Parents or the State: What Kuyper Can Teach Us About Managing Social Media
The fact that government may now be the last line of defense in providing some boundaries for social media means that the other lines have failed. Most notably, families have failed to protect children from that which threatens them the most.
John StonestreetHeather Peterson
The Institute for Family Studies has published a list of legal and policy recommendations to protect teens from the dangers of social media. Among the recommendations are age-verification laws, parental consent requirements, and shutting down social media platforms at night for teens. Other nations have already attempted to restrict young people’s access to technology. For example, a couple of years ago, France banned cell phone use in schools up to age 15.
Monitoring teens’ engagement with social media should be a no-brainer. Anyone still not convinced that something needs to be done need only consider the teens on TikTok exhibiting Tourette-like tics, not to mention the rapid onset gender dysphoria crisis initiated within social media communities.
However, the fact that government may now be the last line of defense in providing some boundaries for social media means that the other lines have failed. Most notably, families have failed to protect children from that which threatens them the most.
This is a modern-day application of one of the most helpful ideas of Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, who lived at the turn of the 20th century. Kuyper has jokingly been called the Colson Center’s “patron saint.” Near the end of his life, Chuck Colson described how influential Kuyper’s thought was to his own, specifically in understanding how Christians were called to interact with and influence the culture around them.
Christians could best influence society, according to Kuyper, through the sphere of our family, the basic building block of society. During his lifetime, Kuyper worked across various spheres of culture, not only writing as a theologian but founding a university, leading a newspaper, and eventually becoming prime minister. Throughout his various careers, Kuyper proposed and championed a concept called “sphere sovereignty.”
“Spheres,” as Kuyper understood them, are the social groupings, or domains, that keep society running. He saw them as interlocking “cogs” that work together. In his message at the inauguration of the Free University in the Netherlands, he explained that each sphere—such as science, art, business, government, and family—has “its own law of life” and “its own head” or leadership. Ultimately, Christ is sovereign over all of life. His most famous quote is, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human life of which Christ, Who is Sovereign of all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” It is Christ who moves “the wheels to turn as they are destined to turn. Not to oppress life nor to bind freedom, but to make possible a free exercise of life for and in each of these spheres, is not this a beckoning ideal for every noble State Sovereign? [or leader].”
His idea, that the duty of the head of a state is to facilitate “free exercise of life,” reveals that, in many ways, Kuyper lived in a time period similar to ours—a time when people were calling for revolution. Kuyper was so uncomfortable with this lawless approach that he called his political party the “Anti-Revolutionary Party.” According to the author Michael Wagenman, Kuyper believed, “Human beings are called to responsible human agency in which ‘the course of our historic development may be altered only through gradual change in a lawful way.’ But this is accomplished through responsible reforms rather than outright revolution that seeks to usher in a manufactured utopia.”
If the language of ushering in a “manufactured utopia” doesn’t sound familiar, just search for “antiracist” and “revolution” on Twitter. The crisis in the state, Kuyper believed, revealed a crisis of family.
Kuyper saw family leadership as “responsible for the good order in the family,” rather than the “head of the state.” Government should only step in if parents did not do their job. He insisted that “the central government may only take on and carry out what is not (and for so long as it is not) properly taken care of in the smaller spheres of life.”
If government control of the good order of the family has to occur, it should be only temporary. Thus, the government can incentivize good family order, such as tax deductions for college saving plans, but a secular government controlling family life can get weird fast, such as removing a child seeking a transgender identity from a Christian family’s home. It’s one of the reasons Christians should recognize and champion parental rights.
Coming back to the topic of teens and social media, we can say that restricting their access to social media is a good idea. But this is the job of the family, not the government. When families fare well, society fares well. That’s those cogs of spheres working together well. A society is only as virtuous as its families.
This month, if the Colson Center has helped you understand the sphere of the family better—if it’s helped your thinking to be big enough for this world and for living in your place in it, would you consider giving a gift of any amount? Go to colsoncenter.org/september.
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