The internet has always had its dark side: email money transfer and gift card scams, identity theft, catfishing, fake job offers, stalkers, social media bullying, and more. During this time of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, when people are out of work, bored, and increasingly desperate for human connection, those abuses seem to increase.
The Dark Side of Social Media
Online pornography use has recently increased by 50 percent or more. Reports of the online sexual abuse of children have more than doubled in the US, the UK, India, the Philippines, and elsewhere around the world as countries have been locked down during the pandemic, and children have been home from school enjoying more screen time than usual. Young players in seemingly innocuous games such as Minecraft or Fortnite have been targeted by online predators. Evil is definitely alive and well on the internet.
There’s a dark side to social media, too, that causes individuals of all ages much pain and heartache. Whether it is bullying by peers that’s made its way from high school locker rooms to Snapchat or the negative body image, low self-esteem, and fear of missing out (FOMO) that pervades Instagram’s carefully filtered and finely curated photo stream, social media is not always just cute family pics and funny cat memes. The lesser evils of social media that are based on arbitrary standards of beauty, jealousy, gossip, and endless competition over the number of followers one has or the number of likes one’s post gets—these can all lead to an increase in self-harm in a world that makes idols out of social media influencers and where children, youth, and adults struggle to feel their true worth.
The Darkness in Our Hearts
And what to say of the darkness that lurks in our own hearts? Try as we might to blame it all on the world around us, the truth is the covetousness, crude joking, slander, false witness, and all-around impurity that drives so many social media posts to viral stardom is part of the sinful human condition. It’s us, not the internet. We are the problem. Social media may be the medium by which we carry out our sins, but we are the sinners.
Who can free us from the deadly expectations placed on us by the world? From the disordered inclinations of our own sinful nature? There is only one: Jesus Christ.
“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children,” St. Paul writes in Ephesians 5. “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1–2). He goes on to describe the believers’ new life in Christ in stark contrast to their old life of sin—as different as night and day, or death and life:
For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:8–14)
The Light of Jesus
There’s freedom in these words for those struggling with the darkness of social media—did you hear it? “Now you are light in the Lord,” Paul says. Thanks to Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection, we have been brought into the light.
No longer do we have to rely on the standards of this world and its social media influencers to grant us a positive self-image. We don’t have to limit our notion of what it means to live our best life based on the number of likes our latest Instagram post gets. We don’t have to fear online bullies or their armies of anonymous trolls. Jesus has already exposed them all for what they are: forgeries and fakes. Social media shams, bound to Satan and destined for the grave, where all dead things go. But that’s not you or me. That’s not the future for anyone whom the Holy Spirit has called by the Gospel, enlightened with His gifts, sanctified and kept in the one true faith. The grave couldn’t hold Jesus, and it won’t hold us, we who are bound to Him through Baptism. “Awake, O sleeper!” Jesus calls out to you and me. “Arise from the dead.”
Trusting that Christ has secured our future and walks with us today to shine His light on our path, we are free to look around with clear eyes at the social media landscape and recognize all of the “unfruitful works of darkness” Paul talks about in verse 11. Take no part in them! If someone you love is being hurt online, expose the one causing harm. Every social media platform has a way to report abusive content, bullies, or users who are threatening self-harm. Make sure your kids know how to report those types of posts. Share the truth on your social media accounts, not some idealized forgery of the life you think others want to see and teach your children to do the same. Model the kind of online behavior you want them to imitate. Help them discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
“Walk as children of light,” St. Paul encouraged those early Christians two thousand years ago in Ephesus before the internet or social media could even be imagined. “Walk as children of light,” St. Paul encourages us as we navigate Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Twitter, and any other social media platform to come. Walk as children of light!
Social media causes us to make difficult decisions. Draw from the Bible to help you make decisions in Tough Call: A Little Book on Making Big Decisions.