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Sex, lies, and social media

We should approach digital apps with wisdom and sobriety


Associated Press/Photo by Charles Krupa

Sex, lies, and social media
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Recently I experienced what can only be considered a “first-world problem:” I stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy on one social media platform because I was criticizing another platform.

On Twitter, I posted a short thread making a low-flying case for why married men should consider forgoing a personal Instagram account. I used words like “sexualized” and “intimacy.” This was seemingly enough to attract a chorus of angry and bewildered replies, many from women, nearly all of whom seemed convinced I was disguising some personal hidden vice as a moralism. The replies had much in common, including a consensus that any man who is so weak-willed as to stay off a social media platform altogether is not the kind of man who should be in charge of anything.

We could certainly have a fascinating conversation about the relationship between weakness and qualification for public leadership. But weakness can also be exploited, and the people, places, or things that exploit our weaknesses also merit some attention. To that effect, I think a decent case can be made that the current social media zeitgeist places us (particularly men) in psychological and emotional habitats that take advantage of our spiritual weaknesses.

Platforms like Twitter are designed to shape how we process information. Places like Instagram, however, are more aesthetic experiences. Instead of a place to debate politics or religion, platforms like Instagram and TikTok feel more like a place to share life. Family outings, birth and engagement announcements, sumptuous vacations, hospital beside tragedies, and yes, selfies, make these kinds of apps what they are.

As social media becomes overwhelmingly visual—the landscape is currently dominated by Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube—it inevitably places a premium on physical beauty. “Candid” family moments are painstakingly staged to perfection. Most apps now include dozens of filters and adjustment options to make even selfies resemble a professional modeling portfolio (“Instagram model” is now a viable career path for teenage girls).

The power of these online habitats to change us, to influence our feelings, and slowly but certainly recondition our values, is difficult to overstate.

This intersection of visual allure and personal intimacy is significant. Digital apps have become one of and perhaps the primary means by which the emerging generation find romantic partners. Why? Because social media is good at doing what it is designed to do. This should cause us to approach these technologies with wisdom and sobriety. Single men must confront the near limitless opportunities for gratifying lust, while married men need to be honest with themselves about how “keeping up” with female friends can slide into something much more, even unintentionally at first, as an aesthetically powerful familiarity is maintained through our phones. Familiarity can quickly lead to intimacy, or at least a yearning for it.

To be sure, a digitally manufactured environment doesn’t force anyone to wander into sexual immorality or unfaithfulness. No habitat, however strong, can totally negate a person’s will (or prevent that will from changing). And the effects of digital media are felt differently by different people. Some personalities will simply not be drawn in.

Yet the power of these online habitats to change us, to influence our feelings, and slowly but certainly recondition our values, is difficult to overstate. There is a sense in which apps that turn the human person into a kind of consumable commodity—here’s a face you can “like,” a body you can “share”—operate on the same logic as pornography. Just as porn is a flight from reality into egotistical delusions, even the seemingly innocuous halls of social media can likewise facilitate a retreat from real life, with all its limitations and commitments, into a virtual hall of intrigue. Even when the willpower to resist the illicit search or lustful click remains intact, long periods of immersion in these digital habitats can make these situations feel natural rather than life-threatening. And here is where we must heed the voice of wisdom.

In Proverbs 7, Solomon looks out from his window and sees a sad tale. A naïve lad, “a young man lacking sense,” is seduced by an adulterous woman and goes to his ruin. Solomon does not leave this young fellow’s first mistake a mystery. The king sees him “passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house.” (Proverbs 7:8) This simple young man learned the hard way that proximity often creates plausibility. Intended destinations are one thing. The roads we take matter, too.

In an age in which our Internet access is constant, and constantly demanding, this is a lesson worth heeding.


Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.


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