TikTok influencers and the weight of glory
“YouTube/Social Media Influencer” has recently charted as the top vocational aspiration for teens and pre-teens in the US and UK. Join Kelsey and Jonathan as they discuss this cultural phenomenon and what it means for discipleship.
KELSEY REED: Hello! Welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. We’re here to come alongside you as you disciple kids and students through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.
JONATHAN BOES: Hello!
KELSEY: Together, we want to model conversations and tools you might wish to use in your home or classroom. We invite you to send in your questions for us to address in future episodes. We’ll talk about that some more later. For now, we’re laying a foundation and sourcing our material from the news stories we’re reading and writing through our work at God’s WORLD News.
JONATHAN: So there’s something that’s been in the news pretty constantly, for a lot of different reasons. It’s TikTok. There have been all sorts of questions about this app: Its connections to China, whether the app keeps your data safe. Even last month, we saw in Virginia and in New Hampshire, state governments actually made it illegal for the app to be on state government devices. But we want to zero in on what this whole buzz around TikTok means for kids and teens.
So last November, there was this really fascinating thing on 60 Minutes: an interview with Tristan Harris. He’s a technology ethicist. He pointed out the difference between TikTok in the United States and the version they have in China, where the app was created. In the United States, there’s no real limit to the content kids can see or how long they can use the app. It tends to push frivolous pranks, TikTok dances—you’re familiar with TikTok. In China, though, the app shows kids much more educational content, and it actually limits their time on the app. Harris connects this to a survey from 2019 that shows that for kids between eight and 12 in America, here in the United States, their largest aspiration is to be an influencer. To be a YouTuber or a vlogger. A TikTok influencer. Whereas, if you look over at China, the main aspiration for that kid group is to be an astronaut.
So there’s a big discrepancy there. The desire to be a social media influencer, or the desire to be an astronaut? So Kelsey, you as a parent, as an educator—I’m wondering if this is something you’ve had to wrestle with at all, if it’s something you’ve seen going on? And what what’s your take on this?
KELSEY: Oh, man, first of all, that concept just knocks your socks off. The disparity between cultures. And so I just sit there and observe that as a parent, and it fills me with wonder. And the question that comes to mind for me is: How do I help my kids to avoid some of those pitfalls? What is going on? So yes, I’m absolutely seeing this. I’m seeing it at home, I’m seeing it in the peers of my children—that there is so much going on in our culture that influences their aspirations.
Now, I’m kind of getting the cart before the horse a little bit. We’ll talk more about that. But I’m seeing so much of the input in my children’s lives is coming from highly skilled influencers on social media apps. And that they have the jokes that my children are using. The memes being created, the dances I see snippets of. This is a profound cultural trend. And I see it, as I’ve said, in their peers’ lives, and particularly with the very strange dynamic we’ve had coming out of COVID.
I read a number of different discipleship blogs and articles. So whereas you are quite often head-in-the-news, I’m often looking at what you might call the “discipleship news”: those writers talking about where we are seeing trends and what we can do about them. I love reading the very good and astute voices. And they’re noticing, as well that—after the pandemic—the shutdowns, the reliance on screens, the inability to interface with others in person has stoked our usage of the screens like none other. I know I’m just adding my voice. You guys are all hearing the same voices saying, “Look, we have started using it more and more for school. We’re using the virtual classrooms. We’re using them as our supposed it means for connecting.”
But as soon as we start using them for an abundance of things—maybe you’re even reading your Bible on your screen—
JONATHAN:—maybe you’re listening to a podcast—
KELSEY:—maybe you’re listening to a podcast on your screen, maybe you’re watching your news. It’s very quickly leading from one thing to another. And we’re scrolling. And we’re receiving input from many others on the screen.
JONATHAN: So it seems from what you’re saying, like there’s some sort of correlation here between how digital we’ve become, how screen-based we’ve become, especially in these pandemic and post pandemic years, and how that effects what our kids or teens aspire to be.
KELSEY: Exactly. It’s stoking their expectations. So it’s like, when you have a baby—and this is such a low hanging fruit example—when you have a baby and you’re teaching them at six months old what to eat, you have an opportunity to feed them something very wholesome, and get their palate adjusted to things like broccoli.
JONATHAN: Still working on that one. Still working on making broccoli palatable. But yes, I’ve got the idea.
KELSEY: So you’re trying not to introduce the sweet foods first, because their palettes are going to want to go towards that. It’s stoking their expectations to give them something that’s wholesome. On the same scale, we can stoke a certain expectation for what we’re going to be doing vocationally, based on what we’re receiving out in the world. And our world is giving us a lot of on-screen influencing.
JONATHAN: I really like that comparison you just made to social media, social media influence, and those sweet foods you can get set on if that’s all you have. Because there is a surfacey sweetness to social media. It’s that satisfaction, that dopamine drip. It’s designed to hold your attention.
There was this clip—ironically it went viral on social media—of comedian Bo Burnham. It was really fascinating what he was saying, how it’s not even necessarily that these companies are nefarious, these social media companies. It’s just the way you get ahead. The model they are built on needs to grow. And the way they grow is to hold your attention. So everything these social media companies do is to hold your attention, to keep you scrolling, to keep you liking content. That’s how they survive. That’s how they stay afloat. So whether or not there is some nefarious scheme from a foreign power to get your kids addicted to entertainment—
JONATHAN:—that’s another whole conversation to have there. But despite the intention behind social media, it is essentially candy. It is designed to keep you eating. You can’t just have one, like a potato chip. So it’s easy to have this immediate repulsion to the idea of an influencer. I think you can sense the vapidity of it. But you often talk about taking a cultural issue, looking at what we can affirm, and what we can challenge. And so I’m wondering if you see anything in this whole idea of wanting to be an influencer that we can actually affirm?
KELSEY: Yes. And I want to be very careful, because I know I just was silly about mentioning a certain social media app by name. And there’s so much that’s still being discerned about what’s going on with that. I want to be careful to not merely react.
We keep from merely reacting by slowing the pace down, and thinking about what we can affirm, before maybe diving too deeply into critique. Because in the Lord’s world, His grace operates so beautifully, and everything that we use can be used for good and for His glory. We need to be careful. We need to be intentional. But there’s something even in our hearts, in the way that He’s designed our hearts—this longing to influence. That’s not a bad longing. As image-bearers, we’re reflecting something of the Lord and the way that He influences and shapes when we resonate with that idea of influencing and shaping what’s around us.
So I love that you brought up that idea, the “What can we affirm?” If we’re across from a child or a student, one of our teens, who looks at this as a potential vocation in life, and wants to have influence, something we can call good is: Yes, you want to speak into this world. You want to help shape it. You want to share something. Of course, how do we figure out how to do that in a wholesome way—just as with our nutrition, like we talked about? There still needs to be that shaping, continuing the wholesome desire and giving it wholesome rails or boundaries to run on or within. Those things, though, come with a part of the critique and a part of the challenge. So the first thing to affirm is the heart level desire to shape culture.
JONATHAN: The desire to influence is not necessarily bad. Let’s hold on to that for a minute. I want to come back to that. But you started transitioning there to the idea that’s also part of the critique. So how do you see how that morphs into something we can challenge?
KELSEY: Absolutely. The beauty of having a God who loves us is that He gave us a law. He gave us boundaries. Even within the garden, He gave boundaries to Adam and Eve. Now, as human beings, we have to often sort and find those boundaries. And He’s gracious to allow us to do that.
Let me start from that place of experiencing. As we experience social media, experience the influencers—again, back to what you said about the dopamine hits, and what it means for them to generate likes and to generate their own economic outcome—they’re getting money, depending on how many people interact with, and how much time is spent looking at. They are using only the boundaries of “How much can I gain?” as what they do to seek influence.
So first, I want to start by thinking about what kind of boundaries they are living within. And how is that influencing our children? So this is in a fairly unbounded realm that our children are able to experience. If not with our boundaries, they’re able to experience it unfettered, without guidelines. As we’ve mentioned, with China, there is not a restriction built into these apps. It’s “What can we make? How can we get attention so that we can make even more money?”
So it behooves us as parents, as educators, to help our children with disciplines. To help them with an awareness of how much time that they’re spending on it. And for them—I’ve used this illustration before—to maybe even glut out on it, as with candy, and get sick a little bit. Then talk them through, “Hey, how did that actually make you feel? And what did that actually do for you?” Ask them these questions, as a part of helping to point them towards criticizing. Point them towards, “This is something I should challenge, and I should challenge its place in my life.” Help them, the older students in particular, find those rails of boundary. But they might have to practice it with our boundaries first, of course.
What else could we challenge? Another thing I would suggest, is that we might challenge the idea that we should be out merely for gain. When we are out to merely get likes, that actually influences what we’re doing to get those likes. We read another excellent piece recently. I think it was another TGC piece. And when I say TGC, I’m talking about The Gospel Coalition. They are one of those discipleship resources we use, along with the Culture Translator from Axis. Both of these are writing on those discipleship touchpoints. So the article I’m mentioning talked about how, when you seek to have influence in order to gain a platform, you actually have to gain enough likes, enough attention. And if your wholesome material isn’t getting that attention, you often change your material in order to get those likes.
JONATHAN: Yes, the article you’re referring to was on The Gospel Coalition. It was called “How To Gain an Audience and Lose Your Soul” by Patrick Miller. And it talked about this YouTuber named Nicholas Perry. He was a vegan and incredible violin player, classically trained. And on his YouTube channel, that’s what he did. It was vegan recipes, violin music, and it got no traction. There was some sort of change in his life, changing his diet. He starts doing these lunchtime videos, eating a meal while talking to the camera. It’s a trend right now, where people just sit and eat and talk to the camera. That starts to get traction. Again, it has to grow. It has to get bigger. He starts eating more food. He’s now eating entire fast food menus. He is experiencing major health problems. The violin is out. He’s sacrificed a real skill and real health for the sake of this platform.
I don’t want make this about calling out one person. The example from this article shows how we can end up sacrificing real, good things for the sake of attention.
It makes me think of when I was a kid and everybody wanted to be a rock star, or an athlete, or an actor. I think there’s a similar heart behind those desires and the desire to be an influencer. Those are fame positions. Those are positions that come with influence and celebrity. But one difference, I think, is that all those categories involve some sort of craft or skill: athletic training, or learning an instrument, or learning the craft of acting, which is an incredible skill that often looks much easier than it is. Today, we have all that realm of craft stripped away to just the bare thing of influence online. Fame for fame’s sake. And we actually see people sacrificing their skills, like being a classically trained violin player, for the sake of this raw thing of fame, stripped from the real fruit of a good vocation.
KELSEY: Another thing to challenge here, succinctly and clearly, is that idea of seeking glory. We’re really not made for glory in that sense. We don’t have the capacity to hold that weight, and to do so with wisdom and humility. I think of this young man we’ve been talking about. He had honed a craft. He was disciplined in his nutrition. I’m not making a commentary on a type of nutrition, but we see the fruit of the disciplines he chose, in his life. And that, as he was not getting renown for those things, he changed in order to seek after the glory he was otherwise not getting through his craft.
So it’s very interesting. We have this promise of glory, through very empty, vacuous, and even destructive things. And then the beauty and the disciplines, that didn’t come with glory, were moving towards a quieter place, which to me seems more human: that honing a craft, learning the goodness of work. So there’s something in us that longs for glory. And yet we’re not made as vessels that can contain that glory, without it really destroying our lives. Only One can really hold that glory, only One can deal with that and still maintain all of His goodness, all of His holiness, righteousness. So there’s a rub in terms of the challenge there, that we can push into culture and say, “Glory is not something we are made for in that regard.”
JONATHAN: It feels like we’re naturally coming around to something we held onto from earlier. We’ve talked about this aspiration kids today have, to be an influencer. We’ve looked at what we can affirm, what we can challenge. Now, I’m going to come back to—what does good influence look like? You talked about that before, that there’s not necessarily a wrongness in this desire to speak to your context, to have a voice. And it feels like we’re starting to transition to that here. What is the proper thing to do with that longing for influence, or that longing to speak?
KELSEY: As I move towards trying to answer that, there are a couple other ways I want to be self-aware in our process. We’ve talked a bit about social media. We’ve tried to define some of the things that are going on in social media. And really, we’re beginning to model what it looks like to discern. We can’t do all of that. But we want to practice that in our conversation, to urge you also to practice that in your conversation: to observe what you see, to name the things that are good, to name the things that are off base, that are areas of concern, to challenge those, and to ask questions of your kids to help them critique well.
As you engage that, you’re going to be tenderly engaging the longings of their hearts. Again, we talked about this—that we are built in a way that we may not have the capacity for glory, but we do reflect glory. As image-bearers, we are made to reflect His glory outwardly. That is the influence we should absolutely seek: to be those who reflect the beauty and the goodness and the righteousness, the pursuing nature, and even—this is the thing that’s so amazing—the servanthood of the God we serve, in response to the way He has first served us.
The thing that we want to affirm in the longing of our children’s hearts is to reflect the glory, the beauty, even the servanthood of Christ, into this world that so desperately needs that to influence its heart. People desperately need that grace. They need to know they are loved.
Again, in the last episode, we talked about that “with us.” God came, Immanuel, to be with us. When He returned to sit at the right hand of God, He left us to be those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, to be with those who do not yet know Him. We get to be Christ to them. Not Christ ourselves, but to reflect Him. So absolutely, that longing to have influence, to shape—that’s a godly longing. That’s something He wrote on our hearts.
JONATHAN: So it’s the difference between using that longing for our own glory, to become influencers of ourselves to the world around us in some sort of unbounded sense, versus using that desire to be the influence of Christ to the people around us.
KELSEY: Right. The fragrance, the aroma of the One they desperately need.
JONATHAN: I think about this chapter from C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. In this whole book, it’s this fictionalized look at these souls who get to experience Heaven. And Lewis makes it clear that he’s writing this as an analogy, to make a point. It’s not actually what he thinks Heaven looks like. But this is an incredible book. There’s this moment where the narrator is in Heaven and he sees this massive parade celebration coming. Everyone is saying, “She’s coming! She’s coming! She’s here!” And the narrator’s thinking, “Who could this possibly be? Is this Mary? What great woman is this?”
And as the parade comes along, it’s this woman named Sarah from Golder’s Green. And he’s like, “Who is she?”
You’ve never heard of this person, because on Earth, she just lived this life of quiet faithfulness, influencing for Christ in her context. Not in fame or for her own glory. Not becoming a big name for herself. On Earth, nobody really ever heard of her. But in Heaven, she is worthy of this massive celebration. I think that’s such an incredible picture.
KELSEY: It reminds me of a verse I believe is from Luke: Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. So this woman, in this great analogy you’re talking about, has been a servant of all. Whoever wants to be great in God’s kingdom—that’s an old song I know is based in scripture, we used to sing it—if you want to be great in God’s kingdom, learn to be a servant of all.
Again, practicing some of that self-awareness today, we are modeling conversation. We hope that you are carving out the time for this type of conversation with your kids, so they might do with you some of these things we’ve been doing today—this text-to-life or even text-to-text connection. If you are in the schools—my child is in public school—they make a big deal about doing text-to-text connections. And so she’s coming home, seven years old, saying “We made a text-to-text connection today, Mommy!”
So we’re doing this text-to-Bible connection, text-to-life connection. We’re allowing for those things that have started to buzz around in our children’s heads, like they’re buzzing around in ours. We’re making these connections to scripture, and we’re working the wiring of our brain, so that we see all of the different ways these thoughts connect. We’re bringing it deeper down into all of that which affects our engagement on the affective level, that heart-level engagement, where what we believe directly influences our words and our actions.
So some of the tools, to name them today: We’ve talked about affirming and challenging. We use a biblical framework to think about what we can affirm in our children’s longing, what we can affirm in culture, what we can affirm in their friends. There is so much to affirm because the Lord is Lord over all, and He has made things that are very good. We definitely then need to move on to what we can challenge, because that very good world He has made—again, through biblical framework, we’re thinking about that which has fallen, and that which has succumbed to the curse. So we challenge through that framework of understanding: There’s a tainted to this. There’s a self-serving nature. Something about sin is here. And so let’s challenge it, and name it carefully, for discernment and for wisdom building, in our homes in our classrooms. So the affirm and challenge method through a biblical framework, thinking about it specifically through that redemptive narrative: God made us as very good. We fell away from grace. We fell away from His good order.
Again, what can we then supply? There’s going to be the supply in the redemption: Christ, who has come as the image of God, showing us what His way looks like. So we talked about servanthood, that influencing in a Christlike manner is a good thing. And He has shown us how that is done. He has washed His disciples’ feet. He has laid down His life, not seeking His own glory, but the glory of the Father.
Some of the other tools: As we affirm things that are going on at the heart level, we’re actually operating with something that’s called emotional intelligence. We’re affirming things for the emotional health of our children, and helping them to sort through those longings, also for their emotional health. It is so important for us to ask the questions, “What are you thinking about? How are you feeling about these things?”
And again, through that narrative I’ve described, that redemptive narrative, knowing how to affirm their hearts. Emotional intelligence. Emotional health.
JONATHAN: So we’re looking at what we see in the news, what we see in culture. We’re putting that up against the biblical text. We’re putting that up against our lives. We’re seeing what we can affirm, we’re seeing what we can challenge. And we’re digging in with emotional intelligence, to speak to the hearts of our kids.
KELSEY: Yes. We didn’t go about defining the terms we were using in the story. But I hope we’ve defined our tools, so we’re still doing that analytical work that’s so very helpful to our observation process. So if we were to be careful, and to define our tools, we would say at home, “You know, what is an influencer? What does influence mean?” We would ask those questions to draw out that learning process.
JONATHAN: And even, “How has that language changed?” What does “influence” and “influencer” mean differently than it did even 20 years ago?
KELSEY: And what is work? Where did it come from? What is the joy of it? What does it look like in our home life? What is vocation and calling? I was reading in 1 Peter this morning, and I want to talk about this provision for us understanding those categories—that our work comes out of our design as well. So we talked about being image-bearers. Part of the way we image Him is in the way He has particularly and uniquely gifted us.
In 1 Peter, I’m going to start in verse seven of chapter four. “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”
So the reason I’m starting in these verses is because we are, like we’ve said, in unprecedented times. It feels like the end of all things. What is our response to be? Self-control and sober-mindedness, which comes from thinking about our thinking: thinking about how we feel, thinking about our actions and our aspirations.
Keep loving one another earnestly. When we fail, when we are challenged and have these messy conversations that get into intimate, tender places in our hearts—keep loving one another earnestly, for it covers a multitude of sins. And then jumping down to verse 10: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
The Lord has gifted us uniquely to have influence, maybe in a way we didn’t expect, an upside-down way, but to have influence in His world. He has given us all we need for life and godliness. He has provided what we need for discipling our kids.
We would love to hear your questions. We would love to tackle them and discuss them together.
JONATHAN: We would love to see what you are hearing in the news, so we can help sort through those issues—so that we can sort through them for ourselves. You can reach out to us at email@example.com.
KELSEY: We’re learning alongside you. And we’re listening. Parents, teachers, mentors of students, you are uniquely positioned to have the greatest impact on the kids and students in your lives. In Christ, and by the power of His Spirit, we have abundant provision. He has equipped you for the work.
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