Just over a week ago, a 19 year-old from Australia set the internet alight by deleting over 2,000 online photographs of herself and re-captioning the images that she left. This young Australian is Essena O’Neill – an internet model who, over the past three or four years, has built a social media ‘empire’ which has reached over 580,000 people on Instagram, 260,000 on YouTube, and created enough income to support herself via sponsorships.
Although perhaps not the most worthy item of news in recent days, it’s significant as a window on contemporary culture. In a Wizard of Oz style reveal (no pun intended), Essena’s re-captioning of her images exposes the fabrication of highly edited ‘candid’ photos that are often (unknowingly to viewers) sponsored by brands, and highlights the issue of addiction to social media, social approval and social status.
As a father to an almost one-year-old daughter, I know that she will face complex pressures in the coming years. School for many young people, both male and female, is a time simply to survive the stress of exams and coursework, as well as avoiding social suicide, bullying and body image issues. The pressure cooker of social media, where ‘contrived perfection’ is required for ‘likes’, friends and followers adds a challenging dimension to a generation who are already the most heavily marketed to in history.
The desire for approval and validation is a powerful motivating force, and can drive individuals to project an inauthentic depiction to their peers and the wider world of who they have been created to be. Identity issues have always plagued humanity, though perhaps the digital native generation experiences this both more publicly and acutely.
The church, therefore, faces two challenges: how to help each other, perhaps especially our young people, to engage appropriately with social media, and to take confidence and delight from our identity grounded in Christ.
My daughter will grow up in a world where currently almost one in four teenage girls view fashion and beauty vlogger Zoella as a role model. The Bible celebrates beauty and does not disparage it. But it is equally clear that our approval does not stem from our physical appearance or popularity. Rather, it is rooted in God’s love for us, and seen in the sending of his Son into the world to save us, so that we might live through him, as lights shining in the darkness.
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(The views expressed here are those of the author, not of Heart 4 Ipswich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate. We welcome your thoughts upon the ideas expressed here, posted as comments below)