I grew up during the Parental Advisory era.
This was the period during which music warning labels came into vogue. Walk into any music store—we had those, back then—and a good many CDs (all the ones teenagers wanted) had a shiny PARENTAL ADVISORY/EXPLICIT CONTENT label slapped onto them.
I can’t recall the exact criteria for a label, but profanity could earn it, and so could allusions to sex and drug use. Hilariously, some of those explicit songs made it to the radio anyway, with the unacceptable bits either sanitized out or replaced. This happened in movies, too: remember Bruce Willis’ “yippie-ki-yay, Mr. Falcon” in Die Hard?
At the time, this fit in—and still fits today—with Christian parenting philosophies. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks, believers said (Luke 6:45). Every Christian family I knew did their best to focus on what was true, honorable, right, pure, lovely (Phil. 4:8), and often they chose to approach this through media: they battled against profane music and sex jokes in movies, crusaded to get Cosmo magazines hidden behind a little black box, and created soundalike versions of popular songs and movies to avoid the pitfalls of secular culture.
But we gave that up with the advent of the internet.
I don’t mean we stopped monitoring for objectionable content. Christians still do that. There are websites believers can go to if they want to discover problematic content in new music and movies that have been released. I know a lot of Christian who assiduously avoid songs and TV shows and comedians they believe might pollute their hearts.
Yet they’re on Facebook, and Twitter, and social media. So are their kids.
And yes, there are options and software apps that filter out inappropriate sexual content, and bad words, and the same sorts of things we filter out in our movies and videos. But you know what those hard-working nets don’t catch?
Lies. Deceit. Slander. Malice. Hatred. Gossip.
The other day I read an innocuous Tweet by a well-liked Christian authors. Nothing controversial, provocative, or upsetting about it. It was as mundane as “I like apples.”
But the comments—the comments!
“You like apples? Well what else do you like? Ruining people’s lives?”
“Apples are just a distraction from your bad theology about [insert incorrect argument about good theology here]”
“People like you with your false cheer are why I hate the church”
“[random racist comment]”
And on and on and on. That’s not unusual, either. The best and brightest and most honest and decent people on social media inevitably draw comments from liars and people arguing in bad faith, slanderers, gossipers.
People proclaiming to be Christians post outright, provable lies on Facebook and then lie even more defending them in God’s name. People on Twitter use the platform to savage anyone who disagrees with them on the most minor of issues. The platforms are a mighty spreader of gossip and untruths.
And that’s just the extreme stuff. The milder problems are just as dangerous.
Like, for example, the inordinate prioritization of wealth, prosperity, and earthly comfort on social media platforms.
Like, for example, the rampant dilution of Christian Scripture and theology with New Age spirituality and modern wellness principles.
Like, for example, the miasma of criticism, negativity, and nothing-is-ever-good-enough-ness that comes from even good and righteous people.
Like, for example, the equation of minor theological issues with the basics of salvation.
Like, for example, the rewards for being quick of tongue, speedy to retort, eager to retaliate, open to argue.
When I was a young teen, I snuck into the movie American Pie. I went with friends, unaware of what the film was about. Mostly, we were delighted to not be asked for ID and to see our first R-rated movie. Midway through the movie—which I remember primarily as being crass, and full of graphic sex jokes that stunned Young Me—I glanced at my other Christian friend. She glanced back at me, beet red and mortified. “This is awful,” she mouthed.
I nodded. When I left the theater, it felt like walking out of a pile of toxic sludge: something gross and unfamiliar that had offered nothing in the way of gain and that had, mostly, made me feel kind of disgusted.
I feel the same way, some days—most days—leaving social media.
The vitriol and loathing and cruelty and deception stick to me. They bring me down. They make me sad. Sometimes, they inspire me to be more like them: to be quicker with my criticism, to be angry in my outrage, to say something cruel, to meet unkindness with unkindness.
So I spend less and less time there. But what I wish is that our deep desire to filter out the stuff of the world had grown up with us. Sure, we exhort others to be careful with the movies they watch and the music they listen to, and we set content warnings on our tablets and TVs. But I can’t help but wonder what the world might be like if we guarded against the subtle evils of social media with the same fervent devotion and care. If we guarded ourselves against it as much as we guard our children.
If we, as a Christian people, meant it when we said we ought to fix our thoughts on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…anything…excellent or praiseworthy,” our phone and our computer habits would change drastically.
It’s not too late to start. But wanting to—really wanting to, and not pretending the shameful and sinful behavior on those platforms isn’t—has to be the first step.
I suspect for most believers, that’s a harder first step than we’d like to imagine.