On a recent ChurchPulse Weekly episode, Dr. Heather Thompson Day (speaker, writer and professor) joins Carey Nieuwhof to discuss how to use social media as a tool for hope and encouragement in a polarized world. Throughout the discussion, Thompson Day shares some practical ideas for cutting through the noise online to share influential messages, as well as her personal rhythms around social media engagement.
On Social Media’s Positive Impact
Recent Barna data from Gen Z: Volume 2 show that U.S. teens (13–17-year-olds) with a smartphone estimate that they use these device 5.15 hours per day. Barna data also shows that young adults (18–21-year-olds) with a smartphone estimate they use their phone an average of 6.7 hours each day.
Another stat from this same study highlights that young adults are more likely than teens to report negative feelings associated with social media, with Gen Z women being more negatively impacted than Gen Z men. For example, 18–21-year-old women are more likely than their male peers and teenage girls—and nearly twice as likely as teenage boys—to experience feelings like isolation, self-criticism and insecurity due to social media.
Reflecting on social media and its impact, Thompson Day responds, “I’ve seen so many positives of social media. I have countless students at this point who have circled back to tell me the only reason that they’ve stayed in church is because of people that they follow online. Is there a lot of negatives to [media]? Absolutely… [But] there’s also so much power there.”
She continues, “I’m super sensitive and aware, and I feel very responsible for the way I use [social media], because I don’t want my own fatigue [with social media] to overshadow the fact that I know I can post something that makes people feel more connected to God, themselves, and humanity.
“I have tried to be even more diligent with using [social media], because I know the fatigue that I have experienced and felt,” Thompson Day concludes. “I also know what it feels like to log in and see Beth Moore say something nice to me, and now my entire day is different. If I’ve been blessed by it, I want to be the type of person that circles back and does that for others.”
On Personal Rhythms Regarding Social Media
Thompson Day shares some of her own best practices when it comes to creating rhythms of rest outside social media. She notes, “One of my rules is that I will not get on social media unless I’ve had worship. I realized I was no longer making time for worship or it was so easy for me to forget, [saying], ‘I’m so busy. I didn’t have time today.’ But I always had time to scroll Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. I made this rule for myself: ‘If you do not take time to connect with God, you’re not going to log on. And that’s fine—you don’t have to—but you’re not going to get on the apps that day either, because you don’t have time.’”
Thompson Day explains, “[To worship], I get up at 5:00 AM and I read my Bible. I read my Bible cover to cover every single year. I’m not saying that everybody has to do that. I’m just sharing what I do… Nothing has impacted my life more than sitting down, going through scripture and wrestling through the stuff that I don’t get or don’t agree with… It changes the way I see people when I walk out the door.
“[This act of worship] reminds me to slow down,” she continues, “and it reminds me to be present. I think when we invite the Holy Spirit in, he will allow you to notice people and things that you would’ve rushed past had you been too busy getting to where you were going.
On Reflecting God’s Image Through Social Media
Emphasizing how important it is for Christians to be intentional about how they engage with social media, Thompson Day states, “My hope is that more Christians are responsible with their social media and with their communication, because you may be the only Christian on somebody else’s feed… There are people who decide whether or not they want to go to church based on the Christian in their feed.”
Thompson Day continues by offering sound advice grounded in data. “Research says that the more political you are online, the more disinterested in religion people who are watching you become. I think most of us would stand to separate a little bit from sharing all of our political views.
“I think we can always speak against injustices and against evils. You can always let people know what you’re for. It’s so much easier to tell people what you’re against, but it takes more strategic thinking to make it very clear what you are for,” she clarifies. “You can do that without necessarily going into politics in such a direct way. And the truth is [that] in persuasion theory, we like being nudged. People are far more responsive when you hint at things, because they feel now they’re in control of whether or not they decide they want to do it.”
As the conversation comes to a close, Thompson Day ends with a reminder as to the goal of using social media to share about one’s faith and hope. “Persuasion theory says we don’t win arguments, we win affection. The goal is not to slam somebody over the head with your argument. The goal is to build a relationship and affection where now somebody’s able to hear what you have to say.”
About the Research
Interviews for this study were conducted using an online consumer panel of 1,503 U.S. teens and young adults ages 13 to 21 between June 15 and July 17, 2020. Quotas and minimal weighting were used to ensure data are representative of known U.S. Census ethnicity, gender, age and region. Margin of error is ±2.53 percent.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2022