Understanding Social Media – An Orthodox Perspective
“Today, our society has reached another tipping point, to rewire the way people spread and consume information. . . The power to share will help us to transform many of our core institutions and industries.”
– Mark Zuckerberg on the eve of Facebook’s IPO, 2012
I thought social media was supposed to connect us to each other? Take a moment and think about your social media usage. Is most of it really you connecting with other people? Or are you mostly on social media doing something else?
Understanding Social Media in General
If you haven’t yet, read my other blog about an Orthodox Understanding of Technology.
There I explain how screen-based, internet-connected technology functions in our life similarly to alcohol. It can be addictive. It affects our moods. It can destroy relationships. Yet with moderate, proper use, our technology can be a tool to bring us closer to God.
Social media might even be more like alcohol. It is pervasive in our society. Its overuse leads to a steady degradation in our health and relationships.
Don’t forget how social media works – it exists as a for profit business, to make money from advertising. It is designed to be addictive. Just look at some of the terminology. Through social media, we are fed (via a newsfeed) content based on what an algorithm believes will keep our attention glued to our device, resulting in increased ad revenue for the platform. We even describe the best, top performing content as viral – having the attributes of an infectious agent that multiplies in organic cells.
Are You Not Entertained?
Did you take a moment to reflect on your social media usage? When I think about what I am really doing whenever I am on social media, I am rarely there to connect. I am there for entertainment.
Every social media platform’s monetization model is not about connection. It was originally, but they’ve found a better way. Now it’s about keeping your attention with highly tailored entertainment.
We have to view social media with a wary eye and to teach our children to do the same. Help your kids understand that social media is designed to be addictive and that it functions almost exclusively as entertainment. Treat social media in your household the same way you would treat TV or video games.
Protecting Your Kids on Social Media
Parents very quickly start to look for ways to control their children’s access online. There are many methods – parental controls, turning their internet access on and off, sharing your child’s login, etc. We won’t go into detail on any of those things here. You can find many guides by searching online to help you set them up. Just type in parental control + name of platform. Or better yet, ask an AI chatbot for advice and revel in the irony!
Instead, here we will focus on more holistic strategies for how to protect your children on social media from harmful content and harmful interactions.
Protecting your Kids from Harmful Content
Here’s a reality check for you – parental controls don’t really work. They can only help prevent your children from accidentally viewing inappropriate content. They are very easy to circumvent. If your kid wants to see something explicit, they will find a way.
Here are some suggested strategies to help protect your kids from harmful content:
Kid Friendly Social Media
Set expectations around rhythms for you to check your kid’s technology. Semi-regularly audit their search history and scroll their newsfeed to see if the algorithm is recommending anything harmful. Sit down with them and review the privacy and content restriction settings. Ask them what they think each option should be set to and why.
Designated Tech Area
Set a place in your house, ideally on the main floor, where technology can be used publicly. There are few times when a kid needs to be alone anywhere with technology. In this way you can reinforce extra accountability and visibility into your kids’ social media use.
Curate App Mix
There are many apps that kids simply shouldn’t be on, especially not unsupervised. Chrome and Safari are two of the worst! Don’t allow your kids to have the ability to download apps at will. But as far as social media goes, if you don’t know anything about an app your kid is using, they shouldn’t be allowed to use it. Download it yourself and test it out. Here are guides on how to lock new app downloads on Apple and Android.
Encourage your kids to regularly attend confession and be open and honest with the priest about what is troubling them or making them feel uneasy. There is a powerful spiritual element in harmful content and you can’t address this alone as a parent.
Protecting your Kids from Harmful Interactions
You likely won’t be able to be in complete control of who your kids connect with on social media. Here are some suggestions on how to stay in touch enough to ensure your kids are being intentional and careful about their connections.
Teach Ground Rules
Make it clear to your kids who they can connect with. If they aren’t the same age or a family member, they shouldn’t be a social media connection.
Use the Same Apps & Connect
You should be on all the same apps as your kids and be connected with them. This helps you keep context on what it is like to use any given social platform and also establishes some natural accountability because “my parents are watching.”
Friend & Feed Audits
Set up a rhythm to audit your kid’s friends and feed. Often, if you are friends with them you will be able to see their entire connection list. Auditing a child’s feed is as easy as asking them to scroll for a while with you watching.
The Only Actual Solution – Discernment
At the end of the day throughout each of our lives our choices come down to discerning between what will bring us closer to God and what won’t. If your kid wants to view something harmful, they will find a way. Discernment is a spiritual practice, so it has to have its root in your Orthodox faith.
Pray for and with Your Children for Discernment
Our digital lives are only growing in complexity and the number of temptations. Pray for your children’s interaction with social media! Pray with your children for their discernment and time spent on social media. Bring God into the middle of the challenge.
Talk and Teach about Discernment
Help your children develop a wary worldview. Help them understand that what is in their newsfeed is indeed being fed to them by a computer whose goal is not to help you get closer to God. Its goal is actually to distract you from God.
Set a Frequent Example
Call yourself out on your own social media usage in front of your children! Let them see you wrestling with it and being accountable. Let them hear you say – “ooh I don’t like that, I am going to tell Facebook to hide those posts in the future.”
Quiz Your Kids
Ask them to analyze hypothetical situations and tell you what they would do. “So, you are on Snapchat and you get a request from someone you don’t know. What do you do?” “Why don’t you think you are allowed to watch R rated movies?” “What would you do if you saw something online that made you feel weird or surprised?”
Practice with the Same Apps
Experience for yourself the context in which your kids will have to practice discernment. You need to know what the best content and privacy settings are, how incoming connection requests look, what sorts of content the algorithm will suggest, and what the ads look like.
At What Age are Kids Ready to Discern?
The social media companies have said it is 13. That seems low, but once they hit 13 they will have the social pressure to get on social media. So we have to start teaching and preparing our kids from a very young age!
Understanding Individual Social Media
What sets YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest, Reddit, and Twitch.tv apart from all other social media?
They aren’t really social media! They were fundamentally created not to connect people online, but instead, they are more truly media, with a social component.
Sure these platforms can be used for education, to access how-to guides, and to help you solve problems. But they are structurally organized for the sole purpose of entertainment. They don’t even have a central facade of connecting people to each other. They aren’t relational.
Below we will share a brief review and notes on all of the main social media platforms with the goal of helping you understand their purpose and how to better parent around them.
In the survey conducted to form the core focuses of this content, Orthodox parents identified YouTube as the #1 social media they feel is the biggest issue for their family. As noted above, YouTube isn’t truly a social media. You don’t go on Youtube to connect with people. You go there purely for entertainment. Therefore, we have to completely look at YouTube as a source of entertainment.
Notes about YouTube:
- Your child’s access on YouTube can be controlled through a Google FamilyLink account
- YouTube for Kids is a great option
- Contains lots of explicit content. They do not allow sexually explicit content, but their guidelines are nowhere near what Orthodox parents would typically prefer for children
- Does allow live chat with people you have no connection to via live videos
- Fundamentally a time waster
- Treat it just like watching TV
TikTok exists only because they mastered mobile, short-form video viewing. Their recommendation engine is wildly powerful and quick to learn a user’s preferences. TikTok also isn’t a true social media. It’s a video entertainment platform.
Notes about TikTok:
- Highly addictive
- Designed to fill the in between moments in your life with mobile video entertainment
- You can set up parental controls by linking your child’s account to your account, called Family Pairing
- Fundamentally a time waster
- Treat it just like watching TV
Reddit is truly the wild west of the internet. If you want to experience the anarchy of unbridled democracy, this is your place. Reddit is about connecting with people that share your interests, but not with people you know personally. Almost all Reddit use is for entertainment. Reddit is NOT a place for kids.
Notes about Reddit:
- No content restrictions. Unmetered explicit content galore
- Famously the place that crazy people go to interact and argue
- The best elements of social media combined with the absolute worst
- No child should go on Reddit for any reason
Let’s be honest, most kids don’t care about Pinterest! Despite how innocent Pinterest seems, they do have sexual content not safe for children. Pinterest also can be a strong driver of comparison. Its structure is based on elements of greed (collection) and emulation. You collect examples of things you like that represent what you want to get or what you want to become like.
Do you know what this is? Twitch.tv is a live streaming video platform, especially famous among video gamers, but their content reaches far beyond gaming. If your kids play video games there is a good chance they find themselves watching videos on Twitch.tv.
Notes about Twitch.tv
- Ubiquitous live chatting between strangers
- Very little sexual content
- Easy to find violent content
- Explicit language is common
Besides what the young cool kids might think, Facebook is still the dominant social media. It isn’t as popular among kids, but most kids still have a profile.
Notes about Facebook
- Lots of good Orthodox content
- Can actually be helpful to connect with people you know
- Still mostly used for entertainment
- Be friends with your kid on Facebook
- Audit their friends list and newsfeed
- Set up privacy and content settings together
Instagram originally was one of the purest social media – you connect with people you know and share photos within your connections. In the past 5 years (ultimately beginning when they were acquired by Facebook) Instagram has introduced and pushed videos and the ability to buy things. This has really consumerized the platform and it is now much less about viewing photos from your friends and more about being entertained and following brands and celebrities you like. Because it requires a photo or video to post, it is an intrinsically aesthetic and vainglorious platform.
Notes on Instagram
- Largely centered around showing off
- Increasingly about entertainment, more and more videos
- Contributes to lots of body image issues in young people
- Follow your kids, watch their content and connections
Twitter is all about sharing your ideas in the most ineffective ways. You have a voice, you should use it to speak your thoughts. Other people should hear it and they should respond to you. It’s sort of like if Reddit were started by people that wanted to make more money and focus on people instead of topics. People that use Twitter are either there for entertainment or they are convincing themselves it’s somehow useful and beneficial. It is a great way to get super up to date news, if you don’t care about the source or quality.
Notes on Twitter
- Twitter is not for kids
- Lots of explicit and offensive content
- If your kids are on Twitter, follow them
- Set up filters and settings together
Snapchat is also a fairly pure form of social media. Its original core concept was to send pictures to people you know that would quickly expire, so unless you screenshot it (like my mother in law does to every snapchat message, ever), it goes away. It is primarily an image, short video, and text chat app used between people that know each other. Snapchat has jumped on the video entertainment bandwagon along with Instagram and TikTok and now features a steady feed of purely entertaining videos you can scroll through, unrelated to your actual Snapchat friends.
Notes on Snapchat
- Can be a fun safe way for kids to interact with each other
- Does tempt you into time wasting with Stories and Spotlight
- Audit your kid’s friends list
The Holy Use of Social Media
Ah, you say, but can’t we use social media for good? Couldn’t we lurk there in the shadows like the Batman of Instagram, shining our bright light of love? Well you could for sure. I’d love to see it!
But to even start using social media in a holy way, we are swimming upstream. The point of our Christian lives is to become like God. The point of social media is entertainment. Every social media platform is foundationaly structured to be addicting and hold your attention.
Just like alcohol, some people can’t hold their social media (liquor). It’s easier not to use it at all, the temptation is too great, its effect on your mood and relationships too immediate.
That likely isn’t the world you live in. You are already on social media and so are your kids. Here are a few strategies to employ to start molding your household’s social media usage towards something that actually benefits your salvation.
Follow Orthodox Content
Sanctify your newsfeed! Search for the word Orthodox and you’ll find loads of great sources of inspiration. Consume, post, and share Orthodox and godly content. Get your kids to follow the same accounts.
Literally no one needs push notifications for anything on social media. Maybe if you are trying to communicate with someone via Facebook Marketplace. But your kids aren’t doing that! Turn off all notifications from all social media apps and experience true freedom.
Define Meaningful Connections
Talk with your kids about what are good and meaningful connections. Do you really want that random guy from your old middle school to see all of your pictures forever? Do you really need to be Snapchat friends with that kid that was mean to you? Encourage your kids to only connect to their best friends and family via social media. Make it seem ok and maybe even cool to deny friend requests!
Use Social Media to Connect
Let’s get back to the original and central purpose of social media. It’s not for entertainment. You shouldn’t be doom-scrolling while you are in the bathroom. No one should be on social media while in bed, ever. Use it as a communication tool to enhance your relationships with the people you are already closest to. You don’t need to be “fed” any “news”. You only need to love God and love people.
Social Media Fasting
If you can’t fast from something, then you are either addicted to it or you’ll literally die without it. Practice regular social media fasting with your family. Wednesdays and Fridays could be social media and screen free. The four major fasting periods of the Church are great times to remove social media from our lives too.
Jump to another session:
Session 3: – Current- Understanding Social Media – An Orthodox Perspective
Note from the Author:
Hello! I’m Cooper Buss. A layman having (at the time of writing this) just completed my first year of a Master’s of Theology at the Antiochian House of Studies and a parishioner at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis. I am also a new father and have spent years as a digital marketing expert, so these topics are pertinent to me!
Thinking about and studying technology from an Orthodox perspective is a passion of mine and the focus of my studies. I hope to create much more content of this type as time goes on. If you have any ideas, questions, or comments, please email me at email@example.com ! I’d love to hear from you.
In the meantime – PLEASE share this content wherever you see fit and wherever you believe God could work some good through it.