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Scrolling Alone
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Scrolling Alone

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I started following somehow a whole bunch of people that go to my school that I’m not even personally friends with. So I would start getting FOMO. And I’d be like, ‘Am I wasting my freshman year? Because everyone else is having a better freshman year and making more use of their COVID freshman year than I am?’ And then another red flag was I started getting FOMO or jealous of some friends that go to different schools having more fun than me.”

*****

“I was just realizing that the things I was doing with my day weren’t things that I wanted to do. They were things that I thought would look cool when I posted. And so there were multiple times where I was like, ‘Okay, this is the hike I’m going to do because it has a great view—not because I want to enjoy the grandeur in creation, but because I want it to look really cool on my Instagram and I want to look really outdoorsy and awesome, and like I’m healthy.’ I was deciding where I wanted to eat based off what food would look good. Or I wanted to go to the beach, not because I wanted to enjoy the beach but because I wanted to post about it.”

*****

“I loved the attention of it. I mean, I did love connecting with my friends on it. But it also felt like this weird outlet emotionally. . . . It [wasn’t] like my diary in its fullest form, where I was expressing everything I was feeling. But there were definitely some attention grabs. It’s like ‘Morgan Kendrick is feeling sad’ or [that kind of] emotional pull to interact with other people. I would say it was a way to form your personality.”

*****


For the past year, Ive been working on a book about social media and women. I’ve listened to some serious concerns and researched some worrisome statistics; Ive thought about how troubling social media has been in my own life. 

But it wasn’t until I started working on this podcast and talking to these girls that I realized something is seriously wrong here.

Here’s the deal. These three young women are all really bright. They attended, or still attend, the University of California, Berkeley, where the acceptance rate is less than 15 percent. They all truly love the Lord, and they’ve been walking with him since they were small. Their parents are all Christians who had serious concerns about social media and set all kinds of restrictions—having the girls wait till they were older to get their accounts, only allowing the use of social media from a desktop computer in a shared living space, restricting the use of a phone camera, checking in on text messages and Instagram posts. Honestly, if you were making a list of all the ways to help teens handle social media, these parents checked every single box.

And yet, despite all that, you can hear how these girls are tangled up in social media expectations and comparisons. Their lives are being shaped—and misshaped—by how they live online.

Here’s why that matters: In April of this year, the Atlantic reported that “the United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental health crisis.” In 2009, about a quarter of American high school students said they had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. By last year, it was up to 44 percent, the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded. 

For girls, that rate rose to 57 percent. And that means that almost six out of 10 teenage girls feel persistently sad or hopeless. During the pandemic, more than one out of four girls seriously contemplated suicide. 

The article’s author pointed to the most obvious culprit: If you stood a teen from 2009 next to a teen from 2022, what would be the most noticeable difference between them? One of them would be on her phone. 

Those are scary things to think about, especially if you are—or if you know and love—a teenage girl. 

But here’s the thing: We trust in God’s sovereignty over every social media platform. And we also know that if we’re going to reach young women with the gospel, or if we’re going to disciple them into a deeper love and knowledge of Jesus, then we have to know how social media is shaping them. 

Honestly, we need to know how social media is shaping all of us.

 

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The Early Years

It was 2005, and I remember Facebook had opened up just then to college addresses,” Risen Motherhood cofounder Laura Wifler told me. “So it was a huge deal. It was something that we had all sort of been anticipating. Before that, we were on email or AOL Messenger or MSN Messenger. But this felt like a totally different world, where you were able to add photos and where you went to school or information about yourself. Everyone was really excited about being on Facebook, and it was sort of like you weren’t official friends until you were Facebook friends. That was definitely a thing.”

When Laura first logged onto Facebook as a freshman in college, only 5 percent of Americans were using social media, mostly on platforms like Friendster and MySpace. By the time she graduated three and a half years later, almost 80 percent of young people were on social media, nearly all of them on Facebook.

Laura used it to check out the boy she liked.

“I just remember loving his pictures, and getting to see all of his photos and who he was hanging out with,” she said. “I found out his major—that’s what you did. You hopped on Facebook and saw your mutual friends. You wanted to see if they were maybe involved in the same Christian clubs as you because then, you know, if they were in a Christian club, you could marry them.”

Since the iPhone wasn’t invented yet, Laura did this on a personal laptop in her dorm room at her school. She still spent most of her free time hanging out with her friends, watching movies at a theater, or working in a coffee shop. She went shopping in a mall, drove around for fun, and played sports. She went to church and parties and football games. While she did those things, she rarely took photos and she never stared at her non-smartphone. 

Laura’s Facebook friends were people she knew on her campus in real life. Back then there was no news feed, so if you wanted to know what your friends were up to, you had to click over to their page. When you ran out of people to check on, you got bored and logged off. 

Social media was supplementary to Laura’s life, and to everyone’s. The time people spent on it was so small that researchers didn’t even bother to track it.

“It was naive, but it did feel really safe and almost innocent and warm,” Laura said. “And we all just thought, What could go wrong?

The News Feed

You know, in the history of Facebook, the launch of the news feed was one of my favorite stories,” Mark Zuckerberg said. “I mean, how we kind of invented it and launched it. And, of course, the pretty crazy time right after that.”

“The idea was to update the homepage—to make it easier for people to see what was going on with their friends,” Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox said. “We were very excited about it. And we got ready to roll it out. And we hit go. And we waited for the feedback to roll in. This is in September of 2006.”

At midnight, the Facebook staff released a new feature that pulled together information about a user’s friends—who posted a photo, who changed their relationship status, who was at a party—and prioritized it into a constantly updating list. Facebook employees congratulated themselves on making their platform so much more interesting. And then they went to bed.

“The feedback was really negative,” Cox said. “We eventually got an alert from the security team that there was a protest gathering in front of our office and that we would need to be escorted out the back.”

Showing everyone your photos or relationship status felt like a violation of privacy. Looking at someone else’s felt like you were being forced to stalk them. Someone started a Facebook group opposing the feed and a million people joined it. 

But while Mark Zuckerberg publicly apologized for rolling out the news feed without explanation, he didn’t pull it back.

“The next morning, we spent a bunch of time changing the product to communicate better exactly how everything worked,” Cox said. “People learned how to use it, and they used it a lot. And they liked it.”

The same people who were protesting were also using Facebook twice as much as before. Even if the news feed made them feel voyeuristic, they couldn’t look away.

The news feed was a turning point—it has shown up on social media platforms ever since. And it changed the experience in two important ways. First, it reduced the amount of effort it took to be entertained. Instead of clicking over to different pages, you only need to scroll or refresh. It became a lot easier to spend a lot more time browsing content. 

And second, it changed the nature of the updates. Before, you were just posting for the few friends who would bother to come look for you. Now, you were posting for everyone you ever friended. You had to be a lot more careful with what you said, what pictures you chose, how you portrayed yourself. 

This wasn’t all bad.

“One of the upsides of social media was if someone was speaking and sharing their story or their testimony at a gathering, they would be able to announce it on social media,” said Malisa Ellis, who is on staff with Cru in Boston. “Then all their sorority sisters or everyone from their athletic team would come and watch them. And then they would get all this positive feedback. There was great benefit to that, because something that had easily been private—their faith—all of a sudden, there was an opportunity for them to announce it, and then get some kudos afterwards.”

Expanding Trouble

Malisa watched the influence of the news feed expand exponentially around 2007, when the iPhone came out.

“Social media was less tethered to your laptop,” she said. “It began to accelerate because all of a sudden you were connected all the time, always, no matter where you were. And there was free Wi-Fi everywhere. And it started to really escalate the amount of time that people were online. And then I started seeing, especially in the women, that comparison started to ramp up. Not that the comparison wasn’t there in other ways, but now it was compounded with not being able to get away from it—in their bedrooms or in their apartments or even in class, it was always there. They always had access to it.”

In 2010, one in five American adults had a smartphone; today, more than four out of five own one. Correspondingly, the amount of time spent on social media rose. These days the average global user is on for well over two hours a day. The average teen is on for more than five hours

I bet you’ve seen people doing it—at bus stops or restaurants or movie theaters, shopping in stores, pumping gas, or walking down the street. Our posture has literally changed from shoulders back and eyes up to curled over, hunched over our devices. My friend’s Pilates instructor even has her class work on their lateral muscles to combat the hours they spend slouched over their screens. 

It’s impossible to detect or measure all the ways this has changed our society. But it correlates pretty well with our rising rates of depression and anxiety.

Scratch that. 

Actually, it corresponds with the rising rate of depression and suicidal thoughts of those under 25. 

Scratch that. 

Actually, it matches exactly with the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm in females under 25.

Growing Up Inside Limits

“My first social media was Instagram,” Kaylee Morgan told me. “I got it the end of my junior year of high school. So I was 17.”

Kaylee grew up in California, about an hour from Berkeley, where she now attends college. Her dad was an executive pastor at New Life Church, where Kaylee came to saving faith and was baptized when she was around nine years old. 

Kaylee’s mom and dad were intentional about parenting. Her mom stayed home with Kaylee and her younger brother until Kaylee was in junior high, when her mom went back to work as a physical therapist. Her parents were careful with technology. Kaylee didn’t have a phone until she was commuting to another town for junior high, and even then, she wasn’t allowed to use the phone’s camera. Her parents made it clear they had access to her texts. And she wasn’t allowed to have any social media accounts until she was a junior in high school.

“I felt kind of left out, maybe behind the curve a little bit,” she said. “Whenever I was in the car with friends that did have an Instagram, I’d be like, ‘Oh, you have to let me scroll through your feed with you so I can see what everyone else is up to.’ It did drive me crazy a little bit. Towards my later high school years, I kind of came to peace with it.”

It probably helped that toward the end of high school she could sign up for social media accounts—and she did. Her first choice was Instagram, which was the most popular—and, unfortunately also the most dangerous—choice she could have made. 

Beautiful, Dangerous Instagram

I have to tell you—when I started researching social media, I did not expect Instagram to be the bad guy. A lot of my friends have actually retreated there from Facebook and Twitter, especially after the political fracturing of the last few years. Insta seems like the kinder, prettier sister of Facebook and Twitter.

And my goodness, is it pretty—mainly because it was designed around images. Launched in 2010, after the release of the iPhone, Insta was the first place you could quickly and easily upload photos taken with your phone. Then you could edit and add filters to make your images even better, and then share them with your followers. 

Which leads to the second reason for Instagram’s incredible beauty—money. 

For ages, advertisers have known that human brains process images far faster than text—you can identify the half-bitten Apple logo or the Nike swoosh in one-tenth of a second. Photos also work to target our emotions—you’d rather play with a puppy I showed you than one I just told you about. And they hang around in our memories a lot longer than words. When you add them to a post or a blog, they get 40 percent more shares than posts without images. 

If you were an advertiser looking for a way to sell Billie Eilish T-shirts, Instagram offered a brand new, far more effective way to reach potential customers. Just pay a cute college girl to wear your shirt, say something about how comfy it is, and link to your store. 

These days, being on Instagram can feel like a mash-up of keeping up with your friends and reading ads in a magazine. Every selfie or group shot is carefully chosen and edited. The work that used to go into airbrushing the cover photos of Seventeen magazine can now be done by everybody in your school.

From Aspiration to Comparison

“[Last week] I downloaded a new social media app, which if I had to guess it’s going to get pretty big,” Kaylee said. “It’s this app called Be Real. It gives you a notification once a day, at a random time. And within two minutes, you’re supposed to take a selfie, and it takes a picture facing you and the other way around. And you post it, and then once you’ve posted, you can see what all your friends posted. What’s nice about it is it’s very candid—you get the notification and you’re walking to class. So you just take the picture while you’re walking to class. It feels a lot more real.”

I understand why Kaylee likes this app, but I’m not as optimistic as she is about its future. Mainly because, unfortunately, real life is dull. If I took pictures of what I was doing on a daily basis—sleeping, eating, working, driving around—you would be bored silly. 

One of Instagram’s draws is that it’s aspirational. It shows life as we imagine it could be—the best possible version of ourselves doing the most interesting, fun things we could be doing. 

And of course, that’s also the danger.

“People get these one-second snapshots,” Kaylee said. “And it’s this perfect picture of, like, how much fun they were having in Disneyland. And you see that, and you come up with this storyline in your head that they had this perfect trip, they got this super cute picture because they looked so good with all their friends, they’re smiling, they’ve got the Mickey Mouse ears. 

“[Then] if you end up going to Disneyland the next month, you maybe get some cute pictures. But you also realize, Wait, I waited in line for six hours out of the day, and my feet hurt the whole time, and it was so hot. I was sweaty. And [you think], Oh, their trip must have been so much better than my trip.” 

Kaylee put her finger exactly on what Malisa Ellis was seeing in her college girls—comparison. 

Their trip must have been so much better than my trip. Their family must be so much closer than mine. Their friends must be so much more fun. Their classes must be so much more interesting. Their internships must be so much more meaningful. 

Their body, their hair, their clothes, their boyfriend, their summer plans—everything on Instagram looks so good. It’s meant to—that’s how Instagram was designed, and that’s what we like about it. 

It plays exactly into how God designed us—especially women—to influence each other. 

Here’s the truth: our ability to see excellence and desire to change—to be better, to do better—is not a bad thing. It’s the way God made us, Jen Wilkin wrote in TGC’s newest book, Social Sanity in an Insta World. We’re meant to be reshaped by the Bible and the Holy Spirit and the local body of believers to look more and more like Christ. Older women are meant to mentor younger ones. Friends are supposed to spur one another on toward goodness. It isn’t wrong to look around, to line ourselves up with an outside standard, and to keep checking to see if we’re where we’re supposed to be. 

What matters, of course, is which standard we’re using. If we’re looking at Jesus, we have both a perfect example and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us. If we’re looking at someone else’s curated photos, we’re seeing an imagined perfection and we have no possible way to ever measure up. 

Of all the platforms, research shows Instagram is the worst at this. It’s those images that grab our emotions and stick in our minds.

“My body is something that God created intentionally for a reason,” Kaylee told me. “And he looks at that and says, ‘I love this.’ And for me, with social media, it was really hard to be able to say, ‘I’m going to choose to believe that.’ [Especially] when you’re looking at all these other people that are the societal norm of perfect.”

No wonder Instagram is associated with eating disorders and appearance anxiety, especially among girls who are going through puberty or who are supposed to be at their most physically attractive age. No wonder that one in three girls who feel bad about their bodies feel worse after logging into Instagram. And no wonder teens who use social media more than five hours a day are twice as likely to be depressed as non-users—that depression rate, by the way, starts climbing after just a single hour of use.

Building a Brand

On some level, we’re doing this to ourselves. At the same time you’re consuming the casually gorgeous content of other women, you’re also creating your own.

“It’s not even necessarily insecurity about looks every time,” said recent Berkeley grad Morgan Kendrick. “It could be insecurity about whether you’re interesting. Going into college, I was traveling a lot . . . and I felt pressure to capture those things, and then present them in a way that made it seem like I was like this global traveler that was experiencing all these different things.”

Morgan now works at Berkeley as a Reformed University Fellowship staffer. She’s 25, and her brand is the interesting international traveler. But she ran into trouble between trips, because what was she going to post?

“The normal rhythms of life set in, and then I was like, nothing’s up to par—nothing’s worthy enough for me post,” she said. “So I have to do something interesting in order to feed this . . . something interesting or fun, like going to a museum. . . . And if I’m not going anywhere, at least I’m reading the right things. And then having the right opinions based on things that I’m consuming.”

Like Morgan, a lot of girls can articulate their brands—the granola sustainable girl who goes apple picking, the smart girl with sarcastic one-liners who goes to math camp or graduate school, the healthy outdoorsy girl who goes running and rollerblading, the Christian girl who does mission trips and posts Bible verses.

None of those things are wrong, but they are limiting. The identity we create for ourselves is never as wide-ranging or complex as the one that God created for us. 

That means, as Morgan explained, it can be hard to keep thinking of posts that are on-brand. 

But if you get your brand right—if you create a personality that people like and you gather followers—that could catapult you into being an influencer.

Who’s Influencing Who?

“That sounds great, right?” Morgan said. “You get free things. You get to try new experiences, and then you just have to document them. That sounds amazing. There is this almost Nashville singer-songwriter [vibe], like I want to make it. Just being recognized that way would feel like a lot of power. And also affirmation of the things that you’ve wanted affirmation about: Am I interesting? Am I funny? Am I cool?”

Basically, do people like me? Do they want to be like me? Do they want to be me? 

There’s a line here, between wanting to influence people for good and wanting to be the goddess everyone tries to emulate. If you can keep your eyes on Jesus, your identity rooted in him, and your goal only his glory, then you can post freely, completely non-anxiously regardless of who likes it or who doesn’t. 

But if you’re trying to win the approval of other people, you will get all tangled up. 

“My perception of what other people think of me is the elephant in the room,” Morgan said. “Who does everyone else think I am? And who do I think I am based on who everyone else thinks I am? And then I’m going to post based on that. So yeah, I would say it’s hard.”

Wait, who is influencing who here? Isn’t the influencer supposed to be the one with the power? 

Friends, she’s not. The power is all in the likes and the follows and the reshares. If you lose those, you lose everything, then you aren’t interesting or funny or cool. You’re just a girl with a post that fell flat and dishes on the counter and homework that still needs to be done.

Pushing Back

“My best friend in college would get frustrated with the whole machine of it,” Morgan said. “And so she started doing posts that she [wanted] to be honest [and] forthright, and not just sunshine and roses, or having everything be curated and perfect. And then she got to the point where she [felt like she had] a vulnerability hangover. . . . [She felt] this ickiness of I just exposed this really vulnerable thing to my friend from middle school that I haven’t talked to in 10 years.

At this point, I’m thinking, What happened to social media being a fun way to connect with your teammates or your church friends or your sorority sisters? This doesn’t sound fun. In fact, this doesn’t even have the satisfaction of a deep talk with a close friend, where you both end up crying but more connected than before. What’s happening here?

I think that isolation is happening because people are not as often forced to be face-to-face,” Malisa said. “They can be connected with people without really being known because they’ve never asked those harder questions, or they’ve never been into a deeper conversation. And so I’m seeing more and more college students are experiencing loneliness. And that’s not new. That’s been something that’s been on the horizon for a few years. But the rate of loneliness and anxiety and panic is through the roof.”

This is an anxiety that can follow you everywhere—to class, to work, to your car, to your bedroom. 

“It’s 2:00 p.m. on a Saturday morning, and you’re laying in bed scrolling through Instagram,” Kaylee said. “And you see people put on their story, ‘Oh, girls’ brunch!’ and they have a little picnic brunch. And immediately you’re like, Well, they’re out having brunch, and I’m laying in bed scrolling on my phone

“Maybe I needed that rest day. But now all of a sudden, I’m saying, Hey, am I wasting my Saturday? Am I wasting my time? Do I even have any friends that would go out and do a brunch with me? . . . I would say that’s a big thing that I struggle with. And I imagine a lot of other people do, too. . . . I just don’t think we as humans are wired to need to know what everyone else is doing every second of the day. And social media almost feels counter to the way that we should be, or the way we are wired as humans.”

It makes sense to me. I’ve heard the same discussion around the news—we don’t have the capacity to absorb and process and react to all the drama that’s happening all over the world, all the time. We aren’t God. We’re limited. 

The advice I’ve heard—maybe you have too—is to limit your news consumption. Stop overloading yourself. Quit checking the news sites all the time. Live inside your limits.

You can apply the same logic to social media—couldn’t we just limit the time we spend there?

Fighting the Addiction

“I don’t know if I’ve talked to anyone in my age group [whose] phone is not the first thing that they look at in the morning and [the last thing they look at] before they go to bed,” Morgan told me.

There are reasons for that. One is the blue light of the screen, which makes it harder for our brains—especially teen brains—to feel sleepy. 

Another is that social media platforms make money through advertising, which means the longer you’re on there, the more money they can make. That’s why everyone uses a news feed–type scroll or a “like” or “reshare” button. Those random hits of information or affirmation send a surge of pleasure into a human brain. We like that, so we go back for more. When the surges are random—we’re not sure how many people have liked our post—the urge to check is even stronger. 

After a while, our brain gets accustomed to one level of pleasure, say an average of 30 likes for each post. And then 30 likes seems normal and boring, and we’d like, say, 40 or 50 to make us happy.

We’re searching for hits of pleasure and needing more and more to be satisfied. It sounds like addiction, doesn’t it? So how do you curb this addiction?

There are timer apps,” Kaylee said. “So you can set [that] every day I only want to spend 20 minutes on Instagram. And it keeps track of how much time you spent on Instagram that day. And when your time limit is up, it’ll give you a notification. But then there’s always an option to ignore it. So all my friends that have that notification—I’ve never really seen any of them follow it. You can usually see them ignoring it.”

The trouble is, you can ignore every well-intentioned suggestion to help limit your time online. If you put your phone in another room before bedtime, you can head there first thing in the morning to retrieve it. If you move all your social media apps to a folder on the last page of your phone, you can swipe over to get them. If you turn off notifications, you can pop into your app all the time to see if you missed something.

Even deciding the right amount of time to try to spend on social media is problematic, partly because we’re always underestimating how much time we spend scrolling. And partly because there is no right answer.

“There’s real wisdom issues there that can’t be formulaic,” said Julie Lowe, a counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. “So the moment you say, ‘Well, here’s about a healthy amount of time,’ somebody’s going to say, ‘Oh, it should be much less than that,’ and somebody’s going to say, ‘Oh, it should be much more.’ It’s like [trying to prescribe] a good bedtime.”

When girls come to Julie struggling with anxiety and depression, one of the first questions she asks is how they interact with social media.

“It’s a question that has to come up,” she said. “And kids aren’t the best gauge because they’re not connecting the dots. An example: We have parental controls on our devices. And we’ll let our kids on Amazon to go shopping. It will kick them off after it hits their time limit. And they’ll say repeatedly, ‘No way! It hasn’t been a half an hour already!’ And if my husband and I did the same thing, I’m sure we’d be like, ‘What? I just got on this.’ And that is almost like gambling in a casino, where you lose track of time and space, you lose track of things around you.”

Julie’s husband is also a counselor, and they have four teenagers themselves—two boys and two girls. I asked her how she and her husband handled their kids’ social media use.

“We do try to keep all of our teens off of social media, for the most part,” she said.

Wait, what? Her kids don’t have any social media?

“You know, there’s been occasions where one of our boys got the Oculus Quest, and it requires you to be on Facebook,” she said. “But we talked about [the fact that] you’re not going to be friends with people on Facebook.”

Julie told me she wants to give her kids a fighting chance—that when they become adults, she wants them to be able to make a decision about joining social media on their own without already being addicted to it. 

“The research is arguing not [to] allow teens on social media,” she said. “It’s not saying, ‘Here’s the amount of limited time they should be on.’ It’s actually arguing not to let them on. Why? Because even half an hour can be damaging [if] they’re on some of the worst sites, or they’re struggling with identity and comparing themselves [to others], or people are cyberbullying them, or they’re sexting them. The type of things that happen on social media are equally, if not far more, grievous than the amount of time my child is spending on social media. So limiting time, of course, is important. But there are so many other factors before you even get to limiting the time. What is the argument for why they should even be on this very specific site?”

Why Are We On Here?

Why should they even be on this site? The girls themselves are asking this question.

“Most girls that I’ve talked to go through phases of like, ‘I’m deleting it, I’m done,’” Morgan said. “Everyone goes through a phase of, ‘This is too much for me, or this is hurting me, or it’s annoying.’ Everyone gets to the point with social media where they get exhausted.”

Even so, it usually takes a stressful event—such as a breakup with a boyfriend or a falling out with a friend—for someone to actually delete their social media.

I was on it during winter break, and I saw three engagement posts in a row,” said Berkeley junior Avery Fong. “And I deleted the app. I don’t need to be comparing my stage of life. I don’t need to be comparing my relationship status. That was one of those moments where I was like, ‘Okay, we’re done.’”

Avery has had accounts on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, but never really got into Facebook and got rid of Snapchat when she realized it was basically the same thing as texting. Instagram was harder. She has two accounts there—one personal and one for sharing the work she’s doing for her architecture major. 

After a while, she noticed she was choosing her offline activities based on what would photograph well. And she noticed she wasn’t consuming well either.

Every time I saw a post—every single time—I’d compare myself to something in the post,” she said. “Whether it was my friends, or influencers, or even good Christian women—[I’d] still feel bad about myself, because I’m like, Oh, my faith doesn’t look like that right now or I want to be in the season of life that they’re in and I’m not. And they look like such great people in general. I couldn’t get on the app and not think something negative about myself or another person.”

Taking Breaks

Avery’s younger sister mentioned that she and her friends were taking Instagram breaks. Avery decided to try that too. She took a few small ones—for a week or so—but didn’t really notice a difference. 

However, those smaller breaks probably paved the way for her bigger break. She’s been off now for several months.

Initially, it was easier for me to get off—just do the deed [and] disable my account,” she said. “The harder part came after, when I wanted to redownload it. I felt lonely because of the lack of instant gratification and affirmation that comes from likes and comments. [I wanted] to get back on the app to reaffirm that I have friends.”

Avery does have friends. When she wants to redownload the app, she tells herself to text someone to say hello, or see if anybody wants to go for a quick walk.

“I have felt way less lonely,” she said. “Because the kind of love that comes from someone taking time out of their day to be with you physically is definitely a million times more valuable than someone taking five seconds to comment on your posts. . . . So I think relationally it’s been good.”

It’s also been good for her mind.

“Not having Instagram has given me the space to think in a more unfiltered way,” she said. “And so rather than tailoring the things I want to say to a post—which is good, and I can share that with people and that can be encouraging—but for my own processing and thoughts, being able to journal and get out everything and not feel like I have to have things worded perfectly or I have to be totally clean, happy, joyful when I’m writing things. That’s been super cool to do.”

I just want to underline that. Getting off Instagram helped Avery think better.

“I usually hop on voice memos and just start talking,” she said. “Which is another good way of practicing how to be relational or conversational. Rather than holding a conversation on text—where you can map out what you’re going to say or what other people are going to say—knowing how to put words together is something I’m still learning in this digital era.”

Kaylee noticed something similar in her brain when she took some social media breaks.

“There’s almost less of a buzz going on in your head,” she said. “I feel like my head or my soul calms down a little bit because I don’t need to keep track of what Suzy from ninth grade is doing in Louisiana this week. All I know is what I’m doing. And what my friends are doing that I’ve chosen to hang out with.”

Why Are We on Here Again?

It sounds hopeful, doesn’t it? What if young women could go back to shopping together in malls, going out to dinner with boys, and eating popcorn in movie theaters? What if they could take road trips instead of selfies and have complex conversations instead of photo shoots?

“I finally came to the realization that having Instagram and being able to see what everyone else is doing does not bring any sort of positivity to my life at all,” Kaylee said.

If that’s true, why does she keep it around?

“One, there’s a practical reason,” she said. “Any clubs I’m involved in on campus generally have to do some advertising. So it’s helpful to have an Instagram account and post things on my story. Another big thing for me—and honestly, this is a really superficial thing—but if you look at my Instagram account, I curate my pictures to have a vibe to them. I really like all the pictures of me on that account. When I look at it, I’m seeing all my favorite aspects of my life. So when I look at my personal page, it gives me a serotonin boost or something. . . . It makes me feel better about myself. 

“Another superficial thing is because I’ve had my Instagram account for a while, I have a certain amount of followers. And if I fully deleted this account, I would lose all of that. I could fully delete my account. But if one day I wanted to redownload it, I’m starting from square one and have to find all these people again. . . . Some of those are superficial reasons.”

Superficial reasons? For sure. But they were also my reasons. I didn’t even recognize them in myself until Kaylee said them out loud. And they scared me so much I deleted the Facebook account I didn’t like but hadn’t been able to get rid of. Actually, that isn’t true—since I was afraid I’d end up scrolling, I asked my husband to go in and delete it for me, which he was happy to do.

Because these young women don’t stay young women. And you won’t be surprised to learn, we don’t naturally get better at social media as we get older.

In marriages, far more men talk about this than women,” Julie said. “They come in and [say] their wives are playing Candy Crush for hours at a time and not talking to them. Or they’re on their phones, surfing Facebook or Pinterest all the time. And that cuts down on relationships. So think [about] how many marriages are impacted by some of those decisions as well.”

A Time to Take Away, a Time to Add 

So what can we tell young women, our daughters and sisters and nieces and friends? 

“The water that you’re swimming in is going to affect you,” Morgan tells her Berkeley students. “And it’s OK that you’re not strong enough to control how much this affects you. It’s not a weakness issue. It’s not a stability issue. It’s not whether or not you’re secure enough in the Lord that [determines whether] you are not affected by social media.”

She’s right. We’re humans, created to influence each other. Morgan encourages her girls to take breaks, which is great advice. We can even go a little further: instead of just removing social media from your life—or encouraging someone else to remove it from theirs—let’s figure out what’s going to take its place. 

Let’s add in relationships. Add in making cookies, having coffee with a friend, and reading your Bible in the quiet. Add in worship music while you’re driving, hikes with the dog, or a creative project. Add in journaling and voice memos to help you think. Add in serving at your local church. Add in soccer games, musical instruments, and sandcastles on the beach.

Sent Out

I was reading in Acts today and looking at the beginning of the church,” Malisa said. “They belonged so that they could be sent out. If we are anchored in who Jesus has made us to be, and we know where we belong—to him and to his family, his community—then we really should be being sent out. And why would that not include social media?”

I love this. If young girls are looking to Instagram as a place to achieve the perfect identity, to find community, and to learn how to live a good life, it will continue to eat them alive. 

But if they can come to Instagram with identities rooted in Jesus, tied tightly to real-life friendships and mentors in their local church, patterning their lives after actual saints, then couldn’t some of them enter the mission field of Instagram or Facebook?

Because social media truly can help you belong before you believe. It can make entering a campus ministry or a new church or a women’s Bible study easier. It can be a platform on which you can share Scripture and your testimony. It can be a great way to raise awareness or to learn about all kinds of things, from mission opportunities to ways to care for an apartment to figuring out your new community.

I want to believe that the Lord can use this for good,” Malisa said. “But we still have to do the work as disciples and followers of Jesus to be anchored—and also to help the women who are younger than us be anchored in Jesus.”

To do the work. That’s not just a mandate for the girls. It’s hard to pull your own self out of quicksand. So it’s also a challenge for the rest of us, to help our young women be so anchored in Jesus that the pull of social media would grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. 

Laura has been thinking about how a church could do that.

“Having real conversations about social media is really important, and not pretending like it doesn’t exist or isn’t a part of women’s lives,” she said. “[We should provide] spaces for women to get together in real life—having Bible studies, having book clubs, having get-togethers and socials, planning meal trains for one another. Doing the hard work of everyday, in-and-out, real-life living together should never be neglected. And [we should have] a focus on teaching women what discernment looks like—how do you know if someone is telling you something that aligns with God’s Word?”

A lot of this could fit under the instruction of Titus 2—for older women to teach younger women what is good. And isn’t that what young women are searching for on Instagram? How to look good, how to be good, how to have a good life.

But we don’t have to reach for that ourselves. Christ has already paid for our sins on the cross and declared us good in the eyes of a holy God. There’s no picture we could take, no caption we could write, no amount of followers we could gather that could add anything to the finished work of Christ.

Younger sisters, you are good, made that way by Jesus. Your life is good, full of meaning and direction, created that way by God. You don’t have to shape or create an identity that is already yours. 

You might choose to get off social media—along with Kaylee and Avery, I can tell you what a relief it is to walk away. Or you might choose to use it as a platform from which to speak gospel truth. Either way, if you are rooted in Jesus, you are living a good life.