The fear in the room was palpable. I’d just spoken to a packed room of mothers and daughters on the topic of social media. Many of the girls present were on the cusp of their teen years, and the majority of mothers were just beginning their foray into parenting teens.

After the girls went to a separate room for a follow-up discussion with youth leaders, moms’ hands darted up in the air. The urgency in each mother’s question expressed her anxiety over social media and other teen challenges. It was encouraging to see so many moms who wanted to be better equipped to navigate the teen years. Too often I see the opposite—parents resigned to the false “teens will be teens” notion that they give up trying.

But I’m not sure these moms were anxious for the right reasons. 

Trusting in Rules

The moms who were so desperate to control and protect their children wanted me to give them a script to follow, a list of social media and phone do’s and don’ts with a guarantee that all would go well if they just follow the rules. I understand the desire for a script with a guarantee; every parent wants her teen to be safe, happy, and far from the path of destruction. But if we focus primarily on external solutions for raising our teens, we set our hope on something that can’t deliver.

Social media, mobile phones, and the selfie world we inhabit are problematic, but they’re not the primary problems for our teens. Drinking, drugs, sex, eating disorders, pornography, cutting, perfectionism, stress, and depression aren’t teens’ foundational problems, either. Jesus tells us “there is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15).

While outside influences are sources of temptation, our own fallen nature leads us to think and act sinfully. The negative behaviors we fear, then, are byproducts of what’s going on in our idolatrous hearts. The heart is the problem for our teenagers, and also for us.

Now, I’m not suggesting temptations shouldn’t be taken seriously. Certainly rules and boundaries should be put in place. But if we only address what’s on the surface—the easily seen sin—and don’t help our teens dig down to the ruling idols of their hearts, we will never facilitate real change.

What Rules Cannot Fix 

Idolatry is what happens when there’s something we want more than God, leading us to exchange the truth about him for a lie (Rom. 1:25). We believe the lie that he isn’t enough and that “life”—significance—is found somewhere apart from him. This is the lie all humans have bought into ever since Satan convinced Adam and Eve that God was withholding something from them.

For teenagers (and adults), this lie easily takes root on social media. All it takes is a scroll through our Instagram or Facebook feed for the ancient serpent to begin whispering:

  • “You’re not like them.”
  • “Your life is boring.”
  • “You’re not skinny enough, pretty enough, popular enough, wealthy enough.”

Whatever it is for you, fill in the blank.

The longer we compare, the likelier the lies will settle into our soul as “truth” while what God says is true will be forgotten. It’s easy to become convinced that our value is found in appearance, performance, popularity, perfection, status, or “likes.”  

But what happens when the teenager banking her worth on how many “likes” she gets on a picture doesn’t get as many on the next post? Or what about the one who craves comments on how “hot” (or skinny) she looks?

To hold on to her “secure” identity, she must look just as perfect the next day, or in the next picture. Living under this constant striving to grab what’s fleeting only intensifies the desperation to know one’s worth. But with every false source she turns to, the more insecure and empty she will feel. A sense of worthlessness will settle in.

With this root sin identified, it makes sense why a teen would fall into substance abuse, promiscuity, disordered eating, depression, or any of the other issue. There are other root sins, sure, but idolatry of some kind will always be the driving sin. It is the sin we must help our teens trace downward and excavate. It is their biggest problem, and ours.

Only One Solution

Turning to false gods and looking to secure “life” in things that weren’t meant to define us will always leave us empty. To be filled, we must peel our eyes away from self and look full into the face of the One who’s work in our place was perfect. Our soul will feel its worth only when we see Jesus for who he is—and who he is for us.

This is what I most wanted the moms gathered that evening to hear. Yes, we must pay attention to social media. Yes, it’s wise to limit and monitor phone use. But doing so won’t fix our teens’ hearts. The only solution to a heart bent toward sin is repentance and trust in the gospel. In a selfie world, let’s help our teens understand their true identity is found only in Jesus.


Editors’ note: For more insights on this topic for teens, be sure to check out Kristen Hatton’s new book, Face Time: Your Identity in a Selfie World (New Growth Press).