This post is part 2 of a 3 part mini-series on being intentional about social media. Part one is here: Reclaiming My Brain & The Pull of Social Media
I have a friend who makes amazing homemade boba milk tea. It’s delicious and addicting, which is slightly problematic for me because I am highly sensitive to caffeine. Not too long ago, she graciously brought over a pitcher and I drank more than I should have too late in the day. By the last cup, my head pounded with each sip I took. I had trouble staying asleep that night, and laid awake for hours as my mind raced through scenes from the latest Avengers movie. It was completely preventable and totally my fault, but like I said, her recipe is delicious and addicting.
Minus that milk tea event, I’m usually pretty good at controlling my caffeine intake. I know I can’t have any after 3 pm and how much I can take before feelings of dread hit. I think I’ve titrated and found the optimal amount of caffeine I can use to maximize its benefits (better mood, not falling asleep) given its side effects (anxiety, acid reflux, headaches, problems sleeping).
The way I treat caffeine has been a useful reference point for me when thinking about social media. Both have a set of cost and benefits I ought to consider before choosing when, how much, and whether or not to use them, and if I’m not intentional about my usage, there are negative consequences.
The first post I wrote in this mini-series, I asked you to think about what draws you into social media. Having considered its pull, we turn now to face the costs.
It’s Costing You Something
One oft-repeating and popular bit of fake news claims Facebook plans on charging users. It’s not hard to see why people would be alarmed at the thought. It seems almost unethical to get us so heavily invested in the ecosystem of Facebook and suddenly impose a fee. Well, Facebook doesn’t need our money (it gets something else from us— more on that in the next post), but it has always cost us to use it.
I don’t have anything groundbreaking to add to the increasing amounts of research on the problematic effects of our technology. But since I often find others’ self-reflections helpful, I offer a few observations on what I’ve come to place on my social media “cost” column. As with caffeine, social media may affect you differently than it does me, but I hope I can spur you on to consider what your social media use is costing you personally.
The top three costs on my list are: attention, energy, and time.
Attention & Constant Noise
Attention is our ability to focus on a task. This can be a concrete action like doing the dishes or an abstract one like figuring out how to deal with a relational problem. Because we aren’t physically moving from one place to another when we’re on social media, we often think we’re doing two things at once. But the perception that we are multitasking is an illusion.
Anyone who has said “Uh-huh, that’s great, sure” to their child only to think, “Wait, what did I just say yes to?” has experienced the limit of the human brain’s capacity to pay attention to more than one thing at once. Not only are our brains incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time, every time we switch from one task to another and back, there is a mental toll on our productivity. Whether at work, in conversations with our children, or in contemplation, there is a cost to constant interruptions.
Uncontrolled and haphazard use of social media shatters our attention to thousands of tiny pieces and effects our ability to meditate deeply on things that matter. Tony Reinke writes in 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You,
“Perhaps the greatest threat we face is that of living with short attention-spans, caught now by one little explosion of surprise, now by another. Knowledge is never actually given to us in that form. It has to be searched for and pursued, as the marvelous poems on Wisdom at the beginning of Proverbs tell us.” Without wisdom, we foolishly get lost in the aimless now, in the explosion of novelty. Without wisdom, we foolishly get unhitched from our past and from our future.
Someone else has written, “Addiction to social media will make you aware of everything and wise about nothing.”
Growing in wisdom, learning and thinking deeply on how to apply truth to our lives, and pursuing a relationship with God require sustained attention. This is what makes planned times of silence and solitude powerful— the removal of distractions. Considering the truth of God and how it comes to bear in our everyday lives takes focused attention.
Listening— to others, and to God— also requires sustained attention. That’s one reason why worship on Sundays, when we meet with God’s people and sit under the preaching of the Word, is so important (and why we ought to resist the pull of our phones during it!) We quiet ourselves and discipline our restless bodies and hearts to receive rich, meaty life-giving truths. Truths we easily lose sight of in the busyness of the day-to-day and can’t get in short Tweets or blogposts.
Creativity and deep reflection are tasks requiring sustained attention and I’ve found they flourish most when I’m not distracted by random tidbits of news, opinions, and entertainment every hour. It is easier to see the hand of God through my day and weeks when I’m not adding to the noise of my life via self-wrought social media interruptions.
As a mom, I may not be able to get regular alone time, but I can give space and time for truths to stew in my mind as I’m working in the kitchen or taking care of my children. When I’m not habitually distracted, I can meditate on the truth of God and reflect on whether my children are flourishing throughout the day. This way, truth can sink into my heart and flow out through the rest of my life. And I wonder whether much of what I blame on mommy brain may be a product not so much of 3 little people pulling on my legs as much as 300 people clamoring for attention on my newsfeed.
Energy & The Emotionally Draining Rollercoaster of The Feed
(Relational weight + Call for a response + Unpredictability) x Endless content = A lot of energy
Sometimes when I’m tired, I just want to plop down on a couch, pull out my phone, and be entertained. In those times, a 20 minute scroll down a social media feed is tempting, but the distractions there often leave me more tired than rested.
I find social media draining not just because there are sad, frightening, heavy things going on in the world. The distinction between social media and a newspaper is behind each article, statement, or share is someone we know. So we’re not just seeing information, we’re hearing a friend say, “You should read this,” or “This is important.”
The relational thrust behind every byte of information increases the weight of impact on us as readers. Not only so, but information is presented to me in a way that constantly calls for a response— whether anger, sadness, social action, or amusement— via Likes, LOL’s, double-taps, and shares. Add to this the randomness of content and the sheer number of posts, and I’m setting myself up for a emotional rollercoaster each time I log on.
The two major loop-de-loops for me here are anger and guilt. Anger is the fuel that drives the most viral and popular social media posts— whether it’s full-out social-media-shaming rage or getting-something-off-my-chest status updates. In life, there are good reasons to be angry, but the anger social media posts invokes is not always necessary. Pastor Jack Miller has wisely written, “Don’t let your emotional life be controlled by the sin you see in others.” Social media is a prime place to hear people’s anger over sin, see people sin in anger, and be controlled emotionally by sin we see in others. I’ve found it way too easy to be caught up anger which doesn’t end when I close my app, and it’s exhausting.
The other emotional cost for me of social media is guilt. Social media serves as a platform. Whether faith-based, humanitarian, environmental, or health causes, everyone has their thing. Over time, without knowing it, our consciences are shaped by the social network bubbles we breathe in, self-righteously thinking everyone should take on our causes and guilty we are not doing more. Those with tender consciences easily fall under what Kevin DeYoung describes as the “terror of total obligation”— the sense we are responsible for meeting every need we see. And with social media, every need, however local or global in scope, is proximate and looks urgent.
Using Facebook for our causes or Instagram to share our passions aren’t necessarily bad things. I use both for these reasons so I’m not advocating a self-centered refusal to care about what’s going on around us. But the emotional and mental drain of social media is a real cost rarely leading me to decisive, productive action. Keeping in mind the responsibilities I am already called to use my energy toward, it’s helpful for me to remember the distraction of social media rarely brings about the rest I need.
Time & Opportunity Costs
The first time I noticed the impact of social media on me was after a cruise with no internet access. Though pregnant and taking care of a toddler, I made significant headway in a book I’d wanted to read. It was a big realization for me as a young mom to see the blame for my lack of time wasn’t to be placed completely on my child, but the way I filled small gaps of free time I was afforded.
Every time we choose to spend time on social media, we are choosing not to do something else. We are choosing not to pay attention, invest emotionally and mentally, or spend our time on someone else. Whether it’s reading a book, spending face time with family, thinking deeply about important issues, meditating on God’s Word, exercising, or taking a nap, we give up opportunities each time we enter our virtual worlds.
Five minutes here and fifteen minutes there add up to a significant amount of time over a week. Each minute is time we don’t get to use again. Tony Reinke writes, “Compulsive social-media habits are a bad trade: your present moment in exchange for an endless series of someone else’s past moments.” When we use social media, precious time is spent looking at other people’s lives. Moreover, in our compulsion to share, we often spend our present moments trying to best capture and display our lives to others.
As Christians, we ask God to teach us to number our days and be faithful with our time (Ps. 90:10). Our time is short and ultimately is not meant for us to spend however we fancy. This fact alone is enough to motivate us to be intentional about how we are using social media.
For Your Consideration
If our device’s pull-to-refresh function is analogous to a slot machine lever holding out the promise of affirmation, entertainment, knowledge, escape, and more, what are the quarters we’re inserting? What is the bill we’re racking up during our stay at Casino Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.?
Attention, energy, and time are the big three for me. What about you?
After having had some time to think about the pull of social media for you, consider Question 2: What is my use of social media costing me?*
Up Next: Who’s In Control & To What Ends?
*Note: Sometimes, we may not be able to tell what social media is costing us until we take active steps to scale down our use. Like an auto renewal policy, you may be so used to these costs that you don’t notice them. (This has often been the case for me.) If this is you, one challenge is to take a week or at least a few days off social media to see what changes when you unplug. This might even help you get more insight on that first question of what pulls you to social media in the first place.
Also, for those wondering, here’s the milk tea recipe my friend uses.