By Grant MacAlmon | Students Pastor

Richard Gere, playing the fictional medieval hero Lancelot, ran the gauntlet in the 90s film First Knight. The threat of swinging oversized battle axes, undulating platforms, and flying planks of wood made for a captivating scene, all in the hopes of winning a kiss from Lady Guinevere. In proper maverick form, Lancelot ran the gauntlet without protective padding. Would you allow your teenager to do the same? Access to social media platforms—a modern technological gauntlet—presents potential harm to our children. This paper aims to discuss 1) the crucial value of a Christian adolescent community, 2) how social media and technology are inhibiting teenagers from living a flourishing life with Jesus, and 3) how to support and guide your teens in a life surrounded by screens. 

On Spiritual Formation and the Gathering of God’s People 

God has a vision for your life and for your teen’s life. It is for us all to become more like Jesus – more compassionate, gentle, kind, joyful, patient, and Spirit-led. This change is often referred to as spiritual formation. The late theology professor, Robert Mulholland Jr., defines spiritual formation as “the process of being formed into the image of Christ for the sake of others.”1 Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that a wise disciple is one who puts his teachings into practice.2 This means we integrate and live out what Jesus taught and how he lived. It is important that parents understand the part they play in the spiritual formation of their kids. They can model faithfully, invest generously, and guide wisely toward their teenager’s life with God.

One of the ways the Church partners with God in formation is through regular, in-person gatherings of her people.3 The rise of the Digital age in the late 20th century only heightened the entertainment and distraction premium ushered in through the advent of television. Even a cursory reading of Postman’s prophetic work Amusing Ourselves to Death, or more recently, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, will raise concern at a minimum, or worse—panic—without the prayerful submission of such issues.4 Technology is an accomplice in this crime of human disconnection, with costly collateral damage often coming in the form of fractured relational connections for our young people. As advanced as technology may become, the people of God need to build and maintain spaces where a life-giving community can develop. Screens, algorithms, or AI bots will never replace this effort. Indeed, the church’s value of embodied presence is more important than ever and often at odds with technological advancements. 

The late Henri Nouwen wrote a pastoral encouragement for those laboring in the fields of local church ministry. His words also describe healthy communal goals for all: 

“In a society in which entertainment and distraction are such important preoccupations, ministers are also tempted to join the ranks of those who consider it their primary task to keep other people busy. It is easy to perceive the young and the elderly as people who need to be kept off the streets or on the streets. And ministers frequently find themselves in fierce competition with people and institutions who offer something more exciting to do than they do.

But our task is the opposite of distraction. Our task is to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God’s active presence in their lives. Hence, the question that must guide all organizing activity in a parish is not how to keep people busy, but how to keep them from being so busy that they can no longer hear the voice of God, who speaks in silence.

Calling people together, therefore, means calling them away from the fragmenting and distracting wordiness of the dark world to that silence in which they can discover themselves, each other, and God. Thus, organizing can be seen as the creation of a space where communion becomes possible and community can develop.”5

On Technology

Throughout the ages, technology has always been utilized as a tool first. The wheel, the compass, the aqueduct, the printing press, the finely-honed baseball bat…all functional tools in the hands of creative humans. May we all take a moment and celebrate the arrival of the GPS-powered digital map. Technology has certainly improved the quality of life and even added decades to the average life span. And yet, if we are not wise stewards of technological advances, John M. Culkins’ words may come to pass, “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”6 Instead of mindlessly ingesting everything afforded to us, we should ask how to use technology more deliberately, shrewdly, and Christianly.

Without vigilance, we can begin to resemble a less human machine instead of an intelligently created divine image bearer. Images come to mind of endless scrolling, mindless checking of nonexistent phone notifications, and perceived phantom rings; the clay is now forming the potter. Humankind is not designed to function as a machine. This thought is precisely where the Christian worldview would differ from leading technological thinker Sam Altman, the CEO of Open AI, responsible for the tip-of-the-spear smart bot ChatGPT. In an interview with Ezra Klein, Altman stated humans “are nothing more than energy flowing through a neural network. That’s it.”7 Suppose humans are reduced to complex neural networks. In that case, our development, use, and consumption of technology fit hand in glove with a society of entertainment, distraction, and self-satisfaction: direct energy to the pleasure centers of the neural network, and we have a purpose in life. However, if humans were made in the image of something divine, with a directive to cultivate the land, create beauty from raw materials, multiply the ways of God everywhere, and establish culture and communities—all with the eternal hope of a grand restoration—then we are at odds with some technological leaders, and their ethics. Additionally, there are unintended consequences accompanying technological advancements; losses present with every gain. 

Withholding any moral assessment, the rise to adolescent free-time prominence of video games, smartphone usage, social media scrolling, and accessibility to endless hours of online streaming, at the very least, hinders our efforts of togetherness. Recall Nouwen’s important admonishment to create spaces where “communion becomes possible, and community can develop.” This endeavor is why, when we call students together, we ask them to prefer real-life faces over pixelated screens and, therefore, keep their phones away. Embodied presence is a high value at Mill City Students and a strategy to ensure our technological tools are not malforming us.

On Social Media

Under the technological umbrella, we find the glamorized presence of social media. Social media has fundamentally changed the landscape of adolescence. Minimally regulated at a government level, unmeasured in its long-term effects on the human condition, and highly addictive in its architected form, social media is becoming the well-deserved pariah of online technological expansion. Social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt has done extensive research on the effects of social media on young people. He notes that social media platforms were not initially designed for children, but children have nevertheless been the subject of a gigantic national experiment testing the effects of those platforms.8 As parents, we should feel caution when we read of our children participating in experiments without our consent. It seems as though we can no longer say social media platforms—specifically Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok—are neutral. It is a designed software exploiting weaknesses in human psychology, with negative effects on children.

The growing connection between social media habits and declining mental health is alarming. The evidence suggests social media is causing real damage to adolescents, especially girls. Haidt notes: 

“Social media gets blamed for many of America’s ills, including the polarization of our politics and the erosion of truth itself. But proving that harms have occurred to all of society is hard. Far easier to show is the damage to a specific class of people: adolescent girls, whose rates of depression, anxiety, and self-injury surged in the early 2010s, as social media platforms proliferated and expanded. Much more than for boys, adolescence typically heightens girls’ self-consciousness about their changing bodies and amplifies insecurities about where they fit in their social network. Social media—particularly Instagram, which displaces other forms of interaction among teens, puts the size of their friend group on public display and subjects their physical appearance to the hard metrics of likes and comment counts—takes the worst parts of middle school and glossy women’s magazines and intensifies them.”9

While Haidt is not the only voice in the growing conversation, he represents a consensus among professionals who are sounding the alarm. And as social media empires feel the pressure from public outcry, it won’t do to simply adjust the model. Haidt clearly states the folly of such ideas: “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it okay for teenage girls to post photos of themselves while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.”10 Furthermore, when we consider the developmental perspective that the wiring of the prefrontal cortex—which controls inhibitive functions leading to delayed gratification—is still maturing, we have a toxic cocktail of an addictive substance, the urge to keep scrolling, and an underdeveloped biological muscle to resist. The adverse effects are not limited to social and psychological drawbacks. There is also a spiritual side to the conversation. 

As we consume social media, we numb and temporarily satiate our appetites. The constant digital noise and stimulation derail our ability to attend to our environment, including our souls, a skill necessary for prayer. The drive towards consumption and consumerism is inhibiting the goal of being formed into the likeness of Jesus. In the process, we start the conveyor belt, dust off the cast molds, and warm the forging fires of what the late Tim Keller calls “the idol factory of our heart.”11 We risk becoming like the ancient mythological character of Narcissus, who was so in love with his reflection in a pond that he fell in and drowned. Is this not what the self-gratification of social media can do to us? 

As a result of the research foundation of these medical, pastoral, and social science professionals, we strongly encourage parents to abstain from, delay, and strictly limit exposure to social media for their children. As observations grow and data points become more clear, the benefits and harms of social media will become more obvious. As we await these findings, may group discernment, wise counsel, and dependence on the Holy Spirit guide our decisions as parents. 

If you have opened this door for your child, do not be dismayed. As we train our children to launch into adulthood, their capacity to reason grows proportionately with their shoe sizes. The wide-ranging effects of social media on adolescent culture is a complicated issue. For example, if your child is using social media and decides to end her social media usage, it is not as if all things will be made right in her world, especially because many of her peers may still use it. This dynamic creates the uncomfortable dichotomy of the haves and the have-nots. In light of these complexities, it is nonetheless worthwhile to work towards a solution. Here are some suggestions: 

  • Consider what you are modeling to your children regarding screen use (frequency of use, when you use them, what you use them for, how you limit them, etc.).
  • Invite your child to read the research shaping your perspective. 
  • Discuss the growing concern among spiritual and secular guides about the negative effects of unhealthy technology and social media habits.
  • Suggest a temporary pause on social media while observing the results. A substantive pause of at least three weeks is recommended for heavy users, while a 24-hour detox within the weekly rhythm will help resist unhealthy formation. 
  • If a phone/device is a required tool for your child, consider a phone with restricted access to the internet or social media until the maturity level can handle such access.  
  • Give parameters around healthy usage and talk about what drives the desire to be present on social media (the desire to feel included, the desire to feel attractive, the desire to feel important, etc.). Pointing our young people back to identity and worth in Jesus is paramount. 
  • This is often a communal challenge: how do we restrict our child when his friends are all using the platform? This situation is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the conversation. Good old-fashioned parent-to-parent communication seems to be the best approach here. If you are convinced that social media is polluting our children, you will be compelling in your reasoning with other parents. If you can find one or two other families who are on the same page, thus providing a battle buddy for your child, it can help push back the tidal wave of peer pressure. 
  • Hold the line, Mom! This is a battle worth fighting, Dad! Ensure all caretakers are on the same strategic page, and remember that taking a counter-cultural stance is often lonely. Yet, this hard thing is worth the cost.

If you arrive at a different conclusion on the value of social media in the development of young people, your child will not be ostracized by the Mill City Student community. While social media usage is a normal part of teenage culture in the Western world and, therefore, a necessary topic of conversation within a faith community, we aim to discuss the topic in a manner that avoids shame for those with different values.

On Mill City Student’s Approach to Communication

Arguments for the use of social media among youth ministries are many. Defenders would say, “Social media is a space—a medium—inhabited by young people, so the church should have a presence there, spreading a positive message.” This logic seems to overlook a hidden reality, succinctly stated by author Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message.”12 In other words, beneath the content of what is being communicated (the message) stands the message itself (the medium). Form and content, the medium and message, are inseparable; they work together to convey information. To help understand this point, Ezra Klein explains: 

“CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC are all ideologically different. But cable news in all its forms carries a sameness: the look of the anchors, the gloss of the graphics, the aesthetics of urgency and threat, the speed, the immediacy, the conflict, the conflict, the conflict…There is a grammar and logic to the medium, enforced by internal culture and ratings reports broken down by the quarter-hour. You can do better cable news or worse cable news, but you are always doing cable news.”13

Although the message of the news may vary from network to network, the medium conveys the same underlying dispatch: conflict, immediacy, speed, and image. The medium of cable news is the message itself. 

As this relates to our current conversation, the medium—the real message—of social media is synonymous with the negative aspects of curated images, influence, fame, and publicity. Plato articulated a similar caution when describing the need for the next generation of leaders to receive input from a life-giving environment: “We would not have our guardians grown up amid images of moral deformity, as in some noxious pasture, and there browse and feed upon many a baneful herb and flower day by day, little by little, until they silently gather a festering mass of corruption in their own soul.”14 It seems counterproductive for Mill City Students to strongly caution our students against using social media while at the same time using the platform to reach an audience we hope will abstain from use. For this reason, Mill City Students will not utilize the medium of social media to communicate with our students. We will instead use other forms of mass communication: primarily a text distribution list and, secondarily, parental emails. The verdict on the long-term results of social media use is still out, but do we want our young people to participate in the experiment? Perhaps we should leave running the gauntlet to the likes of Lancelot. 

Parents! Please know that I am with you in this. Nicole and I are having these discussions with each other and our own teens. Let us not be discouraged in doing good and operating outside social norms. Our friend recently told us the story of a conversation with their now 19-year-old son, who said, “I am so glad you kept me from having a phone until I was 16 and that you didn’t allow social media. Sorry, I was a jerk about it…I really am thankful.” I know these waters are tricky to navigate. Consider this simple prayer:

“Lord, thank you for the young people you’ve entrusted to us. We ask for wisdom from heaven to lead them in the way they should go. In an age of screen formation, protect our children and help them grow in the way of Jesus. Amen.”

Additional Resources


  • The Tech-Wise Family – Andy Crouch
  • My Tech-Wise Life – Amy Crouch and Andy Crouch
  • Boundaries for Teens – Dr. John Townsend
  • Amusic Ourselves to Death – Neil Postman
  • The Shallows – Nicholas Carr



  • The Social Dilemma – Netflix Documentary


Scholarly Research: 


  1. Robert Mulholland Jr., Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation, (InterVarsity Press, 2016), 165.
  2. Matthew 7:24, (NIV). It says: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”
  3. Hebrews 10:25, (NIV). It says: “…not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” 
  4. Philippians 4:6, (NIV). It says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” 
  5. Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart (Ballantine Books, 2003), 56. 
  6. John M. Culkin, “A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan,” The Saturday ReviewMarch 1967, 70. 
  7.  “Transcript: Ezra Klein Interviews Sam Altman,” The New York Times, June 11, 2021,
  8. Jonathan Haidt, “The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls,” The Atlantic, November 21, 2021,
  9. Ibid.
  10.  Derek Thompson, “Why Are American Teenagers So Sad and Anxious?” The Ringer, April 22, 2022,
  11.  Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods (Dutton, 2009), 240.
  12.  Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Signet Books, 1966), 1.
  13. Ezra Klein, “I Didn’t Want It to Be True, but the Medium Really Is the Message,” The New York Times, August 7, 2022,
  14. Plato, The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Project Gutenberg Australia, accessed November 1, 2023), Book III, 401c,