Are you old enough to remember retrieving the newspaper in the morning? My dad would crack the front door every morning, stroll out to the driveway, grab The Arizona Daily Star, tuck it under his arm, and bring it to the kitchen. He would sit at the breakfast table, bowl of granola in front of him, with the news of the day spread out on 15” x 22” of grey paper.
Today, most of us get the news before we reach the kitchen. Sitting on the toilet, we scroll our 3” x 5” devices and the news of our friends and the world is piped into our palms via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
This change is not neutral. While there are many ways we can point to social media as a benefit (connection with friends across the world, and providing a voice for those who wouldn’t have had the ability to speak to larger groups, for instance), it doesn’t come without a cost.
Netflix’s The Social Dilemma[i] raises the alarm about the cost of social media. What are the dangers of social media? Most of us have a nagging suspicion that all is not well with our relationship with social media. But what is it precisely that we should be concerned about?
The ex-employees and leaders of various social media platforms put their finger on what some of those issues are in The Social Dilemma. These employees point out that Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Tik Tok, and the rest are leveraging the work of psychologists to capture their prize: an ever-increasing slice of our attention. They’ve weaponized our neurological rewards systems against us.
Let’s examine four specific dangers of social media:
I’m grateful my parents didn’t let us buy an Atari or Nintendo when I was a kid. I didn’t have the wisdom nor the self-restraint to protect me from the magnetic dopamine hits those screens provided. I remember going to friends’ houses and getting sucked into the world of video games. As many other young men have learned when they went off to college, I learned the challenge of having unfettered access to video games in my college dorm. As soon as I came back to my room, there was certain to be someone, somewhere on the hall playing. The words of Solomon about the prostitute could be applied to the call of those screens:
For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey,
and her speech is smoother than oil,
but in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
sharp as a two-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
her steps follow the path to Sheol;
she does not ponder the path of life;
her ways wander, and she does not know it. (Prov 5:3-6)
Our lives have become one big college dorm room. The Siren’s call of our screen is ever-present. And we are running the ship of our attention into her rocks again and again. Check your screen time for last week. Would you want to schedule that many hours for your phone into next week’s schedule? I doubt it. Our phones are gobbling up time that, if we were wise, we would devote to prayer, reading, service, or exercise.
2) Social Interaction
Human beings are social animals. We all need relationships. Over the past fifty years, that community has shifted from public spaces (parks, bowling alleys, and restaurants) to our cell phones. While our communities on social media are bigger and more geographically diverse, they are much thinner. Instead of a handful of friends we invest in, we invest into hundreds of relationships.
Many have exchanged a few deep relationships for many shallow ones. And the lack of face-to-face interaction means that communication we have with one another tends not to have the same depth. We don’t often move past the superficial. We rarely step through peacemaking to resolve our differences. Whenever the slightest hiccup in a relationship comes, we move on.
The Social Dilemma spends a bulk of its time explaining how and why social media is divisive. There are two primary reasons, both driven by the same fact: social media companies want us to be on their platforms as long as possible. We are not consumers of their products. We are their product. They sell us to advertisers.
The first reason social media is divisive is that it keeps us in our ideological echo chambers. We stay longer in places we are comfortable than uncomfortable, and so, social media companies suppress the content of friends who have perspectives that might make us uncomfortable and amplify the content of friends with whom we agree. The second reason social media companies are divisive is that they amplify content that drives heightened engagement. Go to YouTube right now and check out the titles that fill your screen: they’re almost all clickbait. It’s as though each of has a personalized National Enquirer funneled to pocket every second of every day. Outlandish headlines vie for our attention, fan our anger, and calcify our beliefs.
Republican and Democrat alike are convinced that the other party is destroying our nation. More and more see the other party as the primary threat to our nation. Social media is complicit in creating this divisive culture. It rewards us for caricaturing our ideological opponent, it suppresses nuanced, level-headed engagement.
A friend of mine posted what I quote below on Facebook last week. His post is so helpful. I wasn’t surprised to see that I was the lone comment on the post and one of only a few likes. I’m sure most of his friends didn’t even see the post as it doesn’t trigger any of the algorithm amplifiers Facebook has in play. It’s worth reading and reflecting on:
The election is over but our divisions remain deep. Today I would be heartened to remember THE COMMON GOOD. What are some things we can all agree on? What are some goals we all strive for, whatever our differences in how to achieve them?
This exercise in no way suggests that the differences aren’t real, and sometimes significant. But humanizing each other, seeing our commonalities, matters.
A few things come to mind, in no particular order. (What’s on your list??? Tell me in the comments.)
– Cherishing family and loved ones.
– Defending the innocent and the oppressed.
– Acting with justice towards one another.
– Freedom and liberty – to live as each of us sees fit, to worship or not in whatever way, to assemble and associate, to speak freely, to make use of our economic resources as we see fit.
– That we jointly protect the public square and jointly share in the burdens of our defense and governance.
– Creating good jobs and a fair shot at success.
– Rewarding hard work, innovation, and effort.
– Playing fairly, not stealing or swindling others.
– Protecting our families and communities from injury/harm.
– Not lying, not deceiving others. Not bearing false witness.
– Behaving with decency and kindness.
– Seeking truth and learning. Understanding there *is* True and False, right and wrong – and that ideas have consequences. Working hard to overcome our own biases and be open to the truth.
– Understanding one another and listening to one another.
– Honoring our obligations, written and unwritten.
– Finding and celebrating beauty in this world.
– Being good stewards of resources that have been entrusted to us.
– Enjoying good things in life – the blessings of good food and clean water and shelter and technology – and seeking to create a world where more people enjoy those things.
– Handing things on to the next generation better than we found them.
– Seeking and celebrating things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy.
Social media isn’t built for this type of unifying conversation. But, don’t you think we need more of it, not less?
It’s not surprising that my blog gets a fraction of the visibility it used to on social media (if you’re reading this via Facebook or Twitter, you’re in the minority). As a side note, this is why subscribing to receive blogs via email is so important to maintain the relationship between bloggers and readers, most bloggers are trying to write in a way that breaks this chain.
4) Religious suppression
Finally, the gatekeepers of social media are not neutral arbiters. They have ideological commitments that run counter to a Christian worldview. I don’t say that with any animus toward them. It’s just a fact. They should no more expect me to host a blog that gives equal footing to a secular naturalist worldview than I should for them to create environments on their sites that are favorable for Christians. Social media companies have unequally applied their “hate speech” censorship to those of different ideological stripes.
Along with many other churches, we’ve struggled with streaming services on Facebook. Again and again our streams have been shut down due to non-existent copyright infringement. I don’t believe Facebook is targeting churches. But they’re not working hard to fix their broken system. They don’t have a reason to do so.
I fully expect these voices’ marginalization will only get worse, not better, in the coming years. Why would it be otherwise? Our interests and purposes are completely misaligned.
So, what do we do in light of this discouraging news?
First, let’s be thoughtful and strategic about our social media usage. Realize that the game is rigged against you. Knowing that, make intentional choices to tilt that game back in your favor. That might mean you keep your phone out of your bedroom or away from your desk at work, maybe it means that you remove notifications, or perhaps you uninstall the apps on your phone, or you might even delete your accounts.
Second, let’s not just pull away from what is dangerous, let’s pull toward what is good. Let’s be intentional about the way we are creating and building relationships. Let’s be thoughtful about how we are getting our news and information. Subscribe to helpful blogs and podcasts. Pick up a book. Prioritize time in the Bible and prayer.
I’m right there with you. These are challenges in my life that I’m reassessing even now. As a pastor, I believe I need to be on social media. But I’m no less immune to its pull and toxicity than you. What are your best tips? I would love to learn from you.
[i] The irony of Netflix releasing this movie should be noted, as Netflix utilizes similar technologies to its own advantage. In fact, their CEO famously said that their real competition wasn’t another company, it was sleep.
www.thebeehive.live. Used by permission.