In this week’s Sunday LNP, digital intern Abigail King did a deep dive into Amish teens’ use of social media. King worked with experts including Charles Jantzi, professor of psychology at Messiah College and researcher of Amish youth and social media, to identify Amish teens using apps such as Instagram and Snapchat. Jantzi said emerging technologies are evaluated by the Amish as to whether they can be adapted to fit their values, which emphasize community over individuality. The 229 Amish church districts in Lancaster County “have varying views of what technologies are acceptable,” King reported.
It says something about the insidious power of social media and smartphones that they have infiltrated even the lives of some Amish teens and young adults.
These are young people who were reared in a deeply religious community that works hard to keep much of the modern world, and its conveniences, at a distance.
Donald Kraybill, senior fellow emeritus at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, told LNP that while some Amish church districts have strict rules against cellphones, others allow cellphones for business purposes.
According to King’s reporting, some young Amish women are using Instagram to promote the products they sell, even though that social media and e-commerce platform contrasts “greatly against the Amish community and its values of simplicity and frugality.”
“Selfies and self-promotion,” King noted, “also seem to clash with humility, another value of the Amish.”
Some Amish young people aren’t just using Instagram for marketing. That social media platform is popular with some Amish teens and young adults for sharing videos and photos — even selfies, King found.
That’s despite the Amish belief that posed photographs violate the biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven image.”
The lure of the selfie, it seems, is strong. And more universal than we imagined.
How have we gotten here?
Only one member of the LNP Editorial Board is a millennial. Most of us came of age well before selfies and social media were things. While we may take an occasional selfie, we find the constant sharing of oneself — the posing, the framing, the editing, the cropping out of reality — to be exhausting.
And we find it disheartening that some Amish teens — like their English (that is, non-Amish) counterparts — are embracing selfie culture.
The captions on Amish Instagram posts may include Bible verses. And the backdrops of Amish selfies may differ — picturesque and plowed Lancaster County fields, as opposed to bubble tea and coffee shops — but the aim seems to us to be the same: to depict life as shiny and bright.
There is little authenticity to be found on Instagram. It’s a curated version of our lives, not as they are, but how we want them to be seen.
Rivka Neriya-Ben Shahar, senior lecturer at Sapir College in Israel, conducted a study of Old Order Amish and ultra-Orthodox women and their responses to cellphone and smartphone use. The Amish women in Shahar’s study considered smartphones to be “the most dangerous device” — even more so than radio or television.
We would agree. They’re perilously addictive for adults as well as teens.
Our smartphones have taken over our lives. Too often we are viewing important moments through the camera lenses on our phones, eager to capture them so we can post them. Instead of simply living them.
And those curated lives we share on social media? It’s hard not to compare them to the curated lives of others. This rarely leads to contentment.
As for Amish teens and young adults, the fear is that social media will lead them astray.
During rumspringa — a period of relative freedom before adulthood, marriage and baptism into the Amish church — teens may join “gangs,” or youth groups. As King reported, smartphones may be accepted in “fancy,” or progressive, gangs, but not in “plain” (conservative) ones.
One formerly Amish man, Steven Stoltzfus of Berks County, told LNP that social media “definitely makes it easier” for “uncertain, unsatisfied and struggling (Amish) individuals” to be tempted to leave their community behind and join the English.
Meanwhile, non-Amish parents also worry that social media will lead their kids to embrace values that differ from their own. That their kids will embrace the superficial instead of the substantive. That all that posing will replace authentic living.
“The Amish have been amazingly resilient,” Jantzi said. “But I just feel like the world of the internet is a power like nothing we’ve ever seen.”
“And can you really shut the door on that?”
He thinks “if anybody can do it, it’s the Amish.”
Given our own experience, we have our doubts.
The internet is an amazing resource, a portal to the universe. But once you’ve unlocked it with your smartphone, it’s hard not to be consumed by it.
In a thoughtful column published in the Sept. 1 Sunday LNP, a California high school and college teacher named Jeremy Adams lamented the sad reality that his students no longer read books because they’re always on their smartphones. “Today’s teenagers certainly read all day — memes, posts, tweets — but it is all of a transitory, casual nature,” he wrote. “Reading books has been sacrificed to the tyranny of texting and the dizzying array of social media platforms.”
So much else has been sacrificed, too: family time, sleeping time, time to reflect, time to recharge mentally and emotionally.
Adams recalled asking a class of high school seniors what advice they would give their freshman selves. The class valedictorian responded, “I would find a cliff and throw my phone off of it.”
We hold our smartphones, but their grip on us is tighter. The Amish will find this to be true soon enough.