Devorah Heitner, who was interviewed on our podcast back in October, recently wrote an interesting article on the themes from her book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. The kids in the piece demonstrate quite a grasp of the ambiguities and pitfalls of constant connectivity.

Heitner’s stance is that children are “digital natives” – this is the water they grow up swimming in. While generous towards their sometimes excessive usage, she also recognizes the hand of the Law in the social media landscape. Here, she addresses the tight-rope walk of curating an appealing online self-image: “Middle school can be an especially complicated time for girls. They are experimenting with social identity, even as their always-on digital world intensifies the scrutiny. Many want to be seen as pretty (even sexy, in some ways), but also as innocent and as ‘nice.’ This is an impossible balancing act.”roz-chast-tombstone-engraved-with-stopped-keeping-up-with-the-kardashians-new-yorker-cartoon

When meticulous image creation and ladder climbing pervade at an impossibly young age, as they do in the nebulous promises of Instagram actualization or Vine fame or whatever the Kardashians are doing, how much harder then is recognizing the gift of the Gospel to free us from the condemnation of the Law. As Heitner’s analysis shows, there’s a demand for perfectionism online for kids.

More concrete evidence of social media’s effect on our consciousness can be studied through our attachment to “Likes.” It’s tempting to use them as a lens for real world scenarios. An outing with friends at a picturesque spot, framed in the context of likes, becomes a goldmine. Heitner presents data from social scientists reporting this shift of mind.

In a study published last summer, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the pleasure centers in teenagers’ brains respond to the reward of getting “likes” on Instagram exactly as they do to thoughts of sex or money. And just as parents try to teach children self-control around those enticements, they must also talk to them about not falling victim to behavior they will regret when craving those “likes.”

That craving for likes reminded me of Francis Spufford’s chapter on sin in Unapologetic, and the “self-pleasing smirk” that often accompanies our nefarious desires. By their very nature, social media posts are directed at people. It’s not that much of a stretch then to assume that some of them come at the expense of people. Or at least they feel that way to friends and followers – the person who wasn’t invited to the party, doesn’t look as good in a bathing suit, can’t afford that vacation, etc. That receiving “likes” is a source of pleasure, then, corresponds in my mind to that “self-pleasing smirk” I wear after tossing out a stray barb at the dinner table. What exactly I meant with the comment or why I felt the urge to share it doesn’t matter too much. I shrug that I was just kidding, but, of course, I was dead serious. And, like a post that receives a lot of attention online, I feel a little better about myself because of it. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of benign ways to use social media, but any new forum for conversation will bear our fallen tendencies.

How then shall we live? Heitner argues that naming and discussing these feedback-loops of social media allows for empathy to be felt in them.

Getting your children to articulate the unspoken rules can be the first step in helping them be more understanding of their peers. When we observe our children harshly judging others who have a different sensibility about the use of social media, they need us to set aside our judgments about their world, and help them cultivate empathy for one another.