Social Networking and the Spirits of the Age

Social Networking and the Spirits of the Age

Social media such as Facebook are formative in the lives of many North American teens. There is no end in sight to the popularity of this type of Internet-based social interaction. Christian school teachers, who we hope are also play a formative role in the lives of students in their teens, should understand how Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and the like are changing the identities of students. Do we compete with social media for the hearts and minds of our students, or do they become the tools with which we go about our transformative work?  Recently, I participated in a discussion forum on the ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) Facebook page where educators discussed whether or not teachers should be ‘friends’ with their students on sites such as Facebook. Overwhelmingly, teachers answered with a flat, “No.”  While a well-reasoned negative position is an entirely acceptable response, I was disappointed by the lack of depth in what should have been a thoughtful, discussion-provoking question.

Parents and teachers alike are often unsure what to think about their children using social networking sites. Some parents have banned its usage outright, while others do not monitor the computer and Internet usage of their children. Many adults have found Facebook to be useful for reconnecting with old friends, sharing photos, and staying informed about the lives of loved ones. Is it the same sort of “place” for teens? Facebook is a community of sorts. Communities are supposed to be good things. The old African proverb says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” What sort of village is Facebook? At times, it can be an unkind village, where horrible gossip often takes place, valuable time is wasted, and people are bullied. Too often, it is a community with no adults and no rules, but nonetheless it is a village where many of our children live. Since parents and teachers ought to live in the same village as their children, should we not join our children and students in their virtual community?

Syd Hielema has contended that we now live in, “An entirely electronic age, and its media have become the primary vehicles for the spread of the spirits of our age” (8). He goes on in this article to identify sixteen spirits of the age that affect the Christian identity of teachers and students alike. In research conducted at the school where I work, I was able to verify that there is evidence that these sixteen spirits do operate in the lives of our students (Duiker 2010). A great deal of what we understand to be our identity is embedded in our relationships with our families, our homes, the places where we reside and have citizenship, our personal histories, and our faith communities. These relationships are being altered by spirits of the age that are often assisted by Internet-based social networking. In order to uncover how social media are transforming Christian teens, we should consider (at least) five of these spirits of the age that seem particularly relevant.

Hielema calls one of these spirits of the age commitment and choice (14). The expansion of technologically accessible information and the shrinking of the global village have increased the number of choices we have. Choice has become more than a right; it is now a fundamental part of our being. It is a basic value in a consumer-driven society. Choice is prevalent in almost every area of our lives. Choice gives everyone the right to make individual decisions. Loyalty is devalued and commitment is diminished when individual choice is the preeminent right. Virtual reality is a constantly changing place where loyalty and commitment do not fit well. Even commitment to one’s self is eroded in electronic social networks, where a person can choose his or her own identity. Commitment to doctrine, commitment to a church, and commitment to a spouse are all degraded in a technology-dominated culture of choice. Brad Paisley’s song, Online (Paisley, DuBois, and Lovelace, 2007) makes the point that people can create more attractive but blatantly false identities in an online social network. Participation in communities like Facebook may be a factor that contributes to the mistaken notion that we fashion our own identities, while our true task is to nurture the identity that God has made and given to us!

Another spirit of the age is compartmentalized anthropology (Hielema 13). For over two thousand years of human history, people have thought of themselves as compartmentalized in some combination of body, soul, mind, heart, spirit, intellect, emotion, or will. Social media like Facebook have exacerbated this denial of our wholeness by removing physical presence from human interaction and relationships. Media messages promote the cheapening of intimate physical relationships. Within this trend, worship is considered a matter of the mind, soul, or spirit. To worship God with all your heart is to worship with your entire uncompartmentalized being. As we live our lives more and more as people who interact without physical contact, we forget that we are to be identified as people who love God and neighbor with our body, soul, mind, heart, spirit, intellect, emotion, and will, functioning inseparably as whole and complete human beings.

A third spirit of the age to consider is called the shape of discourse (Hielema 20). Conversation in a technology-dominated world is characterized by extremes of politeness and rudeness. Speaking the truth in love requires truth, frankness, courage, and politeness. Discourse on the Internet tends to lack the essentials of biblical truth-telling. Polite tolerance of those different from us is easily discarded with the distance and anonymity that Internet-based conversations provide. Avoidance is also made easy when one can simply change his or her status to “away” or “busy.” People who learn to converse in a technological age may never gain the essential attitudes and abilities required for the type of “iron-sharpening-iron” conversation that true Christian friendship demands. Christian community demands that we build and nurture a context for sharpening each other’s Christian identities with words that come from the abundance of our hearts.

The fourth spirit of the age to consider is electronic “community” (Hielema 22). Virtual reality threatens the existence of the sort of community that God intends for people to live in. The notion that the Holy Spirit dwells in individuals but not in communities is intensified by the various electronic conduits of culture that impose themselves on our collective lives. The combination of individualism, fatigue, consumerism, a truth-deficit, and passivity, discourage us from “wasting” time together as Christians, bound together and working together in love as Christ intended. The media and the Web form our new imagined and virtual communities. TV characters who do not know us are our friends. We see and are seen as Facebook profiles instead of living, breathing, caring, loving, hurting, thinking, worshipping beings. Social networking may very well impede the formation of our identities as it diminishes the amount time we spend together as believers, side by side, working together in love as Christ intended. However, to be fair, this impact might be mitigated by the fact that social media can increase the total amount of time we spend together as believers if virtual community interactions are added to personal interactions.

Finally, we take a look at the spirit of the age that Hielema calls history is bunk (18). The infamous statement of Henry Ford asserting that “history is bunk” has become increasingly true as technology makes possible a proliferation of information that buries all facts, important and unimportant, in one indecipherable heap. Today, information that is five years old seems irrelevant and in need of replacement. If history is bunk, however, then much of the Bible is bunk. History is God’s great gift to help us make sense of events in our times. It is the big story that contains and supports all the little stories of our lives, our cultures, and our communities. Stories are a form that we, by our design, understand. History links our lives to the lives of other people of all ages and all places. To understand ourselves, creation, and each other and to understand God, we need stories to be told; we need history. Online social networks focus our lives on the here and now, and in doing so, devalue history and therefore our ability to make sense of our existence. In a virtual online world, a new history has begun that is only as old as the oldest post we can find on our Facebook page. In an online world, the old dies away very quickly. When the online community lulls students into believing that history is unimportant, it represents part of a movement to disconnect us from all of the people, events, places, languages, and cultures to which God, by design, has connected us. Students must know that that all of our identities are found in the unique places we occupy in the stories of our past and in God’s ultimate big story.

It is unlikely that social networking will disappear anytime soon or that Christian teens will stop finding enjoyment in virtual communities. It is also unlikely that the formative nature of online social sites such as Facebook will diminish anytime soon. The good news is that the adverse impacts of social media on our children’s well-being can be mitigated by the actions of the adults in their lives. What parents and teachers can do is seek to redeem these communities by participating in them as distinctly Christian “faces” and “friends.” Virtual communities will be better places if we live in them with our children and students. We can also be aware of the spirits of the age that travel through a variety of electronic media, and we can teach our students to be mindful of them. Finally, we can live our “real” lives in such a way that they are so rich and beautiful that our children never want to trade them in for some lesser virtual facsimile.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Duiker, Robert Kenneth. “Sifting Through the Cultural Dust: A Pre-Transformational Activity.” M.Ed. Thesis. Dordt College, Sioux Centre, IA, 2010. Print.
  • Hielema, Syd. “Describing the Elephant: Christianity in a Media-Driven Culture.” Pro Rege 29 March (2001): 8–24. Web. 9 December 2011. < >.
  • Paisley, Brad, Chris DuBois, and Kelley Lovelace. Online. 2007. N.p.: Sony Legacy, 2007. CD-ROM. 5th Wheel.