Did you know that Gen Z young people are primarily responsible for the astronomical rise in sales of skin-care products? They spend more on anti-aging products, “preventative botox,” and skin-repair moisturizers than any other age group, with a 20 percent rise in spending in 2023 alone. Called “Sephora Kids,” these young people have been deeply influenced by a culture bulldozed by the norms of social media. Dr. Steven Williams, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, says: “Social media is incredibly powerful, and it really has worked its way to the consciousness of everyone, but particularly younger females. It’s important to realize that we’re being sold something.”
Specifically, social media has weaponized concerns about appearance and aging into an almost-frantic quest to maintain “perfect skin”—mostly among girls, but spilling over into the world of guys as well. In an opinion piece for CNN, writer Holly Thomas pinpoints the underlying threat represented by this trend:
“Amplifying young people’s insecurities and selling them expensive, potentially damaging ‘fixes’ feels especially pernicious at a time when adolescent girls are reporting record levels of sadness. But the erosion of traditional media has young people turning to evermore spurious sources for advice on how to proceed. The hashtag #skincareroutine on TikTok has 77.3 billion views, and #preventativebotox has 59.7 million. All the time, younger and younger influencers are hopping aboard to share their ‘anti-aging’ secrets. In a since-deleted video, one 14-year-old rattled off her daily routine, which includes (but isn’t limited to): double-cleansing, toner, vitamin C serum, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, two different types of moisturizer and a drink of green tea to slow down ‘the aging process.’ ‘I started doing most of these things at 12,’ she told her thousands of followers… ‘Preventative’ anti-aging is a perfect ruse for companies willing to prey on youthful insecurities. There’s no way of knowing what you’d have looked like if you hadn’t used the products, but you can certainly assume you’d look worse if you stopped.”
Why is this disturbing trend in youth culture also a spiritual concern? In my upcoming book Editing Jesus, I quote NYU social psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt on the macro influence of social media since its introduction into the culture. Haidt is a kind of social-media historian/cultural prophet, and his insights (especially for those of us in ministry leadership) are important to pay attention to. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter in Editing Jesus I’ve called “The Golden-Calfing of Materialism”:
“In their early incarnations, platforms such as Myspace and Facebook were relatively harmless. They allowed users to create pages on which to post photos, family updates, and links to the mostly static pages of their friends and favorite bands. In this way, early social media can be seen as just another step in the long progression of technological improvements—from the Postal Service through the telephone to email and texting—that helped people achieve the eternal goal of maintaining their social ties. But gradually, social-media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations. …They became more adept at putting on performances and managing their personal brand—activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships in the way that a private phone conversation will. Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics.”
When Facebook gave users the ability to “like” a post, says Haidt, the performance-driven shifts in communication already set in motion by social media became weaponized. “Keeping up with the Jones’s” morphed into “Keeping up with the world.” Status, wealth, and a certain veneer of happiness were now quickly and viscerally comparable, and the pressure to “have and to hold” swelled into a wave washing through all of culture, including the church.
Social scientists call the psycho-social dynamic that drives our need to “keep up” with others “personal relative deprivation” (PRD)—it’s the resentment that builds when we believe we’ve been “deprived of deserved outcomes compared to others.” It’s an invisible virus infecting our identity at a foundational level. And social media, as Jonathan Haidt points out, has a nuclear capacity to generate PRD with greater impact than any other social dynamic in history. What’s happening right now among young people is nothing less than formation around a material scorecard. Is my outward appearance/resume/social circle/cultural traction “keeping up” with my global perception of success, spotlighted by social media?
A performance orientation cuts against authenticity in every area of life, and particularly in our spiritual life. This is one reason why young people point to authenticity as the primary “metric” of their generation—they’ve been starved of it in social media and their culture at large, leaving them desperately hungry. So, as the contemporary church has slid into its own version of a performance mentality, young people are realizing they won’t find the meal they’re craving there.
When the church is in a healthy place, Jesus is the center of everything, authentic relationships characterize the environment, and outward-focused impact is the driving ambition. “Sephora Kids” have experimented with a social-media drug sold to them by the drug dealers of our contemporary culture—savvy marketers and platform designers. Some have become addicted, and don’t know how to reclaim their identity and foundation. We carry in us what they’re longing for—so how will we learn to “give what we have to give” with authenticity and creativity?
If you would like help as you explore what it means to move toward greater depth of authenticity as a congregation, reach to connect with a Vibrant Faith Ministry Leadership Coach. Just CLICK HERE for more information. Coaching is an intentional process that moves you forward into the future you long for.