Does Social Media Help or Hinder Discipleship? Responding to the Brady Shearer Critique

This past week, the rock-star digital media strategist Brady Shearer published a YouTube critique of my interview with Preston Sprinkle. He has 54k Instagram followers, 97k TikTok followers, and 134k YouTube subscribers. He’s super-smart and well-spoken. I’m grateful for a dialog with someone so accomplished.

This is an in-depth and important conversation, so it’s long. Here’s a quick link to each section:

  1. A Raw Podcast
  2. What’s Digital Media?
  3. What Are You Driving At?
  4. The Smoking Comparison
  5. The Medium Is The Message
  6. “Discovery Algorithms?”
  7. Podcasts. Really?
  8. A Positive Case for TikTok?
  9. Kids Nowadays Are Hurting
  10. So, What Should Churches Do?

A Raw Podcast

Brady critiqued statements I made on Preston Sprinkle’s podcast regarding the church’s use of social media. While I stand by everything I said there, the podcast is called Theology In The Raw (TitR) for a reason. It was very raw. I had no idea what Preston was going to ask me. So, my answers were unrehearsed and unedited. They were from the gut, from my heart.

I believe I was unclear in the podcast, and that may have led Brady to misunderstand what I was saying. I think Brady may have also jumped to some conclusions and unfairly applied some nefarious motives to me that I do not hold. If he had either read my book or talked with me before making this public critique (2,600 views as of this writing), we may have understood one another better and saved some misunderstandings.

So I hope this article will be part of an ongoing dialog with Brady and others as we seek to help churches understand what their social media strategy should be in 2023.

To his credit, Brady played long clips from the TitR podcast for context before responding. He shared several areas where he and I agree, leading off with his “three basic tenets of digital hygiene,” which are at 6:00 in the video:

  1. Indiscriminate use of digital media will be harmful.
  2. If you don’t make conscious decisions online they will be made for you.
  3. If you’re not paying for the product that’s because you are the product.

I’ve said all these things many times, and wholeheartedly agree with Brady on these points.

Soon after, he shows how we part ways and see the digital world differently.

What’s Digital Media?

But before I go there, I was concerned about Brady’s use of the phrase “digital media.” The way he uses it seems too flexible and imprecise. Sometimes it applies to anything on a screen, and other times to social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

It’s like when people talk about “evolution.” What do they mean? Do they mean biological change over time (something everyone agrees with)? Or the formation of man from molecules by an unguided, undirected process (more debatable)?

So it is with “digital media.” Are we talking about Word docs? Emails? Blogs? Podcasts? Zoom? Call of Duty? Tumbler? TikTok?

I want to make these categories clearer. I see “digital media” as an umbrella term that can apply to anything on a screen. Underneath that umbrella would be things like “toxic digital media” or “intentionally addictive digital media.” I’d apply these later phrases only to social media, today’s video games, and streaming video platforms. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Roblox, Fortnite, even YouTube and Netflix, all fall under “toxic digital media,” because they use intentionally addictive strategies to exploit weaknesses in our behavioral psychology — for the benefit of Big tech, but at our expense.

Also, when I say “Big Tech” here, I’m focusing on the behemoth creators of toxic digital media.

And my concern is over the church’s embrace of Toxic Digital Media.

What Are You Driving At?

Brady begins his critique by saying that the problem with social media is that it’s “new” and we just need to learn how to control it better. At 6:24, he says, “Now this is typically how it goes with new tech and emerging industries.” My contention is not that it’s “new,” but that it’s ontologically different — it’s toxic because of what it is.

Brady also prefers to compare Big Tech with the automobile industry instead of Big Tobacco. At 7:25, he says:

A line of comparison that I like to draw when discussing digital media is to the automobile industry because the automobile industry is today well regulated. But imagine if it weren’t. The dangers that would come from that. You know if we as a society indiscriminately embraced automobiles without any rules of the road, requirements for licensing, insurance, age limits, alcohol level limits. But there was a time when automobiles were new and Society was trying to figure that all out.

This is a common comparison. The claim is that social media’s toxic effects happen because we haven’t learned how to control or regulate it — yet. It’s an optimistic view, but one that ignores the real differences between toxic digital media (truly addictive, by design) and cars (not addictive). Brady continues (at 10:11):

Has the rise of digital media so far been a negative or a net positive for our world? I also don’t really know, but what I do believe is that I have the power to determine if it’s a net negative or net positive for me and this is also why I don’t care for the comparison of Big Tech to something like Big Tobacco or soda. You know, eliminating smoking or drinking soda from your life or my life that’s doable. Divesting from driving an automobile altogether or refusing to even get your license — that has much greater implications, and so does the implication that the best response to social is to eliminate it from our lives altogether — which is essentially Doug’s argument.

You can see here the confusion between the term “digital media” in the first sentence and “social” in the last. The former is the broad umbrella term, the latter is toxic. Zoom doesn’t compare well to Big Tobacco, but social media does precisely because both industries intentionally manufacture addictive products.

Also, Brady exaggerates by saying that my argument is essentially, “the best response to social is to eliminate it from our lives altogether.” If he had read my book, he’d know that I don’t proscribe that at all. In full surrender to Christ as the starting point, some people may need to fully eliminate it from their lives. Others may be able to use it rarely (5-10 minutes a week), like I do. And this is all beside the point — my argument in the TitR interview was against churches doing ministry and inviting people into toxically addictive platforms.

But what about the truly addictive nature of these toxic platforms, compared with Big Tobacco?

The Smoking Comparison

Did you know that Big Tobacco companies genetically engineered tobacco crops to double the amount of nicotine? That they added chemicals to make smoke more easily enter the lungs? They added sugars, flavors, and menthol to make smoke easier to inhale? They added ammonia to make nicotine travel quicker to the brain and ramp up that dopamine cycle?

And did you know that while they were manipulating their products, the industry fought all efforts to inform the public of their intentionally addictive practices? In fact, Big Tobacco pioneered special-interest government lobbying in their battle to keep people from learning the truth.

In 1964, the Surgeon General of the United States first declared that smoking could cause lung cancer and maybe heart disease. At that time, 42% of Americans smoked (including the Surgeon General himself). And for teens, smoking was a rite of passage.

Know what the industry did to help their image? Added filters. Filters that were chemically and physically modified through extensive user testing to appear like they were doing something useful, while the health consequences remained the same.

Sound familiar? (I’m looking at you, parental controls.)

Did you know that Big Tech companies like Facebook and TikTok employ top behavioral psychologists and neuroscientists who work to exploit our weaknesses and shape our desires to make us crave their products? To make them intentionally addictive? That they created sophisticated algorithms to run constant experiments on us to discover what is most addictive? And that’s where features such as like & share buttons, loot boxes, endless scrolling, notification alerts, sexualization, autoplay, “we care about you” messages, and thousands more elements came from?

In late 2017, Forbes contributor Elizabeth MacBride asked, “Is Social Media the Tobacco Industry of the 21st Century?” She said, “An addiction that pours money into the pockets of powerful elites is a hard thing to break — something to keep in mind as the public health concerns about social media grow.”

Which brings us to January 2023, when the Surgeon General of the United States said that age 13 is too early to join social media. He said, “I, personally, based on the data I’ve seen, believe that 13 is too early […] It’s a time where it’s really important for us to be thoughtful about what’s going into how they think about their own self-worth and their relationships and the skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children.”

The church needs to be ahead of these trends by choosing a counter-cultural way. Christians should see how harmful toxic digital media is to authentic disciple making. We’re losing a generation to their screens because of toxic industry practices.

Without being under the influence of these practices, the world would be drawn in by churches filled with people who are free to think their own thoughts, make great decisions based on scripture, and fulfill their God-given purpose. A church where most people rarely use social media would be a true beacon of hope and freedom that would attract our neighbors like no clever meme ever will.

Why, instead, do we seem to be waiting for the Surgeon General to tell us to not give our kids social media too early?

The Medium Is The Message

I was introduced to Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote, “The medium is the message,” through the prophetic Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death. Brady mentioned this several times in his rebuttal, because I also mentioned it and awkwardly tried to explain it “in the raw.”

The concept is rich and complex because it goes to the heart of how we come to know anything through a communication medium. In his explanation, Postman shows a stark comparison between smoke signals and the written word. “Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content” (Amusing, p. 7).

Postman continues with a particularly important example for those who call ourselves Christ-followers. Recall the second of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). Postman reveals a possible reason for God’s injunction against idols to the newly freed Israeli slaves, saying:

The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking. Iconography thus became blasphemy so that a new kind of God could enter a culture. People like ourselves who are in the process of converting their culture from word-centered to image-centered [or addictive-media-centered] might profit by reflecting on this Mosaic injunction.

(Amusing, p.9, emphasis mine)

So when I said in the podcast that TikTok can’t communicate the gospel, it was in the spirit of this that I meant it. If we think TikTok communicates the gospel, we misunderstand both the Gospel and what can be communicated through TikTok. What a person must do to succeed on TikTok is not in the same universe as what a person must do to lead a lost person to true repentance and submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

And here’s a telling question in light of the Second Commandment: If TikTok were banned in the USA (as Congress is discussing), would the church be sad? Would Christians be sad? If so, would that not point to idolatry?

“Discovery Algorithms?”

I found another phrase Brady frequently used concerning: “Discovery Algorithm.” Brady describes social media as using “discovery algorithms” seven times in the almost 24-minute video. This euphemism makes this technology sound as safe as a theme park or “choose your own adventure.” I’m sure Brady doesn’t intend this, but branding the toxic algorithms of social media giants as “discovery” is a form of propaganda (see chapter 3 of my book for evidence of this).

The correct phrase is “Persuasive Technology,” pioneered by Stanford professor B.J. Fogg in his Persuasive Technology Lab, and popularized by authors like Nir Eyal in Hooked or Chris Nodder in Evil By Design. It was under Fogg’s tutoring that future Big Tech leaders, such as the founders of Instagram, learned the tools of their addictive trade.

Dr. Richard Freed wrote a groundbreaking article, “The Tech Industry’s War on Kids,” which details the negative effects of Fogg’s work. Mental health professionals across the world like Dr. Freed are inundated with psychologically broken teens and kids who are suffering the destruction wrought by social media’s persuasive technology.

The only beneficiary of “discovery algorithms” is Big Tech. Through their algorithms, they “discover” how to keep every one of us right where they want us: engaged on their platforms.

Podcasts. Really?

Brady responded to my contention that church ministries should not be conducted on social media by calling me out for saying good things about podcasting. Here’s what he says at 15:19:

Finally, Doug does also put podcasting on a pedestal as a digital platform that he seems to enjoy personally and endorse for churches organizationally and this is important okay because Doug is not recommending Church’s abandoned digital altogether he does not critique digital as a whole but rather he would suggest your church embrace a medium like podcasting and reject a medium like Instagram because they are designed differently.

Brady says he’s unconvinced by my argument that podcasts and toxic digital media are different. He cites a study that talks about how noisy our society is, and then brings that down to people who may be “addicted” to podcasts because they have them continually playing in the background. He continues at 19:05:

I’ve thought it myself about the podcasts that I listen to because I listen to podcasts everywhere I go. Why? Because that’s how they are designed to be consumed. And the medium is the message right? And podcasts are especially insidious because I can take them everywhere. With my TV at least that has to stay in my living room, right? Not a podcast. I can walk, shop, lift, clean, cook, and never be alone.

Podcasts are especially insidious, Brady says. For some people, maybe they are. Certainly, spiritual disciplines like prayer, silence, and solitude require us to “be still and know that [he] is God” (Psalm 46:10). If we’re using podcasts to cover up our fear of quiet or being alone, that is a problem.

But to me, this is an obviously false equivalency, designed to minimize the dangers of the platforms that Brady has been so successful in promoting for many years. Nobody is applying B.J. Fogg’s persuasive design principles to Podcasting (or if they are, I haven’t seen it).

All I meant when I lifted up podcasts as a comparison to TikTok and other media is that podcasts facilitate long-form dialog and communication. A spoken word, listened to carefully, can teach effectively. I think of podcasts like audio books. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Sure, some podcasts are sensational, quick-hits, filled with loud music and drama and conspiracy theories. I’m not talking about podcasts like that. I’m talking about podcasts like Preston Sprinkle’s, where an hour is spent in thoughtful dialog, and we can participate, learn, and grow.

Are podcasts a “cheap substitute for relationships” as Brady says at 20:07? Sure. But I wasn’t saying that podcasts substitute for relationships. They have a role to play in discipleship by teaching important principles. This is another false dichotomy that distracts from the main point I was making.

Churches can help facilitate discipleship by publishing their sermons and other long-form, thoughtful conversations as podcasts. Not as a replacement for important personal real-life relationships of discipleship, accountability, love, care, and encouragement (e.g. Acts 2:44), but as a supplement to them.

But churches cannot facilitate discipleship by encouraging participation in toxic digital media platforms.

A Positive Case for TikTok?

Brady says that he’s seeing a positive trend on social media adoption, where young people are using the platforms strictly for entertainment, not to connect with people like the older folks did. (Older like on Myspace or something?) At 20:47, he says:

The positive take is that the younger generation saw how their elders did community online and have rejected it. They’re voting with their time and saying TikTok and social by extension is for entertainment, not for relationships. Why do these older folks think they could substitute social for real friendships?

An interesting perspective. And Brady is right about the move towards focusing on the entertainment value of toxic media platforms. I quoted Bob Lefsetz in a recent blog who said this:

And TikTok is about something different … it’s about ENTERTAINMENT! Seeing what is cool. Sure, there’s a train-wreck factor, but it’s hard to tear yourself away from the endless videos. It’s the hotspot of the internet in 2022 when the entire digital infrastructure is de rigueur, expected, part of the fabric.

Here’s the problem with the entertainment argument: real-world data. E-Marketing says that the average U.S. adult spends 8 hours a day consuming digital media. For teens, it’s closer to 9 hours a day. That’s 63 hours a week, more than any other single activity, including sleep. Streaming video platforms like YouTube are the highest in these numbers, followed closely by video games and social media.

What is 63 hours of “entertainment” replacing? Almost every good thing in life, including in-person, authentic relationships. And the church should be encouraging more of this? Or should churches try to compete by entertaining people on these toxic platforms for good purposes?

Get Off My Lawn

Since Brady doesn’t know me, he defaulted to an unfortunate trope to characterize my critique as deficient because it’s coming from an older guy criticizing “the kids nowadays.” I can’t blame him; it’s a useful rhetorical move. And I am older than he is.

But if he knew me, he’d know that I’ve been at the forefront of the latest technology development for over 30 years. It may be hard for younger people to understand, but it is possible for people to grow older and not only stay up to date, but lead innovation. Today, I’m the lead Android engineer for Covenant Eyes, the best internet pornography accountability and filtering company in the world. I’m at the cutting edge of Android platform development, pushing the boundaries of what is possible to help people overcome pornography addiction.

Had Brady also known that with my technical background I’ve been reading about the intentionally addictive practices of the industry and learning the neuroscience, psychology, technical practices, and effects on society for nearly 10 years, he might not have deployed this trope.

And if he knew that I’ve walked with many people in their true addictions to social media, video games, and pornography, he might not question my perspective in this way.

With that said, here’s Brady’s “biggest gripe” from 22:03 in the video:

My biggest gripe with a critique like Doug’s is that it works great at pointing fingers at the new tech and the new generation and identifying their problems and it turns a blind eye to the adults in the room and our problems. Because, when you narrow your critique to a single platform like Doug does here, you let everyone else off the hook. This is the enemy — it’s this platform and the people that use this platform need to stop — and now we’re so focused on the spec in the eye of the other that we’re blind to the problems of the platforms that we advocate for.

We’re all guilty. These platforms are all guilty, and if we want to uphold the values and standards that Doug espouses (which I am fully on board for by the way) we must then interrogate these platforms equally and not just target the one the kids that are on. Not just Target the ones that weren’t around when we were young. In fact, I’d argue that it’s easier — it’s lower hanging fruit — to cry foul about the new platforms because the problems with the new platforms are easier to see because they’re unfamiliar. The greater danger though is that we ignore the platforms that have been with us for decades — the ones we’ve come to accept, the ones that have had their hooks in us for so long — that we’re not even aware of how harmful they truly are because they are our familiar vice.

(22:03, emphases mine)

This is a big gripe. A strong accusation. He’s saying that people with critiques like mine fall under judgment of the sin Jesus called out in Matthew 7:3-5. The implication is that the log (of podcasting, for example) in my eye makes me blind to the spec (e.g. TikTok) in the younger generation’s eyes.

Might I be blind to my own sin, and only call out the sins of others that are not my own? It’s certainly possible. Am I doing that in this case? As far as I can see, I don’t think so. But “Search me, oh God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23-24). May I always be open.

Here’s why the log/spec argument fails in this case. If Brady had read my book, he’d know that adults are my primary audience. I’m telling all of us (myself included) that we have to break free from addictive screens in order to become all God made us to be.

Brady’s accusation also distracts again from the different character of toxic digital media platforms. And since he brought up the kids (I didn’t), let’s talk about them.

Kids Nowadays Are Hurting

Because of our acceptance of social media/video games/streaming platforms, and because we have accepted the lie that “every child/teen needs a smartphone,” the next generation is being destroyed (in the John 10:10 sense — see chapter 4 of my book). Here’s a tiny sample of recent articles:

  • The CDC recently reported that more than 50% of teenage girls now experience “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” and over 1/3 have considered suicide.
  • Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says the deadly increase in teenage mental illness is largely caused by social media use.
  • Dr. Jean Twenge, known for chronicling the catastrophic impact of screens on “iGen,” wrote in Time magazine (behind paywall) that, “Teen girls are facing a mental health epidemic. We’re doing nothing about it.”

Dr. Richard Freed’s book Wired Child says that a good percentage of the young women he sees in psych wards are there because of something to do with phone addiction. He now sees grade school girls who are so depressed they are harming themselves — something he’d never seen before. He sees boys who are failing in school, “failing to launch,” or who are even violent to their families or themselves due to video game addiction. He says:

Millions of children, teens, and adults in the US and worldwide now suffer from video game and internet addiction. In my work as a child and adolescent psychologist, it’s abundantly clear that the symptoms children and teens experience fit the classic definition of addiction: continued use in spite of serious negative consequences.

(Wired Child, p. 5.)

By dismissing my argument as, “kids nowadays and their new toys,” Brady distracts us from the devastating impact of toxic digital media on the younger generation.

Jesus talked about millstones around people’s necks for leading little ones astray (Matthew 18:6). Toxic digital platforms are doing that. Churches need to lead people away from these platforms, not bless them.

I say this with love, with a broken heart, with tears. Not with condemnation, judgment, or malice towards those younger than me or anyone else. And certainly not with any sense of superiority.

So, What Should Churches Do?

What was I trying to say that churches should do, anyway? Some of that was obscured by the “raw-ness” of the Preston Sprinkle interview and may now be further distorted by Brady’s critique.

Based on my research, and my real-world experience a dad, technologist, Bible student and disciple-maker, here’s what I think churches and other ministries should do:

  • Stop facilitating any youth/children’s ministry on toxic digital platforms like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Snapchat. Because of what we know now about the impact on kids and teens, I believe it’s immoral, unethical, maybe even sinful (in the millstone sense), for churches to “sanctify” these platforms by using them. (Anything a church does that gives a kid/teen a reason to ask for a smartphone or social media would fall into this category.) Instead, begin today to plan and turn your youth and children’s ministries away from toxic screens. I’d be glad to help you come up with a plan.
  • Stop doing any other ministry on these platforms too. Don’t lead people to cultivating connections with your ministries through addictive platforms. Instead, build features into your church’s website to build connection. For example, to offer private online groups, purchase a platform like Circle to run a group that’s free from the manipulation and data profiling of Big Tech.
  • If you’re going to use social media for marketing your ministry, here are only the messages you really need to send:
    • Invitations to your church
    • Links to resources or events that are not on the toxic platforms
    • Admonitions to reduce social media use

There’s so much more I could say, but this is already longer than most people will read. For more, I’d certainly point you to my book, where I not only share many more resources, but offer the grace-filled biblical practices that have helped me and many others to walk in freedom in a screen-saturated world.

Brady, thank you for sparking this conversation. I invite your response, and even welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you in real time.

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