This post is part 3 of a 3 part mini-series on being intentional about social media. Part one is here: Reclaiming My Brain & The Pull of Social Media and part two is here: Reclaiming My Brain & The Cost of Social Media
I went on a walk with one of my girls the other day and we took her little brother along in a mini-car. It was his first time riding in it and he sat happily in his fuzzy bear sweater looking back every few minutes to see who was behind him. The car had a steering wheel, horn, and a long handle on the back for helpful big sisters to push. The design of these pushable cars is pretty ingenious– kids love them because they’re “driving,” parents love them because it’s a stroller their children don’t mind staying in.
In my last two posts, we’ve thought through the pull and cost of social media. Now, we turn to the third and last question of control. The question we’re considering is this: Who is in control of our social media use and to what end? Or, you could say, who’s in the driver’s seat, where are we going, and “wait— am I sitting in a Little Tikes push car?”
Why So Serious?
In this series, we’ve thought together about social media’s powerful pull and how using it costs us in terms of time, attention, and energy. But since the majority of us just use social media to connect with friends and unwind, it may feel off-putting to couch social media in such ultimate terms. Why so serious? Why do we need to talk about ends here?
It’s important to note it isn’t only Christians who are seeing our society’s social media use as problematic. But as Christians, we have an additional motivation to be serious in how we talk about social media because we believe all parts of our lives are meaningful because they are lived before God. He is our loving Creator who created our bodies and mind, and grants us our gifts and time. He is our Redeemer and King who we delight to thank and honor with all of us. As Abraham Kuyper has famously written, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”
As we live our lives Coram Deo (“before the face of God”), we are also called to love our neighbors. The people in our social network are not mere numbers in our friend count, they are eternal souls. CS Lewis reminds us in The Weight of Glory,
You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.*
We need to consider big questions about social media because there are no mere mortals in our social networks. Our time, attention, and energy are given by God for us to steward toward loving eternal souls whether they are physically or virtually sitting across from us.
Regarding social media, there are three main choices I can think of for how we answer: Who is in control and to what end?
Choice #1: Social Media companies for the sake of monetizing my attention.
In a Ted Talk called “How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day,” former Google employee Ted Harris spoke about what drives social media companies. He said,
What we don’t talk about is how the handful of people working at a handful of technology companies through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today. Because when you pull out your phone and they design how this works or what’s on the feed, it’s scheduling little blocks of time in our minds. If you see a notification, it schedules you to have thoughts that maybe you didn’t intend to have. If you swipe over that notification, it schedules you into spending a little bit of time getting sucked into something that maybe you didn’t intend to get sucked into…There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention.
Social media is designed by brilliant people to keep me, an ordinary person, on it as much as possible. Casinos don’t have clocks, provide free rooms to their biggest spenders, make wins as public as possible, and use chips instead of cash. They do this and more for the (evil and exploitative) purpose of keeping people gambling. Likewise, red notification alerts, autoplay functions on video sites, metrics displayed, heart/thumbs up/like buttons, and the e-mails Facebook sends when I haven’t logged in for a while, are all engineered with addiction in mind.
This isn’t to say social media companies are doing evil, though Harris and others are calling for new systems of accountability. But just as it’s helpful to know when the person recommending a product to you is receiving commission, it’s important to know what social media companies are getting from us and how they “convince” us to give it. Our attention is monetized through advertising, and we need to be mindful that though we are responsible for our own choices, we are also easily persuadable.
Again, Harris says,
Once you start understanding that your mind can be scheduled into having little thoughts or little blocks of time that you didn’t choose, wouldn’t we want to use that understanding and protect against the way that that happens?…[We need] a kind of self-aware Enlightenment, that we can be persuaded, and there might be something we want to protect.
If we are not aware of our use of social media, we become passive riders on our feeds, driven by social media companies toward greater and longer use. We begin to believe we have no choice but to be angered by what other people post, scroll through endless trivial content, and waste time. Being aware of all the minds working to keep us on our apps can help us to guard our time and attention so we are not mastered by social media. Knowing a bit of their strategy helps us walk into Twitter knowing what we’re looking for so we don’t end up buying all these other things we didn’t go in for in the first place (Costco, anyone?).
Choice #2: Self for the sake of self.
Using the internet for leisure or to stay connected with others is not wrong. But when I see myself as the ultimate benefactor and allow self-seeking desires to drive my social media use, I harm myself and others. Social media doesn’t create sinful desires out of thin air, but often and easily is used to feed our idols of self— whether self-exaltation (I’m so great), self-justification (I’m so right), or self-righteousness (I’m so good).
A constant temptation for me on social media is the impulse to feed my ego. It is the perfect place to look for Insta-affirmation and quick approval. To boast and to post out of a desire to receive from other people rather than choose to bless them. And, ultimately, to choose to value approval from people rather than from God.
Another temptation on social media is to write and comment in ways we wouldn’t speak in person, publishing angry status updates or sharing posts in the heat of the moment. The focus on our own desire for self-expression and authenticity, or “getting things off our chest,” and fail to remember the precious souls behind the profile photos or the influence we are having on them through our words. Tony Reinke writes, “Sticks and stones may break bones, but my texts and tweets are pushing eternal souls in one of two directions.” Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov. 18:21) and relatives, friends, church members, acquaintances— all precious image bearers with eternal souls— are reading your comments and posts.
Social media can also be the bench where we sit and look at others in judgment. Whether for not being as informed as us, having our political convictions or matching our moral uprightness, it is easy to scroll through with hearts of criticism and pride. Our accounts become the platforms where we publish our good deeds for the world to praise and, upon seeing our notifications light up with thumbs and hearts, we receive our reward in full (Matt. 6:1-2).
Choice #3: Self for the sake of others.**
The “self” here is different than the “self” in Choice # 2. Here, we are talking about the exercise of self-control, the fruit of the Spirit stemming from a renewed heart. This self-control is not an expression of prideful judgment of others’ smartphone addictions or anxious preoccupation with maximizing personal productivity. It is self-control, mastery in submission to God, for the sake of loving others.
Self-control for the sake of loving others means I am not ruled by social media and I am not neglecting the good I ought to be doing for those around me to use it. It means putting down my phone when my family is around so I can engage them in conversation. It means signing off a bit earlier so I can get better sleep and be less grouchy in the morning toward my husband and children. It may mean setting stricter limits on how much I use social media or deleting an account altogether when I realize the costs are far outweighing the benefits. It means being aware of how my heart is being influenced by what I read– am I becoming bitter, critical, prideful, or cynical? — or am I growing in compassion, kindness, Christlikeness, and holiness?
Self-control for the sake of loving others means I consider how I’m influencing others through my sharing, posting, reacting, and commenting. It means I’m thinking about my tone when I write and motives when I share. It means I desire to bless, not receive, and honor others rather than be honored. It means I pause before responding to someone I disagree with and choose to think about others with charity, giving the benefit of the doubt when I can.
Personally, self-control for love means I strive to write with integrity— not projecting a false image of myself, but also with consideration— not sharing information about my husband and children they may not want the whole world to know. And it means I am on the lookout to share things I find helpful in hopes of helping others.
What It Looks Like For Me
Recognizing how hard social media companies are working to keep me swiping reminds me I can’t be lackadaisical about my social media use. And considering the end I want to use social media toward determines how I use it while the cost and benefits help me decide how much.
I hesitate to use myself as an example because self-control and love for people will not look exactly the same for you as it does for me. But I’ve taken my cues here from others and maybe these tips will be helpful for you. Some practical steps I’ve taken to rein in my social media use are,
1. Rearranging my smartphone apps so I won’t be easily distracted. My homepage contains just a few apps (7) that I use often or want to use more.
2. Turning off notifications and badges for social media apps.
3. Limiting my social media use to once a day per app (Facebook and Instagram), and rarely using social media that is more draining than helpful (for me, Twitter). Doing this helps to take away the mental burden of “should I or should I not right now?” and also prevents me from telling myself I’m checking for information about an event when I really want an excuse to see my notifications.
4. Taking at least 1 day/week and 1-2 weeks/year (family vacation) to be off social media. This helps me exercise mastery over social media (rather than be mastered by it) and ends up loosening its appeal to me when I’m using it again. It also gives me time of sustained focus on other important things (or people!)
5. Actively filling my time with good things. Limiting social media use isn’t the ultimate goal here. There are plenty of other ways we can fill our times and distract ourselves if we aren’t actively seeking out ways to rest, create, learn, worship God, and love others.
Gratitude For “Sometimes” Media
My sister recently taught my girls the term “sometimes food” and from what I hear, they’ve moved on to talk about “sometimes music” and I’m not sure what else. The idea is that some things are okay to enjoy, but in appropriate portions and times. I aim to keep social media a “sometimes” thing and continue to use it not as a concession, but as a tool and gift.
As I’ve grown in being intentional in how I use social media, I have actually found my ability to be thankful for the good it can be used for has heightened. So I would be remiss not to express gratitude for the gift it has been to me in keeping me connected with dear friends overseas, giving me access to helpful resources, and, not the least of which, connecting with you on this blog! I hope that you, dear reader, as you consider who is in control of your social media use and to what end, be spurred on to exercise self-control for the good of others to the glory of God.
* Tony Reinke also highlights this quote in 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.
** Note: I recognize it’s not as simple as I’m making it out to be here. For example, Choice 1 and 2 aren’t mutually exclusive and sometimes my motives are a mix of 2 and 3. But still, it is appropriate for us to strive toward Choice # 3, for greater self-control of the sake of others to the glory of God.