Debunking the moth myth: Social media and the teenage search for presence

November 20th, 2015

“What we need is more video,” the youth pastor declared as we brainstormed about the problem of youth inattention at Wednesday night gatherings. The room of adult leaders quieted. “Instead of standing up there talking, let’s video ourselves—the students will pay better attention to the screen than to a real person. Video always attracts their attention,” he stated passionately. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. He had just made an appeal to what I call the moth myth—the assumption that teenagers, like moths, are attracted to things that light up.

Despite my protest, the consensus was that we should fight fire with fire: grab teenagers’ attention away from the glow of their smartphones with a bigger and brighter screen. The next week’s sermon would be prerecorded. It just so happened that the following week was my turn to speak at Wednesday night youth group. So a few days prior, armed with a ragtag film crew, we set out to
record the sermon. I gave my opening illustration leaning against a tree, before the wannabe film director (the middle school pastor) called, “Cut!” He moved me to a crouched position on some outdoor stairs, sunlight streaming in radiant bands behind me. I made it through my first point before I was “Cut!” again. This continued for an hour before I was dismissed so that the film team could edit the clips into something usable.

That Wednesday evening at youth group, with lights low, my sermon played out on the big screen. Youth did stare at the screen, and their chatter did quiet. It was not unlike being in a stadium and choosing to watch the projected image rather than the live action itself. Yet, this effect waned quickly, and by the end of the night students turned back to their devices. In fact, the level of conversation in the group actually increased within a few weeks because there was no one up front whom they might offend, but only a projected video image. I quietly slipped out the back of the youth chapel.

As I stood outside in the air of a cool spring evening, watching a moth flit and flick against the sodium-green glow of a security light, I realized the fatal flaw in our thinking. We had failed to realize
that teenagers’ attraction to smartphones, laptops, games, and gadgets is not a function of the glowing screen but a function of who is on the other end. Moths flit against light bulbs out of pure phototaxis, but teenagers are searching for something else.

In early twenty-first century America, the glow of the screen gives young people access to a world of connective relationships not easily replicated in our disconnected face-to-face society. Teenagers are not moths, but in viewing them as such, we have paid attention to the technology around which they gather and ignored the distinction between how and why they connect. We know they use Instagram and Snapchat, Twitter and text messaging, but we have done a poor job of understanding
the deeper reasons why teenagers use social media. And it appears those reasons may have little to do with bright lights and shiny objects.


Empirical research suggests that teenage use of technology points beyond an adolescent hunger for gadgets toward a hunger for relationships of presence. After three years of research funded by the MacArthur Foundation, digital ethnographer danah boyd (yes, her name is lowercase) and her fellow researchers concluded that teenagers use social media to establish “full-time intimate communities” that provide for always-on communication and relationships.

Such communities differ significantly from the communities that teenagers experience daily in highly mobile (and consequently disconnected) face-to-face society. Those communities are fleeting and transitory. The community of a middle school homeroom convenes for fifty minutes. A teenager has access to her community of best friends for thirty minutes at lunch. The community of youth group meets for an hour once or twice a week. Even the community of family convenes only a few hours a day in most households. Teenagers experience a multitude of fleeting and transitory communities and relationships daily, but social media allows them to enact relationships and draw upon the support of communities that are vibrant, always-on, and full-time.

There is of course some significance in the fact that text messaging is the communication choice for teenagers, but the greater significance is the experience of presence that such media represent. Presence in absence is an important experience because teenagers so often encounter absence in presence. The feeling of being alone in a crowd is the feeling of absence in presence, and it’s an increasingly common experience at school, church, and even home as the pace of life increases, as we traverse large impersonal institutions, and as we depend more and more on technology to mediate our interactions with one another. There’s an irony that in a technological society increasingly characterized by impersonal, faceless, and absent interactions, teenagers are turning to technology to try to experience presence.

Yes, we still trade social pleasantries in the grocery checkout line, but there isn’t a relationship there. She interacts with us, and we interact with her in a faceless fashion, as if it doesn’t matter if I have a face or not. And we experience absence in the midst of presence.

Digital ethnographers agree that the dominant practices of social media usage by teenagers are friendship-driven not tech-driven. Take away the connectivity of their devices, turn off text messaging and remove their contact list, and teenagers are far less interested in smartphones. boyd summarizes it best: “Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other.”1
And if we are going to call it “addiction,” suggests boyd, we need to simultaneously recognize that it arises from a healthy desire to connect to others; it’s “part of the human condition.”2 In a world of transitory and fleeting experiences of relationality, maybe we should be happy that teenagers are seeking to hold onto some kind of relational permanence.

1. danah boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 80.

2. boyd, It’s Complicated, 80.

This article is an excerpt from Andrew Zirschky's book Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected-But-Alone Generation, which will be released by Abingdon this fall.

comments powered by Disqus