A new study featuring thousands of teenagers across the globe found destructive thoughts are more common among young people “who express that they don’t believe in anything spiritual, are uncertain about their beliefs, or believe they sin, but don’t believe in Jesus.”
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Dr. Arnie Cole, director of research and development at The Center for Bible Engagement, the organization that commissioned the survey in partnership with Our Daily Bread Ministries, said the results offer some ominous signs parents and faith leaders must address.
Cole told CBN’s Faithwire his organization — part of Christian ministry Back to the Bible — has long explored how people become “spiritually formed,” with the focus turning to young people in recent years.
His most recent research explores the intersections of increased social media use, increased mental health problems, and decreased engagement in faith.
“We’ve been very concerned about young people walking away and then are concerned about the algorithms and social media,” Cole said. “And we just thought, ‘Why don’t we do a study because a lot of people have suggested that there’s a problem with social media.'”
He said the current mental health crisis — including more than 50% of middle and high school girls who report feeling hopeless and depressed — and the general move away from faith has set off alarm bells, and the data provides a real reason to worry.
Watch Cole explain:
“We were absolutely shocked when we started gathering the data about their struggles — their spiritual struggles, their mental health, and then it just progressed,” Cole said, noting how the research grew to explore young people in numerous countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, United Kingdom, and the United States.
Cole said the most shocking findings in the research revolved around “how strong the destructive behavior becomes when you start combining variables.”
The survey found these destructive behaviors among teens were more common in the U.S. and U.K., postulating it might have something to do with some of the “transgender and sexual confusion” going on in the West, among other related factors.
The finding about a lack of spiritual development being potentially tied to more destructive thoughts is a specific data point that should cause pause, especially as culture moves further from God-centered living. In the U.S. and U.K., the “risk factor for suicidality” impacts one out of five males and one out of four females, and 31% of young people who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming.
“The further away they get from Jesus, the more lost they are,” Cole said. “There’s no basis, then, for anything; nothing…really makes sense. They become much more confused.”
A “lack of spiritual beliefs, uncertainty about spiritual beliefs, [and] believing in God but without a relationship with Jesus” were among the risk factors observed in the research for increased destructive thoughts.
Not surprisingly, one of the protective factors was “engaging with the Bible four or more days a week.”
On the social media front, Cole noted the concern he and other experts have when it comes to algorithms leading young people down various paths and rabbit holes. He said this is where secular messaging can really take hold of young minds.
With the majority of teens reporting daily use of YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat and/or Instagram, these factors deeply matter. The key question, of course, is: what’s the solution?
Cole believes it’s essential to help build up a biblical worldview in young people to prepare them to deal with these messages if and when they come to fruition, especially considering the pervasiveness and ease of use of social media.
This is one reason why The Center for Bible Engagement is building a spiritual fitness app to help guide people along in the process.
“Let’s get people spiritually fit,” he said. “Let’s develop things that they can do during the day, so when they get sucked into some of these negative things, they know how to deal with it instead of walking away and chucking it all.”
Cole’s research featured 4,700 teens, ages 14 to 17, in nine countries.
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