How Media Affect Teens Today | 3 Truths + 3 Lies

Matt Rinker
September 18th, 2019

We live in a society characterized by non-stop technological advancements that influence cultural shifts at an ever-increasing rate. Media and retail have exploded over the last 30 years. We have gone from the local bookstore to Amazon, and from three main TV networks to billions of people acting as their own news anchors on social media. 

In a time of life where youth discover who they are, where they belong and what matters, being bombarded by so many different messages is overwhelming. Social media gives youth an opportunity to create a channel of their own, to present themselves to a bigger world in search of belonging and acceptance. 

We inhabit a world connected in ways our great-grandparents could never have imagined.  By pressing an icon we can message the International Space Station, or watch live video of protesters in Hong Kong. We are connected to other people in more ways and have access to more information faster than ever before.  Yet this incredible access has not delivered the connection, identity, and belonging we seek.

Instead, youth today face a crisis of alienation and isolation, confusion and distrust as they navigate through life.  Instead of unity, progress has sowed hyper-individualism, planting three grand lies into the minds of young people today that conflict with what we know is true in Christ.

THE FIRST LIE: We are what we consume.

Any time you turn on your TV or watch a YouTube video, you will see advertising trying to get you to buy something or invest in a brand. “The person using that new phone looks happy,” as she zip-lines through a tropical forest taking a selfie video, “I want to be happy too!” Advertising perpetuates the narrative that in order to belong, to be happy or feel accomplished, we must buy into what the culture sells or risk isolation for not following the latest trends. Our worth becomes defined by our possessions, by what brands we wear or what music we listen to. Ironically, we pursue significance and uniqueness by trying to conform and consume what the world tells us to.  This pull is especially strong on adolescents as they search for belonging. 

THE SECOND LIE: We are what we feel.

You’ve seen it on TV before; an advertisement starts showing a crowd of young people with swag and colorful clothes dancing to EDM music in a smoky club. People look like they’re having fun as the camera pans around the room until it eventually focuses on one couple, zooming in on the man’s arm as his shirt sleeve pulls back and reveals a cool watch, and the words “Fossil” appear on the screen. The best advertisers know that to be successful, they don’t sell their product, they sell the feeling you get when using their product. That’s because in this hyper-individualistic world we live in, feeling is a stronger motivator to many than logic or reason. 

The same is true for teenagers. As they search for an identity, feelings can often be an easy way for them to settle into an identity that they can call their own. In talking and counseling with teenagers, this author has heard narratives like “I feel sad so I’m depressed,” or “I feel attracted to another girl so I must be a lesbian,” or “I feel rejected by Ryan so I’m unlovable.” Feelings motivate us to irrational conclusions and, especially with teens, provide reason to quickly label ourselves with those emotions as part of our identity. This narrative runs completely counter to what we as Christians know is true; that our identity is rooted in Christ as fellow sons and daughters of God.

THE THIRD LIE: We are what sets us apart.

Advertising and social media tells us that we must stand out to fit in. These narratives create the third lie… that teens are defined by what sets them apart; thus, young people counter-intuitively pursue connection and belonging by trying to set themselves apart. The further they lean into this false hope of individualism, the more isolated and alone they can feel. 

Each of these mythic falsehoods build off each other and form a powerful tripod of cultural lies.    We as youth workers have seen it in the young people we work with, and we’ve all experienced it ourselves too. These lies isolate us from Jesus who loves us as we are and makes it easy for us to focus on the outside. They drive us to self-reflection based on shifting external standards, instead of a consistent internal ethos derived from our identity in Christ. That leaves us with the question then:What can we do to combat these cultural messages bombarding adolescents today? Answer, we must preach these three messages of truth that will lead teens to the belonging and identity they are searching for:

Jesus loves you for who you are.

You do not need to change in order to belong. You are unique and special just the way you are. God loves and accepts you just the way you are.  Who you are is unchanging.  The world you live in is irrelevant.

Through pursuing unity in Christ we find connection.

Instead of focusing on differences, find strength in similarities. God has designed us for connection and for shared purpose. Pursue connection through wholeness through the Spirit, not difference through cultural standards.

Fulfillment comes from pouring ourselves out.

We must reject the hyper-individualistic, me-first expectations of the pop media culture and lean into the calling given to us by God. We are called to serve, called to love. Through practice love and service in His name teens can find fulfillment and belonging.  

Matt Rinker

Matt Rinker has served with youth in Southern California, both as a youth pastor and ministry intern, for the past eight years. He is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and enjoys hiking and going to Disneyland with his wife and two year old son. Matt's contact is Matthewrrinker@yahoo.com.

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