Several years ago, while interviewing girls for her book, Lies Young Women Believe, author Nancy Leigh Demoss noted a budding problem: Christian teens, even girls active in their churches, freely admitted to being a different person online than they were in front of adults, Christian friends, and youth leaders. Many admitted to saying and doing things on social media (which was still in its early stages) that they would never do in person, and also to using such platforms to hide behind a “false self.”
This tendency should not surprise us, as social networking exists first and foremost, for the promotion and glorification of “self.” Filters on photography apps allow anyone to present a flawless image, or to get on a virtual soapbox and make himself heard. But the electronic manipulation of one’s desired image is especially disconcerting when young Christ-followers fall into this trap. It runs counter to everything they’ve been taught about authenticity on youth retreats, in church and at home. Resting in their position in Christ should breed contentment, transparency and security in being loved for who they are; not insecurity and a craving for authenticity, attention and superficial acceptance.
The Obscuring of Identity
Unfortunately, as convenient as it may be, electronic technology has stifled young people’s expression of self-identity. Instead, it encourages them to construct a façade based on the answer to the question, “How can I ensure that others view me positively?” Jim Taylor writes in Psychology Today: “The goal for children in their use of technology, whether Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, or text messaging, becomes how they can curry acceptance, popularity, status, and by extension, self-esteem. Self-awareness and self-expression give way to a preoccupation with what others think, impression management, and self-promotion.”
In 2007, Christine Rosen wrote in The New Atlantis, “Does this technology, with its constant demands to collect (friends and status), and perform (by marketing ourselves), in some ways undermine our ability to attain what it promises—a surer sense of who we are and where we belong? The Delphic oracle’s guidance was know thyself. Today, in the world of online social networks, the oracle’s advice might be show thyself.”
Teens, children and even adults promote the identities online they would like to have or want people to see. No matter how inaccurate or wildly absurd a statement, picture or “secret confession,” there is an app designed to display it to the world as gospel truth. Through what is deemed acceptable or desirable on social media, impressionable teens lose the distinction between public and private self. Rather than reflecting their own individuality, social media “becomes rather a means of acceptance and status among others who reside in their digital communities.” Yet, in children’s extensive efforts to be “liked….by manipulating their persona, they come to believe that they’re not worthy of being liked—an expression of affection, in the original sense of the word—for the person that they really are.” [i]
Christian teens are by no means immune to this pitfall, and need to be taught how to apply the Gospel to a habit they may not even realize they have.
How Does the Gospel Speak to Insecurity?
Promoting a certain image, whether purposely or not, speaks to a deeper heart issue: insecurity, or what the Bible calls fear of man and a snare (Proverbs 29:25). The desire to win approval is not new, but the ability to interact with all of one’s acquaintances simultaneously in a 24/7 digital community has greatly increased approval-seeking and preoccupation with self. This is a spiritual problem for many reasons: It can inhibit evangelism; it gives license to pride (in one’s achievements, appearance, etc.); and it encourages lying to gain approval. It also hinders fellowship. Seeing social media for what it has become in their life (a trap which leads to acceptance-seeking) is the first step toward overcoming insecurity. The “online self” is created when approval of others is an idol, although many young people may not realize it.
Gaining a biblical view of the character of God is the next step in exchanging fear of man for fear of God. Truly knowing Him and His grace instills a desire to please the Father and care what He thinks; not a craven fear of failure or a sense of defeat. As Ed Welch writes, feeding the ‘gorilla’ of people’s opinions will never lead to peace. Therefore, through personal reading of the Word and fellowship with Christian peers (in Bible study, social activities etc.), young people struggling with media-induced insecurity gradually learn to drop their masks and embrace their true identities in Christ.
Lastly, whether as part of the formal counseling process or in standard discipleship, believers struggling with the twin sins of approval-seeking and people-pleasing need to be taught to love and serve others, not see them as masters. Rather than being preoccupied with others’ view of us, resting in Christ’s unconditional love, even in our imperfection, frees us up to love others without need of reciprocation.
To be sure, renewing the mind influenced by interactive media—a powerful tool—is an ongoing process. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of peer approval and popularity to teens, especially in a digital world where it is so publically and objectively meted out. The struggle doesn’t disappear by simply reciting a “Sinner’s Prayer” or committing to spend more time reading the Bible (and less online). Nevertheless, as believers train their minds to take unbiblical thoughts captive (What am I attempting to gain by this post? Why do I want to post this sensual ‘selfie?’), the process of putting off fear of man, approval-craving and temptation to cultivate a false self has already begun. Subsequently, learning to embrace God’s view of him—as a dearly-loved, redeemed child—enables the insecure young believer to drop the bondage of an “online identity” and fully enjoy his true identity in Christ.
 “Media’s Externalization of Kids’ Self-Identity”, Psychology Today, October 11, 2012.