Behind the Screens of the Selfie World of Teens
By Kristen Hatton

AS EMMA SCROLLED through her social media feed Sunday evening, she felt more and more depressed. In every picture her friends were perfect. Why couldn’t she be them? Her life was boring compared to theirs. Besides seeing plans she had been left out of, she also noticed how many more “comments” and “likes” everyone else received on their photos. “I need to delete my post,” Emma thought. “I’ll just look like a loser if I don’t get more likes.”

Caroline was scrolling through social media that same Sunday night after a full weekend of fun. She couldn’t decide which of her pictures to post; she wanted to make sure it wasn’t the same one another friend had already posted. But she needed to decide quickly as she knew it was important to post at just the right time to get the most likes. Typically, she got hundreds within minutes, which gave her great satisfaction. She loved the attention and had become dependent on it for self-confidence boosts.

For Emma and Caroline, and a vast majority of teenagers today, social media is significantly influencing their identity and worth. While struggles with self-image are nothing new for teenagers, the degree to which they are stuck in self — and the accompanying behavioral sin and mental health issues — should sound an alarm for the church.

In the past, teens were blissfully unaware of what their peers were doing at any given moment, most of the time, so they were free to enjoy who they were with and what they were doing. But now there is never a time they aren’t faced with a steady stream of images that become the backdrop to how they view themselves and interpret the world around them. What teenagers see on their screens becomes their truth, and the truth about who God is and who He says they are has no bearing.

As they scroll through Instagram, they see friends who are prettier, skinnier, more popular, more accomplished, and who seem to live more exciting lives. They also see what they’ve been left out of and wonder, “Why was I not included?” They compare everything “wrong” about themselves to the presumed perfection of others. Of course, it’s only an illusion that everyone else has it all together. But for the teens (or adults, for that matter) trapped by the comparison game, it is easy to buy into the lies and think they are the only ones struggling.

Looking through the grid of self, numbers become the basis for determining worth. It may be the number of likes on a picture, the number of continuous Snapchat streaks, or the total number of followers. In no way are the telling numbers limited to social media. Just as important is the number on the bathroom scale, dress size, college preparatory test score, GPA, or any of the multitude of other numerical ways to determine how they stack up against their peers. But even achieving the right number is not enough, because the standard continues to change.

There are always others doing better at more. Scripture says to “rejoice with them” (Romans 12:15), which would be the overflow of loving thy neighbor as thyself. But where sinful hearts and a culture of comparison collide, seeing others doing better at more drives invisible wedges in relationships. Is it any wonder teens feel more isolated than ever before? Even among friends, envy prevents real closeness. And in believing everyone else has a problem-free, perfect life, anxiety, stress, and the feeling of worthlessness pervade.

With such a skewed view of reality, what teens are trusting in is not Jesus’ perfect record for them, but their own effort. They think if they could only make themselves perfect — not just in one area but in every realm — life would be better and they would be okay. So they set out trying, not realizing that the added pressure of an unattainable reality is only taking them down a path to greater despair.

But the mounting pressure to perform perfectly and the despair that follows failing to measure up gives rise to the soaring number of teens dealing with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, cutting, and the like. Even teenagers who look like they have it all together and don’t fit the troubled-teen stereotype often are struggling. In fact, research shows that while teens across all socioeconomic levels are included, it is teens from upper-middle-class environments, where expectations and pressures are greatest, who comprise the largest subgroup of teens dealing with mental health issues.

But like substance abuse, promiscuity, same-sex attraction, and gender identity confusion, the mental health struggles point to something deeper beneath the surface. So while it’s easy to zero in on particular mental health issues, or on behavioral sin, or on social media as the problem of teenagers today, none of these is the primary issue.

According to Mark 7:15-22, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him … . For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” Therefore, to treat only the surface symptom or to shift blame onto something other than the sin within will never bring the healing, rest, and worth these teens so desperately desire.

THE ROOT PROBLEM stems from the heart; the behaviors are simply the byproduct of what is going on in what Paul Tripp deems an “idol factory.” For whatever the heart worships or desires more than God will lead to truth about God being exchanged for a lie — a false god or idol (Romans 1:25). Ever since Satan convinced Adam and Eve that God was withholding good by not allowing them to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, the same lie — that God is not enough and life must be found somewhere other than Him — has been fleshed out from within every human heart.

For teenage girls, in particular, social media is an easy platform where this lie can flourish. All it takes is one look, and truth becomes blurred by comparison and discontent. The heart is now primed for Satan’s whispering lies:

“You’re not like them.”
“You’re not good enough.”
“You’re not popular enough.”
“You need to be skinnier.”
“You need a new wardrobe.”
“You’re not rich enough.”
“No boy will ever want to date you.”
“Your life is boring.”
“You are worthless.”
“You don’t measure up.”
“You aren’t the star.”

The longer they look and compare, the more these lies become “truth,” and what God says is true about them — that they are deeply loved and made perfectly in His image — is forgotten. So in a feeble attempt to secure the identity and worth they think they lack, they turn to the false gods of acceptance, approval, appearance, perfection, and performance. But these false gods are relentless, requiring work to constantly satisfy them.

FOR INSTANCE, a teen may achieve that certain number of likes on a picture and temporarily receive the approval she longed for, but what happens when the next picture she posts isn’t quite as successful? With the bar a little higher, now she craves even more likes to know her worth. Same thing with performance — it’s not enough to make an A, it has to be the highest A in the class. Not just in one class, but every class. But even being at the top academically is not enough; performing the best in every realm is the standard and, as previously noted, the reason for so much anxiety and stress. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the escape of drugs, alcohol, or food would be appealing, and sex enticing.

But none of these can satisfy the deep longing to be known, loved, and accepted. So, apart from coming to see these as false gods and resting their worth in the one true God, teenagers will find that the temporary numbing leads only to more emptiness and greater despair. To break free, their hearts must be exposed and the specific lies uncovered so they see their need of something greater — Someone greater.

In Jesus they have all they need, but too often even in Christian culture today, kids are not being taught the Gospel and therefore don’t see how it applies to all of life. Because they cannot confidently explain the basic tenets of what the Gospel is and are unfamiliar with terms like “justification” — the one-time act of being declared right — the continual, far-reaching implications of that have no bearing. What teenagers need from the church, and from their parents, is to be consistently given a Gospel grid for understanding rightly who Jesus is for them (His worth and work) as their true identity.

Knowing who Jesus is and what He has done for them — His perfect performance on their behalf — is the power that will enable teens (and again, adults) to quit trying to achieve an identity through performance, appearance, acceptance, and perfection. Being declared right means everything good about Jesus is given to the believer. God now views the believer — His child — as perfect because Jesus was perfect. His child now stands without accusation or condemnation but as righteous.

Therefore, in every way that the struggling teenager thinks she has failed to measure up, Jesus already has measured up perfectly for her.

It means every time a believing teen turns to a false god for worth or acceptance, Jesus never has taken His eyes off the Father for that teen.

And every time a teenage boy looks to another for affirmation, Jesus has never bowed to others’ opinions of him.

Justification is the basis of a secure identity and the anchoring truth teens most need to grasp. By God’s grace, what a difference it would make in their lives if they knew their worth is completely secure in His work and worth, as opposed to anything they do.

With soul-worth anchored in Him, instead of trying to fill their soul with self and what this world values, might they realize an identity that says the following?

“No matter how few comments I get on my photo, I am deeply loved.”
“Even though I have messed up for the thousandth time, God calls me righteous.”
“Although I didn’t make the team, get asked to the dance, ace the test, have as much money, or look as pretty as __________, my significance and worth are in Christ.”
“I don’t have to prove or elevate myself because God accepts me as I am, and His opinion is the only one that matters.”
“When I feel like I have failed to measure up, I can trust in the One who measured up perfectly for me.”

RECEIVING LIKES on Instagram is no longer life or death when teenagers start to see more of who Jesus is for them and become captivated by His grace. Being seen at every event or hanging out with only the most popular crowd is no longer the idol it once was. Turning to food, alcohol, or cutting to assuage their depression loses its grip.

Because of His great love, Jesus willingly endured the wrath of the Father and the shame of the cross. Understanding this sacrifice is key to understanding worth and the message teens need to find their true identity.

Going back to Emma and Caroline: In different ways both girls have the same problem. Both girls are looking for their worth in false sources, and both believe the lie that something other than Christ can fill them. Neither girl, apart from the Gospel breaking in and reorienting her to the truth of who Jesus is for her, will find what she is looking for. The intensity and drive to be great — to feel her worth — will only increase as time goes by. And instead of growing in maturity, both girls will grow more and more self-obsessed and less secure.

Seeing what is happening behind the scenes (and screens) should serve as a wake-up call to the church, which is needed to bring the truth about Jesus to a culture feeding off lies. Teens and their parents need the unwavering hope of the Gospel.

They need others who will enter in and walk alongside them with grace and compassion. They need people who know their own brokenness and can identify with them.

Only by the power of the Gospel will teens find that just like Adam and Eve, everything they long for they already have secured in Christ. Being filled in Him — knowing His acceptance, performance, and perfection for them — is what will enable them to stand, no matter what. Looking full into His face, at His worth and work, may they be free from the chains of self and find themselves firmly rooted in the identity of their Savior.

*This survey perfectly matched my research in an online anonymous teen survey (“Behind the Scenes of a Selfie Society for a Teen”) I created and conducted that became the backbone of “Face Time: Your Identity in a Selfie World.” The top two reasons I found for negative self-talk and the feeling of not measuring up: body image (listed above as appearance and size) and performance (seen above as ability and intelligence).

KRISTEN HATTON lives in Edmond, Oklahoma, with her church-planter/pastor husband and their three teenagers. Through leading a small group Bible study of teenagers, she has discovered her passion for teaching and writing about God’s grace.

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