Unlike Macaulay Culkin, the ten-year-old who starred in the famous Christmas movie Home Alone, his younger brother Kieran Culkin turned down multiple opportunities to be a child star. He learned by observation that he didn’t want a life of fame—knowing it could lead to things like substance abuse, court guardianship battles, and the like.
We might be tempted to view the life choices of famous people like the Culkin brothers from a distance. But maybe we’re looking into a collective mirror. Today, fame is not just something that happens to stars, child or otherwise. Thanks to the age of social media, many of us are turning into mini-stars, with the only real difference being the size of our audience.
The recently leaked “Facebook Files,” which discuss the inner workings of the social media company, include data about the harm Instagram usage inflicts on the self-image of adolescents, especially teenage girls. Every child or teen faces a fear of judgment from their peers. They also fear being exiled from their social group. (This also why very few of us would ever wish to time travel back to our middle school days.)
However, the world of social media seems to heighten these dynamics—where almost everyone is followed by a kind of paparazzi, exposing and subjecting us to the approval or disapproval of our peers, acquaintances, and often complete strangers.
Philosopher Alain de Botton argued in his book The School of Life that one way to gauge your parenting is to ask your child whether they aspire to be famous. He says the quest for fame is different from other (equally risky) aspirations to acquire wealth, power, or pleasure. The desire to be well-known, he argues, is tied to “the intimate desire to be liked and treated with justice and kindness by people they don’t know.”
“Fame is deeply attractive because it seems to offer very significant benefits,” he writes. “The fantasies go like this: when you are famous, wherever you go, your good reputation will precede you. People will think well of you, because your merits have been impressively explained in advance.”
De Botton goes on to say that “the desire for fame has its roots in the experience of neglect, in injury,” adding that “no one would want to be famous who hadn’t also, somewhere in the past, been made to feel extremely insignificant.”
If I’m famous, the subconscious argument goes, I will be free from facing any rejection or judgment. Not only will my parents admire me, but I will have an instant and safe community. However, de Botton says, the exact opposite is true: “Fame makes people more, not less, vulnerable, because it throws them open to unlimited judgement.”
Fame has always been a draw for at least some human beings. One needs to look no further than the pyramids to conclude that. However, most people throughout human history began their journey of self-discovery in the presence of a very limited “audience”—consisting mostly of extended family, a larger tribe, a local village.
But today, impressionable young children are forming their identity through social media outlets, which encompass a much wider audience. Studies show that apps like Instagram are a risk to the psychological health of adolescents, and not simply because kids can be bullied online (although that does happen). Even when young people receive affirmation from this online collection of strangers, they will almost always seek to maintain that attention going forward.
That is, even when someone is “winning” at their social media game, the fear of falling becomes all the more intense—like a cherubic dimpled child star who worries he will not be cast when he becomes a gangly adult. This kind of pressure is bad enough when someone is pursuing a career in film, but it can be far worse when it comes to somebody’s life off screen.
The danger is there, not just for those who are crushed beneath the weight of others’ judgment, but perhaps even more so for the people who have learned coping mechanisms to protect themselves from social judgment. Some end up as trolls who want to preemptively lash out at those who might hurt them, while others can become almost sociopathic in their numbness to other’s opinions. Over time, they build a hard exoskeleton of cynicism, which can filter out not only the judgment of online strangers but also the counsel of real-life friends.
There are no easy answers here, especially as we move toward the next phase of connectedness in the “metaverse” or its equivalent. But, as with most things, I believe the right response to the threat of social media influence is both individual and communal.
Each of us needs to learn how to develop a rightful biblical individualism, which is to say that God receives us into his kingdom not collective by collective, nation by nation, or peer group by peer group, but one by one.
The message “You must be born again” is not just directed generically to humanity or to the Pharisees, but to one particular Pharisee named Nicodemus—who was so fearful of losing status among his peers that he came to Jesus by night (John 3). Only when we realize that we personally stand before the face of God—and that we will each give an account before the judgment seat of Christ—only then can we be freed of the countless mini judgment seats that are formed around our lives on a daily basis.
But what frees us is not just the vision of a singular judgment seat but also the one who is seated in that place. It is the judgment seat of Christ alone. He is not someone who judges us on our impressive achievements, curated images, or status according to some social system. Jesus is the one who came looking for us in the woods—and then threw a party of rejoicing when he found us (Luke 15:3–7).
That’s why Paul could write to the Corinthians that he found it “a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court”—even his own judgment of himself (1 Cor. 4:3, ESV). Instead, he could entrust himself to the judgment of a Christ who truly knew him—a serial killer with religious zeal—and loved him anyway.
The communal side of the solution is realizing that kindness and community cannot be found universally or generically. Instead, we must look for—as Seth Godin puts it from a marketing perspective—the “smallest viable audience.” That is why Jesus placed us all into the context of a church body—a group of people that actually gathers around a table.
Alain de Botton rightly notes that “there is no shortcut to friendship—which is what the famous person is in effect seeking.” Indeed, there is not. As Christians, we know that true fellowship happens while gathered around bread and wine, confession and repentance, mission and service—coming together with a tangible group of people, in whose presence one can learn to love and be loved. There is no shortcut for that.
Maybe that is what the church uniquely has to offer the world right now—the message that you do not have to be famous to be known. You do not have to be perfect to be loved. You do not have to be proven right to be justified. Perhaps even child stars can become as little children again. And even in a metaverse, none of us are home alone.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.