The impact of social media on our world continues to grow. Facebook is closing in on 700 million users; Twitter has reported 175 million accounts (though only half of those may be active); Google’s new Google Plus attracted 25 million users in its first month; LinkedIn reported crossing the 100 million member mark this past spring; and YouTube is said to have 3 billion hits per day with 48 hours worth of video added to the site every minute.
This year alone an estimated 7 trillion text messages will be sent from 4.8 billion cell phones. Social media has not only changed the way we communicate, but also it has been hailed for saving lives during natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the summer tornadoes in Joplin and Tuscaloosa.
But social media also can be used for bad. We have addressed the problem of cyber-bullying before, but Facebook and Twitter also had a role in the recent violence in London and Philadelphia. Flashmobs organized through text messages or Facebook pages, originally as a form of spontaneous entertainment, have turned violent in some cities and even have been used by gangs to organize crime sprees. While law enforcement officials are scrambling to identify the people responsible for creating and sending messages to incite violence, there are still some difficult technical hurdles to clear.
Sites like Facebook do have terms and conditions that all users must agree to follow before creating an account. Under the “Safety” heading, rules 6 and 7 state: “You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user. You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” But not everyone follows the rules, and some of the rules can be difficult to enforce.
As Christians we have the challenge of finding ways to use new technologies to spread the gospel and to do the work of God’s kingdom. Countless churches, ministries, and individual Christians have used platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to distribute devotional material, post Scriptures, and give words of encouragement and support to friends and followers. Social media can help churches and youth ministries organize and promote events, identify and respond to needs in the community, and share prayer requests.
Social media, much like any technology, is not good or bad in and of itself. So we have to be aware of how we are using it. When Christians embrace social technology as a tool that can be used to do God’s will—and not as an idol—we give John Wesley’s phrase “the world is my parish” exciting new meaning. Christians can connect to one another and to the world in ways never before possible to fulfill Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19a) and do the work of God’s kingdom.
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Young people are at the forefront of social media culture. Early social networks Friendster and MySpace appealed to youth, with their emphases on music and gaming. Facebook began as a social network for college campuses but soon spread to high schools. Youth today live in an age when technology and culture are changing rapidly. Likewise, the early Christians to whom the author of the Book of Hebrews wrote lived in changing times. During an era of political and cultural upheaval, the author reminded Christians, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!” (Hebrews 13:8). Other things can be good or bad, depending on how we use them. But Jesus Christ is always good. Our responsibility as Christians is to use our traditions, tools, and technology to glorify Christ.