Instagram, Twitter, and the Longing for Approval

closeup of hands typing away on laptop with social media icons floating up from keyboard

The Washington Post reports that Instagram is testing a prototype in Canada right now that would hide “likes” and views on pictures and videos in order “to rein in competitive tendencies and to make the experience a little ‘less pressurized.’” You could still check how many “likes” a post received, but you would have to click through to find such information.

In the same report, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged that his platform was testing a similar scenario on one of their apps. All of this comes as more and more people are recognizing the threat to mental health, especially for young people, that can come with the constant surveillance of likes, retweets, and other signs of approval from people online. 

Why has social media become a search for social approval?

And why does this matter so much to us that it consumes some people’s lives?

In a recent issue of the New Yorker, journalist Jia Tolentino wrote that perhaps the primary problem with social media is that “we have allowed social media to make us feel valuable. These platforms encourage compulsive use by offering forms of social approval—likes on Facebook and Instagram, retweets on Twitter—that are intermittent and unpredictable, as though you’re playing a slot machine that tells you whether or not people love you,” she writes. 

“If I could flip a switch that would allow me to get book recommendations from Twitter and puppy photos from Instagram without seeing how many followers I was acquiring or how many people had liked my posts, I would,” she writes. “It would help me waste less time on the internet, and feel less invested in it. Of course, this would not provide me with as many regular infusions of useless dopamine, or make Twitter or Instagram—or the companies that advertise on them—very much money.”

One needn’t spend very much time with parents of teenagers with heavy social media usage to see how many of them are battling a generalized anxiety specific to social media itself. It’s hard enough to be an adolescent, wondering constantly where one fits it and what others think of you, without having a mechanism that purports to show you the answers to those questions with raw data, all of the time.

Such a life is like a politician checking his or her daily tracking poll numbers, except without an election at the end.

And that reality is not just for teenagers.

Few people are as pitiable as social media “trolls,” those who post shockingly provocative material or who find higher profile people to attack online. It’s easy to dismiss these people as just exceptionally mean when they may just be especially lonely, especially in need of someone to pay attention to them. 

The philosopher Ziyad Marar identifies this primal desire, to belong and to be applauded, as the ancient “need to be justified.” In previous cultures, Marar argues, this need for justification was found chiefly in gods and traditions but in our secularizing age we can only find it in each other.

Social media is just one more indication that this project is not working, 

As Christians, we should recognize this pull. Jesus told us all about it, and embodied something completely different in his own life. “I do not receive glory from people” Jesus said (Jn. 5:41). To the crowds around him, Jesus said, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn. 5:44).

Such words should tell us that this problem did not originate in Silicon Valley, but in Garden of Eden.

Such should also remind us that there are no easy fixes to this longing for approval. But it means that we see all around us the longing to be justified, a reality that cannot ultimately come about by our image or our works or our popularity, but only by grace through faith (Rom. 4:1-25; Eph. 2:4-10).

The problem with social media is not with the technology but with us.

We ignore the Judgment Seat of Christ before which we will all stand; this does not lead us to freedom, but to finding little judgment seats all around us, all the time, to tell us either: “Well done, good and faithful servant,” or “Depart from me, you worker of iniquity.”

This approval, even when found, is hardly the same thing as a Father who really knows you for who you are, and who loves you anyway. This cyber-belonging, even when achieved, cannot come close to the reality of One who “shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). 

What does it matter if you’re “liked,” if you are loved? What does it matter if you are retweeted, if you can be reborn?

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Urupong