The teenage and young adult years are hard, especially now. These are the years when youth discover and shape their identities. With this search for identity come questions:

Do I matter?
Am I enough?
Am I worthy?
Do I belong?

For teenagers and young adults, these are such powerful, deep and vulnerable questions!

Increasingly, adolescents are asking these life-shaping questions in the highly curated world of social media, which tears at their hearts, minds and mental health. Fortunately, the church has a role to play when the truth can’t be found through Instagram.

Research (including that done by Facebook itself) shows that, in adolescents and young adults, social media use correlates with anxiety, depression, negative body image and eating disorders. While no one has shown that social media causes these problems, experts now agree that excessive use of these networks exacerbates many mental health struggles. Social media amplifies the vulnerabilities of the adolescent brain and of negative mental health states.

The church has a role to play when the truth can’t be found through Instagram.

Adolescence is a magical, weird and egocentric time when human brains function differently. Social comparison comes naturally to adolescents as a means of exploring identity. In the past, self-exploration and questions about identity were confined to small, contained communities. But in the vast social media landscape, today’s adolescents are comparing themselves to millions of individuals in a curated, distorted and false world.

Instagram turns on its head what developmental psychologists call the adolescent “personal audience,” a unique phenomenon wherein a young person thinks everyone is looking at and critiquing them with the same thoughts that the young person has of themself. For youth with preexisting vulnerabilities (anxiety, depression, poor self-image), the distortion can be more intense.

A hallmark of anxious and depressive thought processes is the tendency toward upward social comparison and confirmation bias. That is, when stressed, strained, anxious or depressed, people ask, “Do I measure up? Am I enough?” They tend to compare themselves to those who are smarter, more popular or better-looking, and fear that the answer is “No, I’m not enough.”

Such underlying, distorted thoughts persist or deepen, confirming the youth’s own fears. Instagram and social media are like a funhouse mirror—one sees oneself, but one’s image is warped and dysmorphic.

God walks with us and knows the deepest and most hidden parts of us—there is no filter needed.

At the heart of the gospel lies liberating truth that speaks to the adolescent search for identity, worth and belonging. We are not to seek out the distorted reflection of social comparison for our worth. Rather, we know the truth; the mirror of Scripture tells us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

The Spirit whispers into our hearts, telling us we have been called and we belong. And our Lutheran theology reminds us that we are known:

“Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely” (Psalm 139:1-4).

Despite our imperfection, through God and in God we are sufficient, worthy and enough. God walks with us and knows the deepest and most hidden parts of us—there is no filter needed. God sees, knows and loves.

Adolescents will always ask if they are worthy enough or if they belong. Social media is one of many false mirrors that distort the answer, so the body of Christ must hold up the truth of Scripture to youth in real and brave ways. We must take the time to know our adolescents deeply enough to call out when we see distortion and comparison reflected in their lives, and to remind each youth of who and whose they really are.

Elizabeth Barton
Elizabeth Barton is a psychologist; director of the Counseling Center at Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Wash.; a confirmation teacher; and mother of three children moving into their adolescent years.

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