An inflammatory title! That’s bound to get the punters in.
A friend of mine said this line to me a few weeks back. It was a few days before her wedding, and I wouldn’t want to speak to her emotional state but, well, she told me that Instagram was the devil.
Except I think we can see her point even when we’re not in the pressure cooker of those last few days of wedding preparations.
Instagram is about the display of beauty in a way other social channels are not, with carefully curated pictures displayed on the grid—though the more low-fi aesthetic commonly affected in stories adds a dose of ‘reality’ to the otherwise impeccable images. It is itself a carefully curated reality that bares little resemblance to the raw real we actually live in each day.
Which of course we all know, or say that we do. And yet the pain of comparison niggles at the edge of your consciousness. The subtle horror of a thousand tiny whispers that say “this is perfect” with the implied ending—that you are anything but—left for your mind to happily fill in with every airbrushed and filtered image you see or reel you watch.
You can imagine it, even if these weren’t the precise web of emotions my friend was feeling.
We can teach about the dangers of comparison, and we should—teenage girls need to hear this, but in so doing think that the problem is inherent in us. We’re the ones who keep comparing ourselves to each other in a futile game of one-upmanship, we’re the ones who are so sin-sick we need to know who sits at the top table. We are, as Donald Miller lays out in his book Searching for God Knows What, always playing that game where you decide which of a cast of hypothetical characters gets to go in the lifeboat, except for real and for keeps.
That’s true, but it isn’t the whole story. The dangers of comparison on social media are a feature not a bug. Instagram is designed for this, and they know what they’re doing. Facebook, the owner of this particular corner of digital Babylon, have done their own research that declares Instagram toxic for teen girls. Ouch.
If that wasn’t compelling enough, Facebook’s attempts to make Facebook healthier made it angrier—note that they aren’t reversing them in a hurry though. Angrier people scroll more and click more so can be shown more ads. Oh, and they’ve experimented with using the platform to manipulate our emotional states. It works by the way. Jonathan Haidt’s research indicates that the primary cause of the epidemic of mental health issues among teenage girls is Instagram.
On a bigger scale, this article looks at Facebook’s foreign policy (you read that right) and describes them as “a lie-disseminating instrument of civilizational collapse” which is obviously no big deal. Oh and the BBC reported that Facebook harms children and weakens democracy. Fun!
Burn it all down?
So, do we get the pitchforks? Round up a mob and chase them out of the castle? Sadly, this particular monster is too ensconced in its lair to be chased away so easily.
Do we all leave the digital cities to live in the ‘wilderness’ of our ordinary lives by quitting the platforms? Some of us should. Renouncing the digital—what we could jokingly call digital monasticism—is a good idea for some of us to pursue. When people pursue these callings our churches need to make it easy for them—we should never communicate in a way that assumes people have a platform, or even a smartphone. We should encourage and laud those who leave. But I suspect this is not the path for all.
What then? Surely we don’t keep using these platforms? They’re the devil!
I stand by what I’ve written before on social media as a tool, these are tools, but dangerous ones. We need training in their use.
The other helpful analogy is to consider social media a place. While that doesn’t mean any particular platform is worth using, we’re exiles living in Babylon. This is where people are, we should go to them—but we should be as wary as the nation of Judah in exile that our distinctiveness can be lost among the fog of a thousand cosmopolitan practices.
If we live in the home of the devil, in Babylon the Great—which before you get carried away, I am not suggesting that social media is what John was talking about in Revelation, apocalypses don’t work like that—then we need to know that we do. We need to talk about these dangers and speak of how our sin exacerbates them. We need to know the features and if we find we cannot triumph over them by the power of the Spirit, we should flee sin.
Sometimes fleeing sin looks like deleting Instagram from your phone. Sometimes it looks like buying a dumbphone. Sometimes it looks like throttling our use of these apps until they don’t have power over us. If you couldn’t drink alcohol without getting drunk we would counsel stopping drinking alcohol, the same principles apply except that the dangers involved are a lot more subtle than those of binge-drinking.
Is Instagram the devil? It can certainly be a tool in his arsenal. Though I think with wary use, and judicious self-awareness it is possible to use these tools against him.
But most of us are too puffed up with pride to know the difference, so our primary warning should be: beloved, flee from sin.
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