Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The formative power of social media (2015 Term 1 Week 8)

I read recently that the features of life that are around prior to one turning 18 are considered to be normal. Features that emerge or are invented between 18 and 35 are considered to be wonderful and exciting innovations. However, after we turn 35, new things are considered to be strange and suspicious abominations that threaten the natural order of things.

Whilst this is obviously an overstatement, there is more than a grain of truth to it. To our children, the online world is normal and natural; it is a given in their life experience. It is less so to us as their parents. Nonetheless, as we contemplate our role in preparing them for the world in which they live, it is obvious that we must engage with the challenges, opportunities and risks that emerge from living in the connected age.

The task of wisdom is to discern how to live well in God's world, particularly in these times of unrelenting change. The revolution in our lives brought about by Information and Communication Technology has not been precisely considered, measured and adopted in a process of thoughtful change management. Rather, it has exploded around us.

In recent days I have been reflecting on social media, particularly with reference to the potential impact that use of social media might have upon young people who are so thoroughly immersed in it during their formative years. I do not want to suggest for a second that social media is inherently and universally a malign influence, but I do think that we need to be thoughtful in our analysis of its benefits. I offer three inter-related musings for your consideration.

First, part of the powerful allure of social media is the promise of reinvention. We all want to show ourselves in the best possible light and we are all conscious that there are aspects of ourselves that we are more willing to display. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instragram, and even industry-focussed sites such as Linked-In, allow us to control our public persona. We choose what images we put out there. We get to write our own profiles and bio. We choose those people with whom we will associate by friending, following, liking and commenting. In short, we get to construct our identity.

Second, social media brings with it the weight of comparison. Social media creates a world where what everyone else is doing is very out in the open, most people present an inflated version of their own existence, and the people who chime in the most about their careers are usually those who are doing the best. In the context of both adolescence and adulthood, there is still a premium on looking good, doing fun stuff, being included and being where it is all happening. For the young person who scans through page after page of other people (apparently) having it all, the contrast to their own real life can be very disspiriting.

The weight of comparison

Third, we are now able to measure the affirmation of our peers. Social media provides a simple and easily understood metric that shows how much we are appreciated - the 'like' button. We all want to be affirmed, but the tally of likes on a page now provide a means to measure what it is about us that people really value. 

What sort of photos get the most likes? Those are the ones to post. 

What sort of experiences (documented and posted) get the most likes? Those are the ones to aspire to and to have, to create and to boast about. 

However, there is a very small step between being affirmed and being vulnerable to manipulation by the crowd. Social media has the power to shape who we are and who we want to be - which brings us back to the promise of reinvention!

It is hard to know where this is all going. As noted above, we are being swept along in a giant social experiment that is re-shaping our society. While there is no shortage of resources to help parents with practical guidance, and while schools such as ours are pursuing strategies to help young people to be smart, safe and responsible,  the more profound questions around the formation of identity will be unanswered for a while yet.

It seems to me that Christian faith is potentially a powerful grounding influence for young people. The Christian hope is one of personal and social transformation (rather than reinvention), such that God remakes us to be humanity as we were intended to be. The Christian conviction that each individual is uniquely created in the image of God potentially bolsters against the weight of comparison to others. The Christian belief that God has acted for us in Christ is the greatest affirmation of all, potentially releasing us from the need to seek the affirmation of others. Personal Christian faith doesn't deliver an individual from these pressures, but it should equip us to deal with them better.
As a school we will continue to commend the faith to our students, being confident both that it is true and that it works - both in the world of the New Testament and in the world of the 21st century.

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