four problems in our struggle with internet controversy in the Christian life.

Our Passions Wage War

We often quarrel because we want something we don’t have. Perhaps we want others to view us as right and wise. Or we want to change others’ opinions…so we fight. Or we want someone to take action…so we threaten. James addresses this tendency with a rhetorical question: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1). Passions can cause us to react, and—as is common on social media—passionate reactions far removed from the matter under discussion often lead to sin.

Controversies Involve Real People

Because online discussion doesn’t involve our physical presence, it is easy to forget the human aspect of the internet. In other words, we forget there is a person behind that blog entry, article, or social media post. That person is made in the image of God, regardless of his standing before God. As Christians, we have a responsibility to love that person (Luke 6:27-36). That doesn’t mean we have to agree with him, but the way we respond will reveal whether we uphold his God-given dignity.

What makes this difficult is that we often don’t want to love the individual on the other side of the internet discussion. Remember, our passions are waging war. But God’s Word is clear: we are called to love. Did Jesus really say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)? That blogger you disagree with, the one who holds an opinion that is dramatically different from yours, and who mentioned you by name in a disparaging way—yes, even that person is to be shown the love of Christ.

Do you view the person behind the screen as a person made in the image of God? Or is it easier to share your thoughts in a tone that is rash, harsh, or unkind because the other person is far off? Love isn’t an option for the Christian—it’s a command (Matthew 22:39). And this is true even when the other person is interacting with us digitally.

Many Words

Studies have shown that people can speak an average of twenty thousand words per day. That’s an enormous amount of words. But with the advent of social media, the number of words we take in and send out is likely only increasing.

When many of these words give rise to warring passions around volatile topics, they can lead us to sin. As Solomon noted, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.” Fortunately, he continues, “Whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19). We must be prudent and aware that when we share our many words on the internet, there’s a possibility that sin is present. This should help us pause and subsequently move us to measure and ask questions about our words: (1) Is our opinion needed? (2) Is what we are sharing helpful? (3) Does our post/tweet/update build up or tear down?

Busybodies

Social media tempts us to be busybodies and gossips. The internet makes this incredibly easy. I’m constantly aware of things I would not be aware of if it weren’t for Facebook or Twitter. As Christians, we must ask questions about what we are reading—namely: does it pertain to us and the mission to which God has called us? If not, we are idlers, gossips, and busybodies when we engage with such topics and controversies (1 Timothy 5:13). Don’t let the controversy of the day distract you from the great mission of the church—to share the gospel and make disciples of all nations.

A Fresh Start

Perhaps you realize that you’ve failed miserably in your online interactions. Please know that you’re not alone, for most of us engaged with social media have made the mistakes above. I know I have.

The good news for you and me is that Jesus forgives and purifies (1 John 1:9). Yesterday’s mistake doesn’t have to be today’s. The grace available to us through our Lord applies to our online sin just as much as it does to our offline sin. We can repent and be forgiven, and—whether face-to-face with others or interacting on social media—we can live for the glory of the Lord. Here’s five helpful points to help us navigate social media well.

One: The Temptation to Create a False Identity

It can be so alluring, can’t it? Presenting ourselves in exactly the way we want to, highlighting only our successes, and not having people see the parts of our lives that we wish to remain hidden. Social media “communities” can feel like a replacement for true, biblical community. With a few keystrokes, a person can see exactly (and only!) what I want them to see. However, they don’t live with me. They don’t see me in person. As active as I may be online, I’m not in full community with readers of my tweets and posts.

New Testament instructions for Christian community indicate a genuineness that can only come most fully from regularly gathering in person. The little lighted rectangle-shaped device I hold in my hand, or stare at on my desk, however, can be a tool I use to allow me to think I am being authentic, when– in reality—I am not. For the Christian, most of our coveted followers will not visit us when we are sick. They will not know when we sinned. They won’t join us at the Lord’s Supper table, and they won’t regularly be the recipients of a well-deserved apology when our sin is on display.

While having online “friends” and social media profiles is not sinful, it can lead a person to think that relational responsibility and accountability only extend to what he or she wants to share. Therefore, perceptions can seem to feel like reality. One way to avoid this temptation is to ask yourself whether you are truly known outside of what you let others see of you on social media. A follow up question would be to ask yourself if people only knew you through your online persona, how accurate would their knowledge of you be? To be clear, I don’t advise sharing everything about yourself online. Far from it! Rather, I am saying that we can be deceived, or deceive others if our main identity with others is our “profile”.

It can also be so tempting to develop an idol of “likes”. It feels good when family, friends, or a well-known person likes our Facebook posts, tweets, or Instagram posts. If we are not careful, this can become an addiction: Who likes me? Who wants to interact with me? Will they notice if I say this or that? In that moment, we take center stage, and the Lord of glory is forgotten. Social media can tempt us to create a false identity and/or an idolatry of self. Thus, careful and regular self-examination is extremely helpful.

Two: The Temptation to Break the 9th Commandment

Next, there is the reality that social media makes it very easy, in some ways, to be openly or subtly dishonest. But we must ask, “How many ways is the ninth commandment (‘thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor’) broken every day through social media?” For some, typing out tweets, Facebook posts, blog posts, etc., make it easy to slander others. We can write whatever we want about someone—for the entire world to see—without even having to look that person in the eye. At other times, social media provides an inadvertent outlet for participating in the trafficking of falsehood.

Because of the brevity of our postings, it is nearly impossible to get, or communicate, the full truth about anything. We read someone else’s tweet, we “heart” it or “like” it, then retweet it, or respond favorably to it without even doing the research we need to do to know whether it is completely accurate. I can read or listen to information on a church, or minister, or theologian online in 280 or more characters and pass judgment, and then share that judgment with the world. Do I really think that 280 characters shared among my online community is typically sufficient to accurately portray a person’s intent, character, or even theology? We ought to ask ourselves regularly, “Am I using social media with a view towards the 9th commandment?” It has increasingly occurred to me that it is too easy to intentionally, or (often) unintentionally malign someone simply by assuming, based on a few words, that I know the sum total of another’s thoughts, such that I know enough to comment. As believers, we must rejoice in truth as we have a God of truth.

Three: The Temptation to Be Idle

The book of Proverbs is a must read for the social media user. Consider the regularity with which that part of God’s Word speaks to idleness or wasting time: Proverbs 14:23; 15:19-21; 20:13; 24:30-34; 26:11-16; 31:10-15, 27. Is the amount of time that the average Christian spends on social media of true and lasting value? Does it build up fellow believers? Is it a worthy use of the time that the Lord has granted us? “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23). Of course, recreation is good. Of course, connecting with friends can be of value. However, if we tallied up the hours we spend in online “socializing”, would it reveal that we, in fact, had been idle or even online busybodies?

Social media can sometimes keep us from mental focus. Some scientific studies reveal we are becoming addicted to the pings, chimes, and lights of our social media notifications. And we don’t just share our thoughts, we read others, and then the threads following their comments, and then we begin to check out what those individuals said elsewhere, and on and on it goes.

Meanwhile, the sun is going down on our days. Social media use doesn’t automatically mean a person is idle. But it can certainly be a temptation. I fear many will get to the end of their days and wish that their device had not occupied so much of their time. The little girl who wants to crawl up in her daddy’s lap, the son who wants to ask his mommy a question, the Bible passage that is there to be read, and the evangelistic conversation with the neighbor over yard work are all much more important than the next Twitter glance.

Four: The Temptation to Be Caught Up in Narratives

We have reduced many complex matters to short hashtags. While often helpful and a quick way to collate information, what our short little hashtags reveal is that we are, among other things, increasingly susceptible to narratives. We read a post, like it, and then participate in the narrative.

Political narratives (they are really a thing), ministry narratives, and ideological narratives abound. And the temptation is to boil down ideas, or even people, to a narrative. (i.e., if they say this or don’t say that, they fit this narrative that I’ve adopted). Are image bearers of God really reducible to simple tag lines and hashtags alone? Are complex ministry situations really able to be defined by a simple narrative (not to mention whether our narratives are honest, intentionally or unintentionally)? I don’t want to reduce someone to a narrative, a hashtag, or write off a brother or sister based on a few tweets.

A person’s view of his or her own local church may suffer as well from this temptation. Often, I have seen narratives (and good, well-meaning ones at that) become an expectation. For instance, a local church member spends time on social media, hears what a church across the country is doing, and then automatically assumes that their own church should be doing the same project as well.

This can become an unspoken way of judging a church, and all the while the Scripture’s spoken expectations for the church become marginalized. No longer is the focus on the local church and the ordinary means of grace (2LCF 14.1). Rather, a new panoply of narratives can be adopted that a biblical church must be a “mercy ministering, city-touching, race-reconciling, relevancy-considering, culture-touching, gender-highlighting, poverty-changing, justice-seeking, multi-ethnic” church.

Aside from whether these foci are the biblical mandates for the church, it is simply not possible for every context to take on all of these issues. However, social media tempts us into potentially downplaying what the Scriptures advocate regarding the local church, and instead adopting every new ministry narrative that comes our way. It also causes us to focus more on the state of the Church in the world than what God may be doing in our own local church—the church to which He has specifically called us. A helpful question here is, “Are my expectations, communication patterns, and interests the result of sifting through the Scriptures or are they narratives of the day?”

Five: The Temptation to Overvalue Our Own Words

Social media can tempt us to overvalue our own words. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2). We live in a day when the platform of social media tempts us at every turn to “have something to say.” We are constantly speaking our minds. And social media can make it awfully difficult to be a maturing listener.

A temptation in our usage of social media is to assume that we either need to say something about everything; that what we say is not only important, but of equal value (even if it is a subject of which we are ill-prepared to speak); or that our words are necessary. There is wisdom in restraint: “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27). In many ways, social media is a great tool and blessing. We can connect easily with so many. At our fingertips, we can have access to so much. And yet, if we are not discerning of ourselves, we can tend to assume that everything we think or say is necessary to put out on the internet.

So, is the answer to not use social media? Maybe for a few of us it really is. But for most, a better approach would be to regularly ask ourselves good questions about our own usage, and about how we are fighting the temptations that come with having the world at our fingertips.

It’s a verse that challenges me. It encourages me. In the midst of temptation, it gives me hope. 1 Corinthians 10:13 has been repeated so often in the fight against sin that sometimes I forget to pause and reflect upon each of the words:

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

While this verse is challenging, encouraging, and hopeful, most of all, I find this verse incredibly humbling. There’s one phrase in the verse that stops me in my tracks and makes me want to let out a long, deep sigh. It’s the part about whatever temptation I’m fighting being “common to man.”

Most days, I don’t view my temptations as common. In fact, I want people to understand how terribly uncommon my struggle is so that they’ll sympathize with me when I don’t take the way out provided. Secretly, I want to tell them my tale of woe as a means to escape the guilt of my own sinful choices.

I want people to understand just how incredibly difficult interacting with that one friend is, so I feel justified when I tell them that little tidbit of gossip. I must explain just how crazy busy my life is so that they’ll understand why I am always running late. I repeat again and again the difficult circumstances I’m facing to hide my grumbling and complaining under the guise of being authentic and real. The only thing I don’t want to tell people about my struggle is that it’s common.

The notion that whatever temptation comes knocking at my door is typical silences my inner justifications. My temptation isn’t special. My circumstances are not cause for disobedience. Others have faced this very thing and, by the Spirit, have faithfully endured. My pride protests, “Anyone facing this circumstance would give in!” But the Spirit faithfully reminds me that there’s a way of escape. By God’s grace, obedience is possible.

Whatever temptation you face, the power of Jesus is available to help. His Spirit is alive in you. God knows exactly what you can bear, and He’s actively arranging all the details of your life to provide a way out so you may endure. Whatever you face today is a common struggle. The grace He provides in the midst of the struggle will strengthen and protect you.

His commands are not burdens, but blessings. We can delight in the perfect law that gives freedom, knowing God’s Word is a lamp for our feet and a light to our path. Choose today to walk in His ways, trusting in His power to give you all you need to obey in every way.

References:

[i] https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/

[ii] https://www.uswitch.com/mobiles/screentime-report/

[iii] https://www.premierhealth.com/your-health/articles/health-topics/screen-addiction-affects-physical-and-mental-health#:~:text=Screen%20use%20releases%20dopamine%20in,negative%20impact%20of%20your%20life.

[iv] https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/04/07/social-media-use-in-2021/

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