In 2009, about a quarter of American high school students said they had “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” By last year it was up to 44 percent, the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.
For girls, the rate rose to 57 percent. That means more than half of teenage girls feel persistently sad or hopeless. If you stood a teen from 2009 next to a teen from 2022, what would be the most noticeable difference between them? One of them would be on her phone. This episode is in partnership with The Gospel Coalition’s Recorded podcast.
Listen to more of Recorded at: www.thegospelcoalition.org/podcasts/recorded
#77: Scrolling Alone
Note: The Love Thy Neighborhood podcast is made for the ear, and not the eye. We would encourage you to listen to the audio for the full emotional emphasis of this episode. The following transcription may contain errors. Please refer to the audio before quoting any content from this episode.
ANNA TRAN: Hey listeners, it’s Anna. Before we get started, I wanted to remind you that this podcast is made possible by listeners like you. Your generosity allows us to keep making this type of content. To support us, go to lovethyneighborhood.org/donate or support us on Patreon by going to patreon.com/lovethyneighborhood. Your support allows us to continue telling stories about following Jesus in modern culture.
AUDIO CLIPS: Love Thy Neighborhood… Discipleship and missions for modern times.
JESSE EUBANKS: You’re listening to the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. I’m Jesse Eubanks. Today’s episode – “Scrolling Alone.” Welcome to our corner of the urban universe.
JESSE EUBANKS: A while back, I came across this book called How to Break Up With Your Phone. It was all about how our smartphones and apps can actually damage our relationships. They affect our abilities to think deeply, to focus, and actually to even form new memories. They’re designed to be addictive, and the reality is – it is working. You know, plenty of times that notification goes off on my phone, I get my phone out, I unlock it in order to check that notification, but I actually become distracted by something in a different app first. And then all of a sudden I find my motor memory going off and I’m going from app to app, from video to video, from email to email, just doing my cell phone routine. And about 20 minutes later, I realize – I never actually checked the original notification to see what it even was. So, I have an iPhone, which means every week I am notified on my average screen time use, and to my embarrassment, I actually spend over three hours a day on my phone. But, according to the CDC, the average teenager – they spend around seven and a half hours a day on screens just for entertainment. Over the course of a year, that’s around 114 full days watching screens, and that’s not even counting schoolwork. In 2021, a CDC survey recorded the highest level of teenage sadness to date. 44 percent of teenagers report that they feel sad frequently. For the girls in this study, 57 percent said that they felt persistently sad or hopeless. To help clue us into why some of these girls are feeling as sad and as hopeless as they are, a study from Cambridge University found that social media strongly contributes to the declining mental health in teenagers and it has an especially strong impact on teenage girls. What is it about social media that makes a lot of young women feel so hopeless and isolated? Well, today, to answer that question, we’re gonna feature an episode from the podcast Recorded. A production of The Gospel Coalition, journalist Sarah Zylstra shares the stories of young women who are being shaped by social media and explores how the online world is actually shaping the thinking, feelings, and beliefs of all of Gen Z. Who are they becoming because of their screens? Okay, here’s today’s episode – “Scrolling Alone.”
FRANCES HAUGEN: My name is Frances Haugen. I used to work at Facebook. I joined Facebook because I think Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us. But I’m here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.
AUDIO CLIPS: Well, Facebook says it is pausing the development of its Instagram kids’ program… Decision comes after criticism from policy makers and social scientists who say that kind of project would be harmful to children’s mental health… Now to the battle over social media – tonight, we look at those filters on platforms like Instagram that can radically change our online appearance. Are they contributing to a toxic environment for teens?…
And so another red flag I saw was with spending so much time indoors in my room with COVID, I was spending a lot of time on Instagram. I started following somehow a whole bunch of people that go to my school that I’m not even personally friends with. So I would start getting like – I don’t know if you’ve heard of the term FOMO, but it’s like fear of missing out – ’cause I would see other people hanging out that, like, go to my school and I’m not even friends with them, but somehow I’m following them on Instagram because we have mutuals. And I’d be like, “Am I wasting my freshman year ’cause everyone else is having a better freshman year and making more use of, like, their COVID freshman year than I am?” And then another red flag I saw was I started getting like FOMO or like jealous of some friends that go to different schools having like more fun than me at their schools than mine…
I was just realizing that the things I was doing with my day weren’t things that I wanted to do. They were things that I thought would look cool when I posted. And so even like – I’m thinking about hiking – there were multiple times where I was like, “Okay, this is the hike I’m gonna do because it has a great view, not because I wanna enjoy the grandeur in creation, but because I want it to look really cool on my Instagram and I wanna look really outdoorsy and awesome and like I’m healthy.” When I was deciding where I wanted to eat based off what food would look good or like were if I wanted to go to the beach that day, not because I wanted to enjoy the beach, but because I wanted to post about it…
I love the attention of it. I mean, I did love connecting with my friends on it, but it also felt like this weird outlet emotionally, like one of my favorite things to do is going back and looking at old Facebook posts. I’m a really big believer in not deleting embarrassing posts, especially if it’s from that like kind of early age when you’re kind of angsty. And so I have somewhere it was like, almost like, not a diary in like its fullest form where I was expressing everything I was feeling, but there were definitely some attention grabs of like, you know, have the name like “Morgan Kendrick is, say like, feeling sad” or like, like not kind of – some sort of emotional pull to like interact with other people. I would say like it was like kinda a way to like form your personality…
SARAH ZYLSTRA: For the past year, I’ve been working on a book about social media and women. I’ve listened to some serious concerns and researched some worrisome statistics. I’ve thought about how troubling social media has been in my own life, but it wasn’t until I started working on this podcast and talking to these girls that I realized something is seriously wrong here. I’m Sarah Zylstra, and I work for The Gospel Coalition. This is Recorded.
Here’s the deal – these three young women are all really bright. They attended or still attend the University of California Berkeley, where the acceptance rate is less than 15 percent. They all truly love the Lord, and they’ve been walking with him since they were small. Their parents are all Christians who had serious concerns about social media and set all kinds of restrictions, having the girls wait ’til they were older to get their accounts, only allowing the use of social media from a desktop computer in a shared living space, restricting the use of a phone camera, checking in on text messages and Instagram posts. Honestly, if you are making a list of all the ways to help teens handle social media, these parents checked every single box. And yet, despite all that, you can hear how these girls are tangled up in social media expectations and comparison. Their lives are being shaped and misshaped by how they live online. Here’s why that matters. In April of this year, The Atlantic reported that the United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental health crisis. In 2009, about a quarter of American high school students said they had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. By last year, it was up to 44 percent, the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded. For girls, that rate rose to 57 percent, and that means that six out of 10 teenage girls feel persistently sad or hopeless. During the pandemic, more than one out of four girls seriously contemplated suicide. The article’s author pointed to the most obvious culprit. If you stood a teen from 2009 next to a teen from 2022, what would be the most noticeable difference between them? One of them would be on her phone.
Those are scary things to think about, especially if you are or if you know and love a teenage girl. But here’s the thing – we trust in God’s sovereignty over every social media platform, and we also know that if we’re gonna reach young women with the gospel or if we’re gonna disciple them into a deeper love and knowledge of Jesus, then we have to know how social media is shaping them. Honestly, we need to know how social media is shaping all of us.
LAURA WIFLER: It was 2005, and I remember, uh, Facebook had opened up just then to collegiate addresses, so it was a huge deal. It was something that we had all sort of been anticipating. I think it – before that, you know, we were on email or AOL Messenger or MSN Messenger, but this felt like a totally different world where you were able to add photos and you added things like where you went to school or information about yourself. Everyone was really excited about being on Facebook, and it was sort of like you weren’t official friends until you were officially Facebook friends. That was definitely a thing.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: That’s Laura Wifler. When she first logged onto Facebook as a freshman in college, only 5 percent of Americans were using social media, mostly on platforms like Friendster and MySpace. By the time she graduated three and a half years later, almost 80 percent of young people were on social media, nearly all of them on Facebook. Laura used it to check out the boys she liked.
LAURA WIFLER: I just remember just loving his pictures, you know, getting to see all of his photos and who he was hanging out with and who he was tagged with. I found out his major. That’s what you did. You hopped on Facebook and saw – who are our mutual friends? You know, is this person – you wanted to see if they were maybe involved in like the same Christian clubs as you ’cause then, you know, if they were in a Christian club, you can marry them.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Since the iPhone wasn’t invented yet, Laura did this on a personal laptop in her dorm room at her school. She still spent most of her free time hanging out with her friends, watching movies at a theater, or working in a coffee shop. She went shopping in a mall, drove around for fun, and played sports. She went to church and parties and football games. While she did those things, she rarely took photos and she never stared at her non-smartphone. Laura’s Facebook friends were people she knew on her campus in real life. Back then, there was no news feed, so if you wanted to know what your friends were up to, you had to click over to their page. When you ran out of people to check on, you got bored and logged off. Social media was supplementary to Laura’s life and to everyone’s. The time people spent on it was so small that researchers didn’t even bother to track it.
LAURA WIFLER: It was naive, but it did feel really safe and, and almost innocent and warm, and we all just kind of thought, “What could go wrong?”
MARK ZUCKERBERG CLIP: You know, in the history of Facebook, news feed is probably – um, the launch of news feed is one of my favorite stories. I mean, how, how we kind of invented it and, and launched it and of course the, the pretty crazy time right after that.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: That’s Mark Zuckerberg. Here’s Chris Cox, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer in another public interview.
CHRIS COX CLIP: The idea was to update the homepage to make it easier for people to see what was going on with their friends. We were very excited about it and we got ready to roll it out and we hit go and we waited for the feedback to roll in. This is in September of 2006.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: At midnight, the Facebook staff released a new feature that pulled together information about a user’s friends – who posted a photo, who changed their relationship status, who was at a party – and prioritized it into a constantly updating list. Facebook employees congratulated themselves on making their platform so much more interesting, and then they went to bed.
CHRIS COX CLIP: And the feedback was really negative, and we eventually got an alert from the security team that there was a protest gathering in front of our office and that we would need to be escorted out the back.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Showing everyone your photos or relationship status felt like a violation of privacy. Looking at someone else’s felt like you were being forced to stalk them. Someone started a Facebook group opposing the feed, and a million people joined it. But while Mark Zuckerberg publicly apologized for rolling out the news feed without explanation, he didn’t pull it back.
CHRIS COX CLIP: The next morning, we spent a bunch of time changing the product to communicate better exactly how everything worked. People learned how to use it and they used it a lot, uh, and they liked it.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: The same people who were protesting were also using Facebook twice as much as before. Even if the news feed made them feel voyeuristic, they couldn’t look away. The news feed was a turning point. It has shown up on social media platforms ever since, and it changed the experience in two important ways. First, it reduced the amount of effort it took to be entertained. Instead of clicking over to different pages, you only needed to scroll or refresh. It became a lot easier to spend a lot more time browsing content. And second, it changed the nature of the updates. Before, you were just posting for the few friends who would bother to come and look for you. Now, you are posting for everyone you ever friended. You had to be a lot more careful with what you said, what pictures you chose, and how you portrayed yourself. This wasn’t all bad.
MALISA ELLIS: One of the upsides of social media was if someone was speaking and sharing their story or their testimony at a gathering, they would be able to announce it on social media and then all of their sorority sisters would come or all, everyone from their athletic team would come and watch them and then they would get all this positive feedback. And so there was, there was great benefit to that, right, because they started to, started to – something that was, had easily been private, their faith – maybe they were hesitant, they were a newer believer, um, they didn’t quite know how to communicate it – all of a sudden, there was an opportunity for them to announce it and then get some kudos afterwards, after they shared it.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Malisa Ellis is on staff with Cru. She watched the influence of the news feed expand exponentially around 2007 when the iPhone came out.
MALISA ELLIS: Social media was less tethered to your laptop. It began to accelerate because all of a sudden you were connected all the time, always, no matter where you were. And, um, there was free Wifi everywhere and so it started to really escalate the amount of time that people were online and then I started seeing, especially in the women, the comparison started to rev up. Not that the comparison wasn’t there in other ways, but now it was compounded with not being able to get away from it in their bedrooms or in their apartments or even in class, you know, ’cause it was always there. They always had access to it.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: In 2010, one in five American adults had a smartphone. Today, more than four out of five own one. Correspondingly, the amount of time spent on social media rose. These days, the average global user is on for well over two hours a day. The average teen is on for more than five hours. I bet you’ve seen people doing it – at bus stops or restaurants or movie theaters, shopping in stores, pumping gas, or walking down the street. Our posture has literally changed from shoulders back and eyes up to curled over, hunched over our devices. My friend’s Pilates instructor even has her class work on their lateral muscles to combat the hours they spend slouched over their screens. It’s impossible to detect or measure all the ways this has changed our society, but it correlates pretty well with our rising rates of depression and anxiety. Scratch that. Actually, it corresponds with the rising rate of depression and suicidal thoughts of those under 25. Scratch that. Actually, it matches exactly with the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm in females under 25.
KAYLEE MORGAN: My first social media was Instagram, and I got it the end of my junior year of high school, so I was 17.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Kaylee Morgan grew up in California about an hour from Berkeley where she now attends college. Her dad was an executive pastor at New Life Church where Kaylee came to saving faith and was baptized when she was around nine years old. Kaylee’s mom and dad were intentional about parenting. Her mom stayed home with Kaylee and her younger brother until Kaylee was in junior high, when her mom went back to work as a physical therapist. Her parents were careful with technology. Kaylee didn’t have a phone until she was commuting to another town for junior high, and even then she wasn’t allowed to use the phone’s camera. Her parents made it clear they had access to her texts, and she wasn’t allowed to have any social media accounts until she was a junior in high school.
KAYLEE MORGAN: Um, I just felt very like, kind of left out, maybe, like behind the curve a little bit. Um, whenever I was like in the car with like friends that did have an Instagram, I’d be like, “Oh, you have to let me scroll through your feed with you so I can see what everyone else is up to.” Um, yeah, so it did drive me crazy a little bit. I think towards like my later high school years I kind of came to peace with it.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: It probably helped that after high school she could sign up for social media accounts, and she did. As you heard, her first choice was Instagram, which was the most popular and unfortunately also the most dangerous choice she could have made. I gotta tell you, when I started researching social media, I did not expect Instagram to be the bad guy. A lot of my friends have actually retreated there from Facebook and Twitter, especially after the political fracturing of the last few years. Insta seems like the kinder, prettier sister of Facebook and Twitter. And my goodness is it pretty, mainly because it was designed around images. Launched in 2010 after the release of the iPhone, Insta was the first place you could quickly and easily upload photos taken with your phone and then you could edit and add filters to make your images even better and then share them with your followers.
Which leads to the second reason for Instagram’s incredible beauty – money. For ages, advertisers have known that human brains process images far faster than text. You can identify the half-bitten Apple logo or the Nike swoosh in one-tenth of a second. Photos also work to tug at our emotions. You’d rather play with a puppy I showed you than one I just told you about, and they hang around in our memories a lot longer than words. When you add them to a post or a blog, they get 40 percent more shares than posts without images. If you were an advertiser looking for a way to sell Billie Eilish t-shirts, Instagram offered a brand new, far more effective way to reach potential customers – just pay a cute college girl to wear your shirt, say something about how comfy it is, and link to your store. These days, being on Instagram can feel like a mashup of keeping up with your friends and reading ads in a magazine. Every selfie or group shot is carefully chosen and edited. The work that used to go into airbrushing the cover photos of Seventeen Magazine can now be done by everybody in your school. Kaylee knows that.
KAYLEE MORGAN: I downloaded actually last week a new social media app, which if I had to guess, I think it’s gonna get pretty big actually. It’s this app called BeReal. It gives you like a notification once a day, like at a random time during the day, and within two minutes you’re supposed to just take a selfie and it takes a picture like facing you and the other way around too and you post it and then once you’ve posted that picture you can see what all your friends posted. And so what’s nice about it is it’s very candid. Like you get the notification and you’re like walking to class, so you just take the picture while you’re walking to class, so it feels a lot more real.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: A lot more real. I understand why Kaylee likes this app, but I’m not as optimistic as she is about its future, mainly because, unfortunately, real life is dull. If I took pictures of what I was doing on a daily basis – sleeping, eating, working, driving around – you would be bored silly. One of Instagram’s draws is that it’s aspirational. It shows life as we imagine it could be, the best possible version of ourselves doing the most interesting, fun things we could be doing. And of course, that’s also the danger.
KAYLEE MORGAN: The idea with Instagram, people get these like one second snapshots and it’s like this perfect picture of like how much fun they were having in Disneyland. And so you see that and you come up with this storyline in your head that they just had this perfect trip, they got this super cute picture ’cause they looked so good with all their friends, they’re smiling, they’ve got the Mickey Mouse ears – you end up going to Disneyland the next month and you maybe get some cute pictures, but then you also realize, “Wait, I waited in line for six hours out of the day and my feet hurt the whole time and it was so hot, I was sweaty, and, you know, oh, it didn’t live up to their trip. Like their trip must have been so much better than my trip.”
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Kaylee put her finger exactly on what Malisa Ellis was seeing in her college girls – comparison. “Their trip must have been so much better than my trip. Their family must be so much closer than mine. Their friends must be so much more fun. Their classes must be so much more interesting. Their internships must be so much more meaningful.” Their body, their hair, their clothes, their boyfriend, their summer plans – everything on Instagram looks so good. It’s meant to. That’s how Instagram was designed, and that’s what we like about it. It plays exactly into how God designed us, especially women, to influence each other. Here’s the truth – our ability to see excellence and desire to change, to be better, to do better, is not a bad thing. It’s the way God made us, Jen Wilkin wrote in TGC’s newest book, Social Sanity in an Insta World. We’re meant to be reshaped by the Bible and the Holy Spirit and the local body of believers to look more and more like Christ. Older women are meant to mentor younger ones. Friends are supposed to spur one another on toward goodness. It isn’t wrong to look around, to line ourselves up with an outside standard, and to keep checking to see if we’re where we’re supposed to be. What matters, of course, is which standard we’re using. If we’re looking at Jesus, we have both a perfect example and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us. If we’re looking at someone else’s curated photos, we’re seeing an imagined perfection and we have no possible way to ever measure up. Of all the platforms, research shows Instagram is the worst at this. It’s those images that grab our emotions and stick in our minds.
KAYLEE MORGAN: The way I look and the way my body is was something that God created intentionally for a reason, and like he looks at that and says like, “I love this.” And for me, I think with social media, it was really hard to be able to say, “I’m gonna choose to believe that and that, like, God created me perfect,” when you’re looking at all these other, I don’t know, people that are the societal norm of perfect.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: No wonder Instagram is associated with eating disorders and appearance anxiety, especially among girls who are going through puberty or who are supposed to be at their most physically attractive age. No wonder that one in three girls who feel bad about their bodies feel worse after logging into Instagram. And no wonder teens who use social media more than five hours a day are twice as likely to be depressed as non-users. That depression rate, by the way, starts climbing after just a single hour of use.
JESSE EUBANKS: Okay, stay with us because after the break we’ll take a look at how social media compels young women to turn themselves into a brand. We’ll be right back.
JESSE EUBANKS: Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. Jesse Eubanks. Today we’ve been hearing about the effects of social media on the mental and social health of young women. We just explored the addictive nature of social media, and now we have to wonder – what is it like to feel so much pressure to make yourself look a certain way online? Journalist Sarah Zylstra continues to explore the beautiful and dangerous landscape of social media. That’s where we’ll pick up.
AUDIO CLIPS: Instagram has a negative impact on young girls’ mental health and body image… We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls, Facebook’s research revealed… Senators Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn are vowing to hold Facebook accountable for the impact the company is having on its young users around the world…
SARAH ZYLSTRA: On some level we’re doing this to ourselves. At the same time you’re consuming the casually gorgeous content of other women, you’re also creating your own.
MORGAN KENDRICK: It’s not even necessarily insecurity about looks every time as much as it could be like insecurity about like whether or not you’re interesting. I think about going into college, I was traveling a lot, whether it was like to see family – like sometimes it wasn’t even this like vacation thing. It was like, “I’m going to Texas to visit my grandma in Dallas,” right, and I felt this, like, pressure to capture those things and then present them in a way that made it seem like I was like this global, like, traveler that was like experiencing all these different things.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: That’s Morgan Kendrick. She graduated from Berkeley a few years ago and now works on the campus as a Reformed University Fellowship staffer. She’s 25 and her brand is the interesting international traveler, but she ran into trouble between trips – because what was she gonna post?
MORGAN KENDRICK: The normal rhythms of life set in, and then I was like, “Nothing’s, like, up to par. Like, nothing’s like worthy enough for me to post, so I have to do something interesting in order to feed this.” So I, like, for me personally, I think it was doing something interesting or fun or like going to a museum. Like there was even the element – “I’m, like, sophisticated and I like art and I’m gonna, like, show that I like that. And if I’m not going anywhere, at least I’m like reading the right things and I’m like having the right opinions based on things that I’m consuming.”
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Like Morgan, a lot of girls can articulate their brands – the granola sustainable girl who goes apple picking, the smart girl with the sarcastic one-liners who goes to math camp or graduate school, the healthy outdoorsy girl who goes running and rollerblading, the Christian girl who does mission trips and posts Bible verses. None of those things are wrong, but they are limiting. The identity we create for ourselves is never as wide ranging or complex as the one that God created for us. That means, as Morgan explained, it can be hard to keep thinking of posts that are on brand. But, if you get your brand right, if you create a personality that people like and you gather followers, that could catapult you into being an influencer.
MORGAN KENDRICK: That sounds great ’cause you get like, you get free things, you get to, like, try new experiences, and then you just have to document them. Like, that sounds amazing. I think there is this kind of, like, weird, like, almost like Nashville singer-songwriter, like, “I want to make it” for me, where I’m like – just being recognized in that way would feel like a lot of power. Um, and also just like affirmation of the things that you’ve kind of like wanted affirmation about – “Am I interesting? Am I funny? Am I cool?”
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Basically – “Do people like me? Do they wanna be like me? Do they want to be me?” There’s a line here between wanting to influence people for good and wanting to be the goddess everyone tries to emulate. If you can keep your eyes on Jesus and your identity rooted in him and your goal only his glory, then you can post freely, completely non-anxiously, regardless of who likes it or who doesn’t. But, if you’re trying to win the approval of other people, you will get all tangled up. Morgan explains.
MORGAN KENDRICK: My perception of what other people are thinking of me, it’s like the elephant in the room of just like – who, who does everyone else think I am? And who do I think I am based on who everyone else thinks I am? And then I’m gonna post based on like that, you know? So, yeah, I would say it’s hard.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Wait, who is influencing who here? Isn’t the influencer supposed to be the one with the power? Friends, she’s not. The power is all in the likes and the follows and the re-shares. If you lose those, you lose everything. Then you aren’t interesting or funny or cool. You’re just a girl with a post that fell flat and dishes on the counter and homework that still needs to be done.
MORGAN KENDRICK: One of my like best friends in college kind of would get frustrated with the whole, like, machine of it and so she started doing posts and she was like, “I just really wanna be honest on social media. Like I really wanna be like, you know, forthright and not just like sunshine and roses or like have everything be curated and perfect.” And then she kind of got to the point where she was like, “Now I just feel like I’m like, I have a vulnerability hangover after how sad I am or how like not good my life is. And then I do that, and I’m like, feel this like ickiness of like, I just like kind of exposed this really vulnerable thing to my friend from middle school that I haven’t talked to in 10 years.”
SARAH ZYLSTRA: At this point, I’m thinking – what happened to social media being a fun way to connect with your teammates or your church friends or your sorority sisters? This doesn’t sound fun. In fact, this doesn’t even have the satisfaction of a deep talk with a close friend where you both end up crying but more connected than before. What’s happening here?
MORGAN KENDRICK: So I think that isolation is happening because people are not as often forced to be face-to-face. They can be connected with people without really being known because they’ve never asked those harder questions or they’ve never been into a deeper conversation. And so I’m seeing more and more college students experiencing loneliness. And that’s not new, like that’s been something that’s been on the horizon for a few years. But the rate of loneliness and anxiety and panic is like through the roof.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: This is an anxiety that can follow you everywhere – to class, to work, to your car, to your bedroom.
KAYLEE MORGAN: It’s 2 p.m. on a Saturday morning and you’re, you know, laying in bed scrolling through Instagram and you see people put on their story, “Oh, like girl’s brunch,” and they had like a little picnic brunch on a Saturday and immediately you’re like, “Well, they’re out having brunch, and I’m laying in bed scrolling on my phone.” And you know what, maybe I needed that rest day, but now all of a sudden I’m seeing this and saying, “Hey, am I wasting my Saturday? Am I wasting my time? Do I even have any friends that would go out and do a brunch with me?” And now all of a sudden am I like, you know, not capitalizing on my friendships or, you know, wasting my day or, you know, whatever that looks like. So I would say that’s a big thing that I struggle with and I imagine a lot of other people do too. I just don’t think we as humans are wired to need to know or have to know what everyone else is doing at every second of the day, and social media almost feels a little like counter the way that we should be or the way we are wired as humans almost, if that makes sense.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: It makes sense to me. I’ve heard the same discussion around the news. We don’t have the capacity to absorb and process and react to all the drama that’s happening all over the world all the time. We aren’t God. We’re limited. The advice I’ve heard – maybe you have too – is to limit your news consumption. Stop overloading yourself. Quit checking the news sites all the time. Live inside your limits. You could apply the same logic to social media. Couldn’t we just limit the time we spend there?
MORGAN KENDRICK: I don’t know if I’ve talked to anyone my age group that like their phone is not the first thing that they like look at in the morning and before they go to bed.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: There are reasons for that. One is the blue light of the screen, which makes it harder for our brains, especially teen brains, to feel sleepy. Another is that social media platforms make money through advertising, which means the longer you’re on there, the more money they can make. That’s why everyone uses a news feed type scroll or a like or a reshare button. Those random hits of information or affirmation send a surge of pleasure into a human brain. We like that, so we go back for more. When the surges are random – we’re not sure how many people have liked our post – the urge to check is even stronger. After a while, our brain gets accustomed to one level of pleasure – say, an average of 30 likes for each post – and then 30 likes seems normal and boring and we’d like, say, 40 or 50 to make us happy. We’re searching for hits of pleasure and needing more and more to be satisfied. It sounds like addiction, doesn’t it? So how do you curb this addiction?
KAYLEE MORGAN: They’re like timer apps, so you can set, “Hey, every day I only wanna spend 20 minutes on Instagram.” And so it keeps track of how much time you spend on Instagram that day, and when your time limit’s up, it’ll give you a notification. Um, but then there’s always an option to ignore it. And so all my friends that have that notification, I’ve never really seen any of them follow it. Like I usually see them like kind of ignore it.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: The trouble is you can ignore every well-intentioned suggestion to help limit your time online. If you put your phone in another room before bedtime, you can head there first thing in the morning to retrieve it. If you move all your social media apps to a folder on the last page of your phone, you can swipe over to get them. If you turn off notifications, you can pop into your app all the time to see if you miss something. Even deciding the right amount of time to try and spend on social media is problematic, partly because we’re always underestimating how much time we spend scrolling and partly because there is no right answer.
JULIE LOWE: And there’s real wisdom issues there that can’t be formulaic. So the moment you say, “Well, here’s about a healthy amount of time,” somebody’s gonna say, “Oh, it should be much less,” and somebody’s gonna say, “Oh, it should be much more.” It’s just like saying, “When’s a good bedtime?”
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Julie Lowe is a counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. When girls come to her struggling with anxiety and depression, one of the first questions she asks is how they interact with social media.
JULIE LOWE: Now it’s a question that has to come up. And again, kids aren’t the best gauge ’cause they’re not connecting the dots. An example is we have parental controls on our devices and so our kids, the things we’ll let ’em on, even Amazon to go shopping or, or whatever it might be – it will kick ’em off after it hits their time limit and they’ll say repeatedly, “No way. It hasn’t been a half an hour already.” Right. And I think if my husband and I did the same thing, I’m sure we’d be like, “What? I, I just got on this.” And that is almost like gambling, you know, in, in a casino, that you lose track of time and space and you lose track of things around you. And there’s part of the, the danger of escaping into it.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Julie’s husband is also a counselor, and they have four teenagers themselves – two boys and two girls. I asked her how she and her husband handled their kids’ social media use.
JULIE LOWE: We do try to keep all of our teens off of social media for the most part.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Wait, what? Her kids don’t have any social media?
JULIE LOWE: You know, there’s been occasions where one of our boys got the Oculus Quest and it requires you to be on Facebook, but we also talked about “you’re not, you know, you’re not gonna befriend people on Facebook.”
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Julie told me she wants to give her kids a fighting chance, that when they become adults she wants them to be able to make a decision about joining social media on their own without already being addicted to it. And then she told me this –
JULIE LOWE: The research is arguing not to allow teens on social media. It’s not saying, “Here’s the amount of limited time they should be on.” It’s actually arguing not to let them on. Why? Because even a half an hour could be damaging to a child if that half an hour they’re on some of the worst sites and they’re struggling with identity and comparing themselves or people are cyberbullying them or they’re sexting them. Like the type of things that happen on social media are equally, if not far more, grievous than the amount of time my child’s spending on YouTube, social media, some of these things. And so, limiting time, of course, is important, but there’s so many other factors before you even get to limiting the time, to say, “What is the argument for why they should even be on this very specific site?”
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Why should they even be on this site? The girls themselves are asking this question.
MORGAN KENDRICK: Most girls that I’ve talked to go through phases of like, “I’m deleting it. I’m done.” Which means that like everyone goes through a phase of like, “This is too much for me or this is hurting me, or, you know, or it’s annoying,” whatever the negative kind of side of that is. I think everyone goes through a point with social media where they get exhausted.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Even so, it usually takes a stressful event, like a breakup with a boyfriend or a falling out with a friend, for someone to actually delete their social media.
AVERY FONG: I was on it during winter break and I saw three engagement posts in a row and I was like, “No,” and I deleted the app. I was like, “I’m good. Like, I don’t need to be comparing my stage of life. I don’t need to be comparing my relationship status.” So, that was one of those moments where I was like, “Okay, we’re done.”
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Avery Fong is a junior at Berkeley, where she’s also involved in Reformed University Fellowship. She had accounts on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook but never really got into Facebook and got rid of Snapchat when she realized it was basically the same thing as texting. Instagram was harder. She has two accounts there, one personal and one for sharing the work she’s doing for her architecture major. After a while, she noticed she was choosing her offline activities based on what would photograph well. We heard from her in the introduction, and she noticed she wasn’t consuming well either.
AVERY FONG: Every time I saw a post, every single time, I’d compare myself to something in the post, um, whether it was one of my friends or especially influencers or even just like – there’s some good Christian women on social media that still make me feel bad about myself because I’m like, “Oh, my faith doesn’t look like that right now” or “I like wanna be in the season of life that they’re in and I’m not and they look like such great, just, like, people in general.” I couldn’t get on the app and not think something negative about myself or another person.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Avery’s younger sister mentioned that she and her friends were taking Instagram breaks, and Avery decided to try that too. She took a few small ones for a week or so but didn’t really notice a difference. However, those smaller breaks probably paved the way for her bigger break. She’s been off now for several months.
AVERY FONG: Initially it was easier for me to get off, like just do the deed, disable my account. The harder part came after when I wanted to redownload it. I think I felt more lonely because of the lack of instant gratification and affirmation that comes from likes and comments. And so, yeah, me wanting to get back on the app to reaffirm that I have friends.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Avery does have friends. When she wants to redownload the app, she tells herself to text someone to say hello or see if anybody wants to go for a quick walk.
AVERY FONG: I have felt way less lonely because, yeah, the kind of love that comes from someone taking time out of their day to be with you physically is definitely a million times more valuable than someone taking five seconds to comment on your post, something that they might not even mean because it’s online and people are bolder behind the screen. So I think relationally it’s been good.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: It’s also been good for her mind.
AVERY FONG: Not having Instagram has given me the space to think in a more unfiltered way. And so rather than tailoring the things I wanna say to a post – which is good and I can share that with people and that can be encouraging – but for my own processing and thoughts, being able to like just journal and get out everything and not feel like I have to have things worded perfectly or, um, I have to be totally clean, happy, joyful when I am writing things, that’s been super cool to do.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: I just wanna underline that. Getting off Instagram helped Avery think better.
AVERY FONG: I usually hop on voice memos and just start talking, which is another good way of practicing, again, just like how to be relational or like conversational, um, rather than just being able to hold a conversation on text where you can kind of map out what you’re gonna say or what other people are gonna say. Knowing how to put words together I think is something that I’m still learning in this digital era.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Kaylee noticed something similar in her brain when she took some social media breaks.
KAYLEE MORGAN: There’s like almost less of a buzz going on in your head. Um, I just feel like my, like, head or, like, maybe my soul like just calms down a little bit because I don’t need to keep track of what Susie from ninth grade is doing in Louisiana this week. I, all I know is what I’m doing and what my friends are doing this week that I’ve chosen to hang out with.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: It sounds hopeful, doesn’t it? What if young women could go back to shopping together in malls and going out to dinner with boys and eating popcorn in movie theaters? What if they could take road trips instead of selfies and have complex conversations instead of photo shoots?
KAYLEE MORGAN: I think I finally came to the realization that having Instagram and being able to see what everyone else is doing does not bring any sort of positive, like, positivity to my life at all.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: So I asked her, “Kaylee, if that’s true, why do you keep it around?” Her answer is long, but I want you to hear the whole thing because her honesty is what finally made me delete my Facebook account.
KAYLEE MORGAN: A couple reasons. One, there’s a practical reason to it. So any clubs I’m involved in on campus, generally we have to do some advertising for fundraisers, whatever that looks like, so it’s helpful to have an Instagram account and post things on my story, whatever that looks like. Another big thing for me – honestly, this is a really superficial thing – um, but, you know, if you look at my Instagram account, like I definitely very much curate my pictures to, like, have a little bit of like a vibe to them. Um, I really like all the pictures of me on that, like, account. Like when I look at it, I’m seeing all my favorite aspects of my life. So when I look at my personal page, it gives me, I don’t know, maybe like a little bit of a serotonin boost or something, like, “Oh my gosh, look at all these cute pictures of me.” Like it makes me feel better about myself. Um, this is another superficial thing. I mean, we haven’t really talked about followers very much, but, like, because I’ve had my Instagram account for a while, like, I have a certain amount of followers, and if I fully deleted this account, like, I would lose all of that. And so to me it’s hard because I’m like, “Okay, I could fully delete my account, but if one day I wanted to redownload it again, I’m starting from square one and have to find all these people again.” It’s a lot easier for me to just choose to delete the app but maybe leave my account there. So, yeah, those are all – some of them were like superficial reasons, but there’s also that practical aspect too. So, I don’t know.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: Superficial reasons? For sure, but they were also my reasons. I didn’t even recognize them in myself until Kaylee said them out loud, and they scared me so much I deleted the Facebook account I didn’t like but hadn’t been able to get rid of. Actually, that isn’t true. Since I was afraid I’d end up scrolling, I asked my husband to go in and delete it for me, which he was happy to do. Because these young women don’t stay young women, and you won’t be surprised to learn we don’t naturally get better at social media as we get older.
JULIE LOWE: In marriages, like – and I’ve heard far more men talk about this than women – to say they come in and their wives are playing Candy Crush for hours at a time and not talk to them or they’re on their phones surfing Facebook or Pinterest, uh, all the time. And that, that cuts down on relationships. So think how many marriages are impacted by some of those decisions as well.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: So what can we tell young women, our daughters and sisters and nieces and friends? Here’s what Morgan tells her Berkeley students.
MORGAN KENDRICK: The water that you’re swimming in is gonna affect you, and it’s okay that you’re not strong enough to control how much this affects you. It’s not a, it’s not a weakness issue. It’s not a stability issue. It’s not like whether or not you’re secure enough in the Lord that you are not affected by social media.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: She’s right. We’re humans created to influence each other. Morgan encourages her girls to take breaks, which is great advice. We can even go a little further. Instead of just removing social media from your life or encouraging someone else to remove it from theirs, let’s figure out what’s going to take its place. Let’s add in relationships. Add in making cookies and having coffee with a friend and reading your Bible in the quiet. Add in worship music while you’re driving, hikes with the dog, or a creative project. Add in journaling and voice memos to help you think. Add in serving at your local church. Add in soccer games, musical instruments, and sandcastles on the beach.
MALISA ELLIS: I was reading in Acts today and looking at like the, um, beginning of the church, so the church at Antioch, and thinking about they belonged so that they could be sent out. And so this idea of like if we are anchored in who Jesus has made us to be and we know where we belong to him and to his family, his community, then we really should be being sent out. And right now, why would that not include social media?
SARAH ZYLSTRA: I love this. If young girls are looking to Instagram as a place to achieve the perfect identity, to find community, and to learn how to live a good life, it will continue to eat them alive. But if they can come to Instagram with identities rooted in Jesus, tied tightly to real-life friendships and mentors in their local church, patterning their lives after actual saints, then couldn’t some of them enter the mission field of Instagram or Facebook? Because social media truly can help you belong before you believe. It can make entering a campus ministry or a new church or a women’s Bible study easier. It can be a platform on which you can share Scripture and your testimony. It can be a great way to raise awareness or to learn about all kinds of things, from mission opportunities to ways to care for an apartment to figuring out your new community.
MALISA ELLIS: I wanna believe that the Lord can use this for good, but that we still have to do the work as disciples and followers of Jesus, to, to be anchored and also to help the women who are younger than us be anchored in Jesus.
SARAH ZYLSTRA: To do the work. That’s not just a mandate for the girls. It’s hard to pull your own self out of quicksand. So it’s also a challenge for the rest of us, to help our young women be so anchored in Jesus that the pull of social media would grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. Laura’s been thinking about how a church could do that.
LAURA WIFLER: Having real conversations about social media is really important and not pretending like it doesn’t exist or isn’t a part of women’s lives. I think, as you noted, providing and creating spaces for women to get together in real life – having Bible studies, um, having book clubs, having, uh, get togethers and socials or whatever that looks like, planning meal trains for one another. Doing the hard work of every day, in and out, real-life living together should never be neglected. And then lastly, I would say, um, just to focus on teaching women what discernment looks like and to say, “How do you know if someone is telling you something that aligns with God’s Word?”
SARAH ZYLSTRA: A lot of this could fit under the instruction of Titus two – for older women to teach younger women what is good. And isn’t that what young women are searching for on Instagram? How to look good, how to be good, how to have a good life. But we don’t have to reach for that ourselves. Christ has already paid for our sins on the cross and declared us good in the eyes of a holy God. There’s no picture we could take, no caption we could write, no amount of followers we could gather that could add anything to the finished work of Christ. Younger sisters, you are good, made that way by Jesus. Your life is good, full of meaning and direction, created that way by God. You don’t have to shape or create an identity that is already yours. You might choose to get off social media. Along with Kaylee and Avery, I can tell you what a relief it is to walk away. Or you might choose to use it as a platform from which to speak gospel truth. Either way, if you are rooted in Jesus, you are living a good life.
JESSE EUBANKS: Today’s episode comes from the Recorded podcast. Recorded is part of The Gospel Coalition’s podcast network. This episode was written by Sarah Zylstra and produced by Josh Diaz. Their media director is Brandon McAllister. Editor-in-chief is Collin Hansen. Find more podcasts from The Gospel Coalition at tgc.org/podcasts.
JESSE EUBANKS: Senior producer and host is me, Jesse Eubanks. Anna Tran is our media director and producer. Music in today’s episode is from Poddington Bear and Murphy DX.
This show is brought to you by Love Thy Neighborhood. If you want a hands-on experience of missions in our modern times, come serve with Love Thy Neighborhood. Love Thy Neighborhood offers summer and year long missions internships for young adults ages 18 to 30. Bring social change with the gospel by working with an innovative nonprofit and serving your urban neighbors. Experience community like never before as you live and do ministry with other Christian young adults. Grow in your faith by walking in the life and lifestyle of Jesus and being part of a vibrant, healthy church. Apply now at lovethyneighborhood.org.
Which of these was a neighbor to the man in need? The one who showed mercy. Jesus tells us, “Go, and do likewise.”
The episode was written by Sarah Zylstra.
Recorded is produced by Josh Diaz.
Find more podcasts from The Gospel Coalition at www.tgc.org/podcasts.
LOVE THY NEIGHBORHOOD PODCAST:
Senior producer and host is Jesse Eubanks.
Anna Tran is media director and producer.
Music is from Podington Bear & Murphy D.X.
DONATE TO THE PODCAST
Make a one-time or recurring gift of any amount to keep the Love Thy Neighborhood Podcast free for everyone.