Three Hidden Struggles Teens Face Online

A high-impact Youth Ministry is built on the foundation of practical teaching, intentional community, outside-of-group discipleship…..and awkward meetings.

Youth leaders have so many awkward meetings — it’s crazy.

These situations are far more common than I would like to admit. A parent emails me to set up a meeting about their student. Their words almost seem encrypted. They are extremely vague and unspecific, but their tone makes it obvious that this will be a tense talk. We end up meeting at a coffee shop and the parent lowers their voice and clears their throat before dropping the truth bomb. Looking down into their cup of coffee, they explain that their child has been exposed to some strongly inappropriate content online. More and more common, social media platforms are getting blamed as the gateway.

We talk about it a lot in youth ministry, but it bears repeating. Porn is a paramount problem.

This stuff breaks my heart. The social internet has become like a black market, where a person can access a library of vices from the privacy of their smartphone. Furthermore, social media is making it more and more common for people to accidentally stumble upon pornographic content which can lead down a dangerous rabbit-hole. There is no question that this must be addressed head on (more on this to come).

However, this is not the only struggle that the social-driven internet has caused for our students. I have had nearly one hundred conversations like the one above, but far less about some of the hidden dangers teens face.

Here are three hidden struggles that our teens face online:

DISTRACTION

One study recently discovered that teens spend an average of nine hours a day consuming media online (PR). That means that more than half of their non-sleeping hours are spent with a smartphone in their hand.

Time is valuable, which means we shouldn’t waste it on interactions, content, and advertisements that offer us no return for our attention. Social media makes it easy to simply waste our time. We should encourage our students to invest their time in things that make the world better.

Teens are always going to consume media with their free time. It’s part of how they are wired. It’s not necessarily a generational shift, it’s just their stage of life. When I was a kid, it was video games. When my mom was a kid, it was television. When my grandmother was a kid, it was reading fiction. When her grandmother was a kid, it was doodling with a chisel and stone — I don’t know. Perhaps I am in the minority, but I don’t think this is a trend that we can fight. Preaching complete avoidance of media consumption will get us no where. It’s not about restriction — it’s about redirection. We should encourage our students use their time more wisely.

Encourage them to create — not just consume.
Encourage them to make videos — not just watch them.
Encourage them to start a small group — not exclusively experience community in a group chat.

Focus will take you far.
Encourage them to fight distraction, because their focus will form their future.

ISOLATION

We should not do life alone. We were made for community, friendships, and to be part of a tribe. On social media, we are exploring a world within a world. It is annoyingly easy to shut ourselves off from in-person interaction, because we believe online interaction is enough.

Allow me to step on a soap-box for a moment. People often criticize this generation for being unsocial. That’s not true. As a matter of fact, they are probably the most socially-minded generation of all time. From the time they wake up to the time they go to sleep, they are texting, sharing, talking, and connecting with people on their phones. It’s insane to think they’re not social.

However, they are likely the most isolated generation.
Students are going to school and feeling completely alone. Then they get online and simply observe peoples’ lives, but they are not connecting. These pseudo-relationships exacerbate their feelings of loneliness — reminding them that everyone is out with friends while they’re stuck at home alone. Furthermore, technology has given us an arsenal of tools that allow us to detach from reality. That detachment can lead towards destruction.

Surfing social media while feeling disconnected is like feeling alone in a crowded room. Robin Williams spoke to this by saying, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone.” We can change the last part of this to read. “a platform that makes you feel alone.” All too often, I am seeing a rapid down-spiral in students lives — all starting from a lack of deep relationships and ending with serious emotional problems.

Anti-social tendencies lead to loneliness. Loneliness leads to isolation. Isolation leads to depression.

We must help our students escape this cycle. As a youth ministry, what are you doing to encourage intentional community between students? Strongly consider giving them opportunities to connect and the tools to excel at social skills. Help them learn how to be a good friend, make good friends, and keep friendships going.

Emphasizing relational skills will radically change the lives of your students.

PERFORMANCE

I used to pretend I liked baseball. (I just don’t like the game. Why don’t you watch a real sport where people have to wear a helmet and pads?) In small talk, people would ask me what I thought about the game last night and I would say something like, “Oh, it was wild!” Then hope they gave me some hints as to how I should really feel. We would go back and forth while I just pretended to know what they were talking about. These conversations took so much effort and left me feeling mentally drained. There is nothing more exhausting than pretending to be someone that you are not.

Students today are tempted to do this all the time. They are composing the right captions, applying the right filters, and ultimately creating their own persona. This small, polished snapshot doesn’t tell their full story.

While they get hundreds of likes, they may feel isolated.
While they always smile, they may feel empty.
While everyone comments on how pretty they look, they may feel insecure.
While everything may seem perfect, they may be falling apart.

Have you seen those strange masks used for clipart to represent theater? They sort of looks like scream masks — just creepier. Those have origins in ancient Greek plays, where the actor would actually use a mask to show their emotion. Let’s do one of the easiest Greek word studies of all time. The Greek word used for actor, hypocrete, translates to mask-wearer. People on stage were said to be “playing the hypocrite.” Naturally, this is where we get our modern word “hypocrite.” While saying a person who polishes their life online is a hypocrite is far-fetched, there is certainly a temptation to wear a mask and play a part.

This is my encouragement to everyone — not just teens. Please be the same person privately, publicly, and personally. This is not to say you should share all the intimate details of your life online, but you should certainly be sharing them with some people. This is not to say it’s bad to post a cute photo of your dog in a Christmas sweater, but it’s important to share some moments of vulnerability too. Take off the mask.

That is my concern with how Instagram has impacted our culture. We are all tempted to wear masks, create the perfect post, share the most beautiful highlight, or snap a photo of the whole family smiling even though everyone was just fighting. It can become far more exhausting than pretending to care about baseball. Furthermore, it can lead to a full-on identity crisis when no one around you truly, deeply knows you. They just know the personality you cultivate online.

God wants to bless you — not the person you’re pretending to be.

Embrace who you are, how God made you, and what God gave you.
It will make you flourish.

This post is part of a larger project called “Discipleship in the Digital Age” where we take a deep dive into spiritual development across cultural divides.

About the Author

Jackson Garrell

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Jackson is a pastor, designer, and cheese enthusiast. He lives in New York with his wife and several dozen plants. When he is not building websites, consulting churches, or pastoring, you will probably find him trying to create the perfect omelette.