I’m so thankful for the delete option when I’m second-guessing one of my social media posts. Surely I’m not alone. Perhaps it was the content of what you said or how you said it or the visual you attached, but haven’t we all put something out there we wish we hadn’t?
What’s true for adults is that much more true for our kids.
Social media add dimensions to communication that make it different from face-to-face interactions. Ignore the impact of those dimensions, and you and your child will say and do things you regret. Understand the virtual world’s challenges, however, and you and your child can turn them into catalysts for personal growth and developing stronger relationships.
Different from Regular Talk
Let’s consider three significant ways in which social media is different from face-to-face interaction.
First, some social media platforms are anonymous. You engage people you haven’t necessarily met personally and who you probably never will. Since their opinions affect you less than those of people you run into on a regular basis, you’re less careful with what you say to them online than you are in person.
Second, there isn’t immediate embodied feedback to tell you what effect your words and actions are having. When we talk directly to someone, we see how we’ve affected them when they smile, frown, look embarrassed, get upset, laugh, cry, keep talking, or turn and walk away. Social media keeps us blind to those effects by inserting spatial distance between people—and what’s out of sight is often out of mind.
Third, the feedback loop favors extremes. Humans want to know that they matter to others, that their thoughts and actions have some effect and are not meaningless. But how can you feel like you matter if you can’t see anyone else? You have to rely on indirect feedback through replies, comments, and emoji responses. But as one small person among billions clamoring for attention, you’ll have to stand out to get any response, which invites you to be provocative in what you say or do.
Agent for Good?
What might happen if you spent lots of time scrambling to garner the attention of online strangers, whose opinion of you wouldn’t affect your life at all? That’s a recipe for communicating things online you’d never say in person. And it’s a recipe just as tempting for your children as it is for you.
But it’s also one you can both use for good, in at least five ways.
1. Remember, nothing is hidden from God.
Our tendency to be less guarded on social media reminds us that we can keep no secrets from God. He sees everything that goes through your heart and mind, because he’s the one who searches both (Jer. 17:10; Rev. 2:23). What do you and your kids see in posts you later regret, or in embarrassing posts you merely avoid publishing? You see what God’s already seen. You’ve glimpsed the dark reality that lurks beneath the surface of every heart (Gen. 6:15; 8:21).
And it’s a good thing to become more transparent to yourself. It’s easy to live on this earth as if we can hide things from the Lord and from others. Social media removes some of the filters you maintain in face-to-face relationships, letting you see yourself a bit more honestly.
2. Do something positive with what you now see.
Help your children understand that in a dark world, it’s a gift from God to see more accurately. The powers of evil conspire with our sinful inclinations to keep us from seeing ourselves accurately (2 Cor. 4:4; Rom. 1:18).
Only the grace of God unmasks the ugliness inside of you so that you can repent (Rom. 2:4). When that mask drops, thank him for making you aware, then ask his forgiveness. You have nothing to lose. Nothing, not even indwelling sin, can separate you from him (Rom. 8:31–39). That secure embrace frees you to see what he sees, and to talk with him quickly and candidly about it.
3. Make efforts to change what you see.
It’s good for you to repent and be cleansed from sin, but that’s not the same as learning to love people well with your words. Since what you’re about to post is going to be read by other image-bearers of God, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how it might affect them.
Envision someone’s face and ask yourself: When they read my post, will they be helped, encouraged, challenged, or better off by what I said? Or might they be hurt, discouraged, disheartened, upset, or tempted to believe that evil is good or vice versa?
4. Remember, there are no secrets on the internet.
Remind your children of this point. They need to understand that they have little control once they hit “enter,” that posts develop lives of their own. Even if you delete one, someone may have already copied it and sent it on.
This is a good opportunity to teach your children, “Don’t say or write anything that you don’t want everyone in the universe to hear.” While this should be our communication goal in all of life (Luke 12:2–3), it’s essential in online discourse. Help your children become wiser in what they say by teaching them to ask, “Will I still think well of this post when _________ (my parents, my children, a potential boy/girlfriend, future employer, or my pastor) reads it?”
5. Develop real community.
There will be times when you or your child are still not sure about whether to post something even after you’ve thought about how it could affect others and whether you’ll still be proud of it later.
What do you do then? That’s when I run things past trusted people who already know the worst about me and love me anyway. You can use the uncertainty of the virtual community to build more solid connections in the physical world that will help you relate better to both.
Means of Growth
The online community can tempt you to say things you otherwise might not, but it can also be an avenue that helps you grow spiritually.
Take that opportunity seriously and use it to see yourself more clearly, get grace more quickly, and build relationships with people in time and space who really know you.