It is hard to believe that taking time away from social media would be so anathema to Christians today. Some have the best of intentions of using it of course. Because for most, seeing posts and pictures are a source of social connection and encouragement. Even family and friends may tease and push back on you, as if you are leaving this earth! You would think you are walking away from the faith or something by the way some folks act online. And God forbid you should shut down your social media for good (may it never be!). I always feel sorry for the martyr that even would suggest such a thing publicly!
In any case, my wife and I, at the beginning of November in 2018, decided to take a break from social media together. We both noticed some areas that social media was interfering in our lives, and wanted to cut ties in order to prioritize relationships. At first, it was easy and exciting. After about the third week though, we began to see some of the large gaps that social media wedged itself into. With that being said, here are six things that I learned.
- I had more time to spend with my wife. This was one of our biggest reasons for getting off. I often felt justified with my use of time because I was commenting and answering inboxes from friends and strangers, meanwhile calling it “ministry.” But I still was neglecting time, and attention (very important), with my wife. Sure, forms of Christian ministry can be accomplished online. No harm there. But when you find yourself and your spouse bickering more, being irritated at each other, or even angry at one another over trivial things, meanwhile giving more attention to your phone rather than a meaningful and intimate conversation at the table with your family (or even friends), it’s time for a break.
- My attention span was improved. There are plenty of resources online, even from social media engineers themselves, that can prove what I’m about to say. Social media affects your attention span. I experienced this first hand. It also affects your cognitive thinking skills and how you process information. From trying to finish books and complete projects, to having a simple conversation with my wife and friends, I caught myself often thinking about something else, and even becoming bored with the task or conversation at hand too quickly. (Side thought: Perhaps this may be a contributing factor to why we often feel bored during our pastor’s sermons. Hmmm…) What we don’t realize is that social media does have a psychological (and spiritual) impact on us all. We may deny it, but if you take a long break, you’ll immediately understand what I’m talking about. My hope is that you don’t have to take a break to notice.
- I was able to see who my important relationships were. This one is a tough pill to swallow. There are many on our friends list who we enjoy and perhaps have had long time relationships with. But social media has changed the way we interact and stay in contact with them, has it not? Instead of picking up a phone or writing to one another, we just simply scroll through a feed, click like on the post, maybe comment once in a while, and move on to the next thing. This isn’t evil. A short post might provoke a deeper conversation online or on the phone. But more often than not, we’ve depended on social media to gauge and judge what is going on in one another’s lives rather than purposefully taking the time to meet over lunch, at a dinner table, or even going out together on some random outing. More than this though, we may quickly discover who really is interested in a reciprocal and abiding friendship. Because with no social media to keep track of your life, the meaningful relationships begin to surface. And the results may be panful.
- I was free from false obligation. Some call it FOMO (fear of missing out). Others call this “just keeping up with the times.” But I’m not surprised so many suffer from so much anxiety these days. The feeling that I should know something because someone I follow posted it, or needing to keep up with the latest controversy because a ministry I support and love is caught up in it, or having to constantly be ready to answer a comment because I or someone else I know is involved in an important discussion, all dissipated like smoke once I was off. I know longer felt obligated to know any of that stuff, or any other unnecessary drama, that didn’t directly pertain to my life and ministry. I don’t think we realize how many things we entangle ourselves with on social media that truly doesn’t require our involvement, nor will impact us in any meaningful way. There’s nothing wrong with stating your position on something online, researching the latest updates on important topics, or using social media to further the gospel of Christ and sound doctrine. But how much emotional investment are you wasting simply because you subtly feel “obligated” to do so? And how much of it is essentially just reading gossip?
- Part B of this feeling of obligation is something I like to call pseudo accountability. There is this false idea that somehow you are spiritually accountable to all those on your friends list (if you even personally know some of them). Depending on how many you have, you may have developed a subtle need for approval, unbeknownst to you. Of course, many on my friends list would say that they care about honoring the LORD more than man. But what we all don’t realize is that we, as social beings, enjoy approval from others within the circles we most identify with. That is what the like button is for. That’s why Facebook won’t introduce a dislike button, but instead has chosen other emoticons to display how you may feel about a particular post. This isn’t some psychological bibble-babble that cannot be substantiated. The kind of approval we receive from those on our friends list (or particular persons on our friends list) triggers the dopamine in our brains, which is typically the chemical released when we have that feeling of reward. That’s one of the reasons why social media is addicting. And whether we realize it or not, what begins to happen is that we engage social media in such a way that causes us to want that approval. The result is that we begin to feel accountable to people that have no real impact on our lives.
- I had plenty of time for more important things. This one is like number 1, but a little more specific. Honey-do-lists, job responsibilities, family time, reading, writing, discipleship, evangelism, other ministry opportunities, going out to lunch with friends, particular church functions, and long, attentive, and meaningful conversations, are all some of the many things I discovered I was truly neglecting. I can remember what life was like before social media was popular. And I can remember all the time I spent reading copious amounts of Scripture, or my favorite books, doing ministry, going out with friends, working on special projects at work, etc., without feeling rushed, out of time, or mentally drained. I almost forgot what it was like to partake of all these things in a meaningful and attentive way, without mental distraction! And guess what, it isn’t just me. And it isn’t simply an issue of will-power, intellectual strength, or time management. Even former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya, mentions some of the dangers with social media. Because of this, he doesn’t even allow his own children to have it.
- Finally, though not exhaustively, although most importantly, my intimate time with God improved. I have kind of touched on this already in an indirect way, but this most definitely deserves its own category. With all the things we could be serving God in, one thing that should never be replaced, neglected, or diminished is our own personal time with our Lord Jesus. Whether it is reading His word or personal time in prayer, meditating and communicating with God will be, and often is, pushed aside when we are heavily engaged in social media. Why? Well, because all the other responsibilities that we must accomplish have been neglected already. And because those things must be done, and we now have little time to accomplish them, things like reading Scripture and prayer require too much time and mental strength we don’t have. It’s no wonder why we are tired in prayer, and can’t pay attention when we read Scripture. It’s no wonder why we feel pseudo-accountability, are often anxious, depressed, irritable, and feel all kinds of emotional distress. Not to say that humans have never felt these things before social media. But when we consider the unprofitable amount of time we spend on it these days rather than with the LORD, let us not be surprised when the feeling of being distant from God is exacerbated. I pray that this distant feeling and conviction would grip us more and more than any other feeling so as to return to our first love, and restore the biblical priorities in our lives.
Now that I’m back on social media as of the New Year, my interactions haven’t been the same. I am posting and engaging, but it is different. I am able to break away if I need to. Put the phone away a lot easier when it is time to converse with someone. I’m not as distracted. I scroll less. Desire to converse more with friends more. And it has been edifying. This isn’t my first time taking a break from social media, but it was nice taking a two month break with a purposeful goal in mind to restore the disciplines and relationships in my life where they should be. If I need another break, I’ll be ready to take it. But I pray others will read this and will emboldened to do the same.
– Until we go home.