I am sure we have all heard the phrase, “Who do you think you are?” Perhaps in a movie when one character feels disgust or experiences frustration with another character. Maybe you have asked this question of a person in your life, whether seriously or sarcastically. This is a good question for us to ask ourselves, though, and I fear for many of us, the answer involves the Internet, more specifically, social media.
Certainly, the Internet has brought wonderful things to our society. It is convenient to have easy access to information. It is great to have the ability to stay in contact more easily with friends and loved ones who live far away. We can reach them in a moment through email or social media accounts. (Though, we should ask if we are honestly good at this form of communication. I’m not.)
On the other hand, the Internet also has brought many evil things to our society. The proliferation of pornography and ease of access have wreaked havoc on society, threatening marriages and destroying innocence. The Internet has made it easier for predators to lure victims through dating apps, chatrooms, and fake profiles. Even the way we consume information via the Internet rewires our brains to make us less attentive and more intellectually lazy.
Perhaps the most insidious way the Internet has changed us is in how we allow it to formulate our ideas, and even more serious, our identities. Social media in particular plays an outsized role in the formation of identity, and we who use the Internet regularly would do well to ask ourselves, “Why do I think the way I think?” and “Who do I think I am?”
It is possible the answers will surprise us, and we will soon realize we have subconsciously adopted thoughts and practices based solely upon our online lives.
First, we should consider if our social media feeds have influenced our ideas. Do we hold certain positions because the people we follow hold those positions? Because our culture demands we embrace certain ideas on our own social media accounts? Because we want to conform to a certain online identity group (more on this below)? Because we accept what we are told through Instagram reels, tweets, and Facebook posts is true?
Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t good ideas worth adopting on the Internet and social media. Since Christian teaching and traditional morality have been pushed to the limits by legacy media outlets, the Internet has provided an alternative means through which solid biblical and Christian teaching and thinking can be widely disseminated. The same is true of conservative social and political views.
Nonetheless, we are prone to simply adopt the opinions and believe the “facts” on our social media feeds, questionable websites, and other digital mediums. We examine claims no further than the video clip or pithy, witty tweet. We allow our emotions to be manipulated by influencers and activists we watch and read and relying solely on these emotional responses to form our views without involving our reason. We then share what we think we have learned with our social circles on the Internet or in real life. I can attest to this personally. Every time I see a Facebook ad for some sort of weight loss plan, strategy, or supplement, that nugget of knowledge about hormones or exercise or calories becomes a part of my weight loss strategy.
Think of social and political hot topics of our time. How much of your opinion about a particular battle in the culture war was formed by claims from a favorite Internet personality? How do you know they did not manipulate the statistics? In our post-truth society, we must remember fallen people in power (political, journalistic, or otherwise) are happy to manipulate studies, misrepresent opponents, and even lie to accomplish their devious ends.
One good example is the debate around abortion. Many Internet personalities and influencers falsely claim conservative abortion laws make miscarriage care illegal, conflate miscarriages and abortion, or accuse pro-life advocates of caring only about birth, and not about the mother and child. Sadly, I have even seen Christian friends give credence to some of these notions. It is crucial to practice discernment and evaluate everything, first through the lens of Scripture, and then through the lens of reality and truth.
Allowing the Internet to form our ideas is bad enough, but allowing the Internet to form our identities is even worse. Social media algorithms curate content based on what we view online to “personalize” our feeds and “sell” appealing lifestyles. Maybe you consider yourself a young, hip, suburban mom. (I suppose I would fall into this category myself, though I am most assuredly not hip and maybe not even young, by some standards). You follow Instagram accounts that comport with your social standing. You buy the Stanley cup (not the hockey championship trophy—the new Yeti™ without the Yeti price). You adopt the aesthetic you see for your home and your wardrobe.
Of course, it is not necessarily wrong to glean inspiration from online accounts. But to what extent do your social media feeds determine your decisions or influence what you believe about yourself? For example, many of the young, hip, suburban mom influencers I see on Instagram create content highlighting the endless hardships of motherhood and family life. Young mothers are constantly bombarded with the notion that children are a burden and that husbands are often unhelpful louts, especially compared to you, young mother, who has given so much of yourself to your family that you have lost your true self. (Ironic that a currently popular identity is that of someone who has lost her identity.) Reel after reel presents you with the idea you are under-appreciated and do not receive the recognition and praise for the difficult and often unnoticed tasks you perform.
Many young mothers have embraced this identity, adopting this view of themselves regarding the role to which God has called them in this season of life. Obviously, raising children and running households is challenging, particularly for women who also work outside the home. But the identity communicated to us in these social media videos and posts goes beyond a simple acknowledgment of these difficulties. Instead, these laser-focused posts wallow in the difficulties, which ultimately fosters resentment towards husbands and children. If we are not careful, we can begin to view the blessings of motherhood and family life as burdens, to view ourselves as virtuous victims of our circumstances or that nebulous but nefarious “patriarchy.” This identity does not honor God; it elevates self.
Of course, young, hip, suburban mom is only one of many identities we are tempted to form based on online content and may be among the more innocuous ones. Consider many of the newly discovered protected classes in the U.S. that demand absolute fealty from each person to the detriment of what is true and good and beautiful. Much of this identity formation occurs in online chatrooms and through TikTok and Instagram. We are just beginning to see the real-world consequences of such radical identity formation, with thinking that challenges the foundations of Western Civilization.
When we allow the Internet to shape our identities, we construct an artificial sense of self and who we ought to be based on online content rather than where and when God has placed us. Most importantly, our identity should be rooted in God’s Word and what it tells us about who we are, who we should be, and who God calls us to be.
If we are not careful, online identity formation can lead us to reject the biblical heritage we have been given. As a result, we spend our time and energy maintaining the pretense of whatever momentary image we adopt rather than spending time on the daily faithfulness to which God calls us.
Perhaps the premise of this article is too obvious, too simple, too much of a dead horse beaten too often by too many people. Still, I think it is vital to think carefully and honestly about how the Internet is subtly forming our ideas and identities when we consume content mindlessly or repeat or share things we see online unscrupulously.
All Christians who use the Internet, particularly social media, must examine themselves constantly. Do we hold certain positions because they are backed up by facts or because they are popular with Internet friends and personalities? Do we behave a certain way because it comports with the place and position God has given us or because we have been influenced by a common archetype seen on the Internet? Are we behaving in certain ways or espousing trendy ideologies to fit in or to be seen as virtuous by others?
If we find ourselves answering “yes” to these questions more often than we would like, let us seek the Lord to guide us in truth and to help us form our identities in Him.