It is no revelation that social media are dominant forms of communication in this digital age, but the stats are breathtaking. A remarkable 78% of 18-24 year olds in the U.S. use Snapchat, and 94% of that age demographic are regular YouTube users, while 71% use Instagram. More than two-thirds (68%) of all U.S. adults use Facebook, and 75% of those users are daily users. The typical American uses three social media platforms regularly.1 In short, the various platforms of social media are preferred means of communication for an overwhelming majority of Americans.
Online communication is a big enough issue that there is increasing attention given to the ethics of social media. Much of the attention pertains to business issues,2 privacy issues,3 and even accuracy.4 These are all worthwhile discussions, but there is an even more valuable question we can consider with respect to social media: what would Jesus do—or more precisely, what would Jesus have us do with social media? We certainly would be unwise to retreat from social media—if we desire to interact with people, social media provide fantastic tools to do that. Paul cautions believers not to disengage from the world (1 Corinthians 5:9-10), and again warns believers not to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2). One principle in view here is to be deliberate about using tools like social media to accomplish specific (His) purposes, and not to fall into the trap of being taken captive by those tools.
There are a few other key Biblical principles we can apply to our usage of social media and communication in general that can help us to use social media wisely, in a way that honors our Lord:
- Avoid unwholesomeness, and instead build up, and be gracious (Ephesians 4:29). Our speech and communication should reflect diligent attention to graciously building up others. If our communication isn’t accomplishing that, then it is unwholesome.
- Use wisdom, and make the most of the opportunity, be gracious and discerning in each response (Colossians 4:5-6). This passage helps us consider that a response is something worth thinking carefully about—applying wisdom and discernment. Just because we can make a quick and thoughtless post doesn’t mean we should.
- Be above reproach in sound speech (Titus 2:8). Unsound speech invites reproach, and that is not an option for a believer. Our speech should be healthy, so that even those who disagree with us will have nothing bad to say about us (insofar as it is up to us). That doesn’t mean we should be driven by the opinions of others, but it does mean we should be sensitive to speak well, and where there is disagreement, to disagree graciously.
- Clarity is important (1 Corinthians 14:9). Social media is largely designed for quick and imprecise communication. Twitter’s 140 characters (now 280) and texting have abbreviated communication, encouraging more people to say more while saying less. But if we remember our purpose in communicating, and if we are considerate of those who are receiving our communication, then we can gain the advantage of the tools while maintaining attention to clarity. After all, if our communication is not clear, how is it benefitting anyone else?
- Scoffers set a city on fire, but wise men turn away anger (Proverbs 29:8). If we think hard enough, I bet we can think of some popular social media users who have a habit of being incendiary and causing damage. If the words of wise men are able to prod and guide (Ecclesiastes 12:11), then the words of fools can set a forest on fire (James 3:5). With every update, tweet, or video, we can be either arsons or encouragers. A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Proverbs 15:1).
- Bridling the tongue is a significant part of godliness (James 1:26). It is hard to make a case that we are walking in the Spirit when we are texting in the gutter. It is hard to bridle the tongue if we speak without thinking first. A righteous person ponders how to answer, while the wicked bubbles over with bad things (Proverbs 15:28).
- Perhaps one of the most interesting sets of instruction pertaining to our communications is found in Proverbs 26:4-5: Do not answer a fool according to his folly…and answer a fool according to his folly. There is no contradiction here. There is a time to answer a fool’s folly (that he won’t be wise in his own eyes), and there is a time to not do so (lest we become foolish ourselves). Solomon reminds us, in this context, the importance of thoughtfulness and discernment in our listening and in our communication.
These passages and principles underscore the importance of how we communicate, and not just what we communicate or what platforms we use to communicate. The question isn’t so much whether or not to utilize social media, but what we are trying to say and why. Our communication is to be seasoned as with salt—that implies that we are putting in some thought beforehand. Deliberateness in grace and purposefulness in edification are two governing concepts that shine through in each of the passages we have considered. Don’t be afraid to engage using the available means, just remember, in doing so, that our Lord has provided us clear guidance, and He expects us to reflect His character in our communication. Besides, I’m pretty sure Jesus would want you to share this article on Facebook and Tweet it to all your followers. Perhaps you could even do a dramatic reading of this article on YouTube. Why not? Be courageous! The LinkedIn people will all be impressed when you pass this article along. #notreally
1 Aaron Smith and Monica Anderson, “Social Media Use in 2018,” Pew Research Center, March 1, 2018, viewed at http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/.
2 For example, Sharlyn Lauby, “Ethics and Social Media: Where Should You Draw the Line?” American Express.com Small Business Open Forum, March 12, 2012, viewed at http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/; David Vinjamuri “Ethics and the Five Deadly Sins of Social Media,” Forbes.com, November 3, 2011, viewed at https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2011/11/03/ethics-and-the-5-…
3 Mircea Turculet, “Ethical Issues Concerning Online Social Networks,” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, viewed at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042814050307.
4 Jeremy Harris Lipschultz, “The Ethics of Social Media Accuracy” Huffington Post, June 2, 2015, viewed at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeremy-harris-lipschultz/the-ethics-of-so….
Christopher Cone, Christopher Cone, Th.D, Ph.D, Ph.D, serves as President and CEO of AgathonEDU Educational Group and leads Vyrsity and Colorado Biblical University. Dr. Cone has served as a President, a Chief Academic Officer, and a Research Professor and has served in several pastoral teaching roles. His articles are published at www.drcone.com.