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Are we helping or hurting? (3.5 minute read)

Updated: Jul 3

It’s not uncommon for a youth ministry to have an Instagram or TikTok account these days. After all, if your students are already there, why not be a light in that space, right?

Unfortunately, many youth leaders neglect to wrestle with the implications of providing even more reasons for their students to spend time on social media. Don't get me wrong! There are many contexts where modeling what it means to honour Christ through our social platforms can be a really effective form of discipleship. But for some, we may be hurting more than we’re helping.

‘Collective Traps’ or ‘Social Media Traps’ are relatively new ideas. Social Media Traps are when an individual is unable to disengage specifically from social media because they fear missing out on something socially significant: a trend, world events, a picture of their friend's new dog. Their peers (the collective), also fear missing out. Everyone feels the need to stay engaged, lest they miss out on the next big thing. It doesn’t help that a lot of TikTok trends only last half a day. For many youth and young adults, escaping the Collective Trap by deleting apps just leads to greater feelings of exclusion and anxiety. Ultimately, they redownload the app and are right back where they started.

Years ago, I volunteered with my church youth group. Our youth pastor decided to use a Facebook group as his sole method to keep his leaders up to date. Convenient, because everyone was already there. Inconvenient, because I had finally rid myself of the app! Now my choice was to miss out on potentially important updates and fun pictures of me and the other leaders or to re-engage with a platform where I genuinely didn’t want to be.

As ministry leaders, we have an opportunity to help our youth and leaders escape the traps, but it has to be done as a collective. A recent working paper out of the University of Chicago (‘When Product Markets Become Collective Traps’, Bursztyn, et al.) revealed that the average price the researcher would have to pay a college student to get them and all their friends off TikTok was around $-28. That negative sign is not a typo: when offered money, the average college student would instead be willing to pay the researchers $30 to get them and their friends off TikTok and escape the social trap.

I'm not saying you need to delete your youth group Instagram account. Rather, think about if you really need it. Do the lost opportunities outweigh the potential harms? Take some time to wrestle through the ethical implications of an active social media account and what it means for your ministry and your students.

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