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The Church and Social Media 

Social media has many benefits - but its downsides have become clearer too. Jonathan Skeet, a former social media addict, believes the church should be more vocal in expressing them 

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In his excellent book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, author Cal Newport quotes Tristan Harris, a former start-up founder and Google engineer. Harris holds up a smart phone during an interview Bill Maher’s 60 Minutes show, with the title Brain Hacking, and says:

'This thing is a slot machine… every time I check my phone I’m paying the slot machine to see “What did I get?” There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used by (the technology companies) to get you using the product for as long as possible.'

Bill Maher concludes the segment with the memorable line: 'Philip Morris just wanted your lungs. The App store wants your soul.'

Tech and social media companies use all manner of techniques to fight for our commercially valuable attention minutes. To find out what these are, I thoroughly recommend Newport's book published by Portfolio - Penguin Random House - in February 2019. 

Social media addiction 

Of course, it could be argued that if there really is such a thing as social media addiction, it’s relatively benign - your teeth don’t start falling out, it doesn’t usually lead to loss of income and livelihood. Those who decide to leave social media overuse (myself, for example!) generally find it much easier than escaping alcohol or substance abuse.

That doesn’t mean though, that the compelling nature of likes, approvals, comments, affirming responses, doesn’t cause actual harm in terms of fragmented concentration, an eroded attention span, and weakening of actual “real life” relationships. What's more, did God design us to be in constant touch with all of the bad and destructive things going on all over the world, in a constant stream, from when we get up to the moment we go to bed? (and beyond bedtime even, in many cases.) 

More worryingly, in his previously mentioned book Cal Newport posits a very good case for the remarkable and dramatic rise in anxiety and depression amongst young people born between 1995 and 2012 to be largely down to this generation being the first to grow up from a young age with smartphones. A quote from the book, from journalist Benoit Denizet Lewis, from an article in the New York Times magazine sums this up: '... anxious kids certainly existed before Instagram, but many of the parents I spoke to worried that their round-the-clock responding to texts, posting to social media, obsessively following the filtered exploits of peers, were partly to blame for their children’s struggles.' 

Social media benefits and drawbacks   

If you google the question Should your church be on social media you’ll find many articles, Youtube videos and blog posts from various churches and ministries worldwide all pointing out completely valid and good reasons why it’s good for churches to be posting quality content on Facebook, YouTube and other platforms.

Of course, we’re thankful for the tremendous help and benefit the various platforms have been through most of 2020 - Covid 19 year -  and on now into the beginning of 2021. They've helped us to continue to stay in contact in our churches and fellowships, and while we’re really looking forward to being able to meet again, physically in our church buildings, online services have been a lifeline and source of comfort and blessing for many. Lockdown measures have also greatly accelerated churches’ familiarity with all of this - many of us are now confidently using social media in quite sophisticated ways that we probably, under normal circumstances, would not have discovered for years to come, if ever. 

But what I am missing - and missing very much - is at least an acknowledgment - in these various articles, that for a great many people, the destructive, fragmenting and yes, addictive nature of social media, is something that churches have a serious responsibility to be aware of and offer practical help and guidance with. The cumulative effect of reading one article after another, all pointing out the absolutely critical necessity (as it is usually described) of your church having a social media presence, without at least acknowledging that for many people social media use causes unhappiness, constant distraction and harm to real life well-being and relationships seems naive at best - and uncaring at worst.

For in all of the justified excitement about these new possibilities, it can’t be ignored that the stratospheric rise of Google, Facebook and co has come at a very high price in terms of its negative and damaging effects on many people, especially our young. We owe it, to our congregations, our young people, and potential followers wherever they may be, to at least suggest that they review the way they use their phones and engage in social media.

Are they using it intentionally, in a controlled manner? Are the much spoken of benefits of “connectedness” through social media perhaps coming with a big price tag, despite it being “free” to use? And maybe we shouldn’t feel intimidated by the claims of absolute necessity of using these platforms, but use them only if we can see clear benefits and that those benefits don’t come at such a high cost to our lives and our ability to engage with one another and with God, so as to be - in the final analysis - prohibitively expensive.

Time to acknowledge the harm? 

For decades now I’ve accepted that in most of the free churches and fellowships that I have attended, we drink a strange syrupy red liquid at communion, instead of actual wine. I’ve accepted the reason given, that there could well be someone present for whom alcohol is a problem.

Well, the smartphone has become ubiquitous now in our Western (and other) societies, especially among the younger folk but by no means restricted to them. Many people have a healthy and normal relationship with their phone and any social media platforms they are on, using them intentionally, with clear purpose and to great benefit to themselves and others.

But I think it’s also true that a significant number of people have a serious smart phone problem though and really are addicted to notifications, comments, news flashes, email and text message pings in a constant attention demanding stream throughout the day. Just as we concede that some folk have a problem with alcohol during our communion services, so has - among all of the excitement about the endless possibilities of outreach and posting high quality teaching material to potentially global audiences online - the time has come for us to also acknowledge that for many of us, the permanently connected mobile internet world is having serious harmful effects.

Put simply, there are significant numbers of people who own smartphones and engage with social media platforms, who really shouldn’t and would discover - after an initial withdrawal - a great sense of release and freedom. 

The Social Dilemma film 

Things are moving quickly now, though, and an awareness is rising, of the dark force that social media has become, and is increasingly becoming. The documentary film Social Dilemma has certainly triggered a great deal of thought and conversation, and I would really encourage anyone in church leadership, but especially with responsibilities for children, youth and social media, to take the time and watch the film.

Currently only available on Netflix, the film consists in large part of former Silicon Valley insiders, people who were actively involved in developing the various means to make the platforms more addictive, before they had such concerns about the ethics of it all that they left. They speak in calm, measured and non hysterical tones, not just about the problem of addiction and psychological manipulation, but the ways in which social media is helping to erode even the very idea that there are truths that we can agree on, instead, everyone embracing their own “truths” and growing increasingly hostile and belligerent to those with other “truths”. The ways that suggested and recommended posts, based on things already viewed, lead people down various rabbit holes, with clamorous and insistent voices, all confirming that they are the chosen ones who have had their eyes opened (“Red-Pilled”) to what’s really going on…. 

The film also makes the point that social media can longer be considered a tool, as a tool is something completely passive, until it is picked up and used for some purpose. Social media and the algorithms that guide it are working actively, to use our own psychology against us, to incrementally change and influence our thinking, and then the way we actually live our lives. 

And - of course - what can we say about the storming of the Capitol earlier this month, by what really must be described as an enraged mob? It came about after an American President had used Twitter in a sustained campaign, first predicting that the election would be stolen, then saying it had been stolen, and then encouraging people to take part in the march on the Capitol, with the firm belief in their minds that their votes had counted for nothing and that this was the last option left to them.

Wouldn’t it be nice to finish this article with a solution to all of this... This is the problem - here’s how to fix it. Well, on a personal level, I have given myself at least a bit of breathing space by deleting all of my various social media accounts, (except Youtube) a few months ago. I’m also using a “dumbphone” - a simple mobile phone of the kind we had 20 or so years ago, that I can only call or text with. It’s something I don’t regret and has meant a significant improvement in my emotional and mental well-being in ways that I don’t have time to describe now.

As nice as that is for me, this doesn’t solve the huge questions and problems concerning something that - for good or ill - is here to stay. But the overcoming of any problem begins with identifying it, on our own personal level and the societal or global problem.

This is not a black and white issue. May God help and guide us in our churches and fellowships as we continue to engage with social media but also perhaps become more aware of the responsibilities associated with that engagement.

To conclude, a quote from Father Steve Grunow, CEO of Word on Fire Ministries, in an excellent 12 minute address on Youtube, with the title The Monsters of Social Media:

"In my estimation, the church is - for the most part - missing in action. We have to stop approaching the digital space - which we should be referring to as artificial intelligence - as though it’s simply a matter of writing more blogs or providing a “content experience”. Instead, we are dealing with the potentiality and power that’s expressive of our own morality - or immorality. And look at our own moral theology with regards to this digital reality. Does it have any influence at all? This should concern us, as where there is intelligence right now, there’s also will, and this will is shaping and transforming us."

Image | Sara Kurfeß | Unsplash

Jonathan Skeet lives on the Isle of Wight with his wife Natascha and their five children. He is a member of Castlehold Baptist Church in Newport, on the island and has very recently launched a blog page: https://godbibleandlife.com/


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