As someone who’s cycled through Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, email and back again in the time it’s taken me to write this article, I’m no stranger to the pull of social media.
We’ve heard time and time again that selfies are selfish, and that social media is anti-social. Young adults are as familiar with the terms “selfie culture” and “millennial” as we are tired of hearing about it. Others have defended these new forms of media, focusing on the way that they allow people to interact with one another worldwide.
Like any other new technology, though, social media is a tool—and in order to discover the morality of any tool, we must look to the hands that hold it (or the fingers that tweet on it). It’s time we stopped blaming technology for our own bad behavior.
Through all the pros and cons, the arguments and agreements, I’ve found one helpful question for gauging my own social media usage: Does it build up community or tear it down?
The Negative Side
Using social media excessively leads to comparison, envy and an intense self-focus, worrying about how others view you. Instead of building community, hours spent scrolling through newsfeeds can lead to intense isolation and loneliness—a “fear of missing out.”
Social media can be a place in which you exercise control over your own life and the way people perceive you. This is the real underlying cause for obsession with social media. Selfies always show you in your best light, and so does a carefully controlled social media presence. On Facebook, I want to be accomplished; on Twitter, I want to be hilarious. We become even more focused on our quest for affirmation, refreshing pages to see how many people have liked the things we post.
Personally, I struggle with comparing myself to others. As a recent graduate, when Facebook turns into a showcase of everyone else’s accomplishments and new job opportunities, it’s easy for me to feel inferior. Despite the accomplishments of others, however, this sort of comparison is false, since you’re really only comparing yourself with the best parts of someone—the parts they have carefully curated and chosen to display to the world.
When you look at social media, you’re not seeing an individual in all of their struggles, flaws and messiness. You don’t see the times they have spent feeling dejected, unsuccessful or unloved.
True community looks past the veneer of social media and strives to know the whole person. In reality, we aren’t in control, and only God can really bring us the affirmation we seek.
The Positive Side
Social media has its pluses. With Facebook, I can stay updated on the lives of my friends who live hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. Skype is almost miraculous. I can talk to my friend who lives seven time zones away, see her face and hear her voice. Sure, it’s not the same as physically sitting with her, but it’s as close as we can get.
People sometimes criticize us Millennials for overusing and oversharing on social media, but some of the people who use social media the most are actually the most engaged and caring. Sure, sometimes social feeds perpetuate false information, but Twitter allows us to stay abreast of social movements happening before the traditional media reports them. Twitter has been used to organize movements and reclaim representation with events like #blackout—which promoted diversity and sought to reclaim the narrative of black people in media.
Being engaged with world events, though, is no good if you aren’t also focused. In an age where we practice active boredom, exposing ourselves to games and videos so we never have a chance to be truly bored, it’s easy to think that we’re skilled at multitasking. Unfortunately, multitasking is a myth, and fragmenting our attention only ensures that we do every task distractedly. I catch myself doing this all the time—checking my phone for notifications at dinner, scrolling through Twitter or Tumblr with my friends, or getting pulled out of my prayer time by a text.
In these cases, staying connected with absent friends is unkind to present company, and this multitasking ensures that neither receives the attention they deserve. Face-to-face interactions have to take priority over virtual ones. I’ve noticed that during meals, I have started to keep my phone on the table next to my plate for easy access, and this easy distraction isn’t fair to the people around me.
Paul tells us “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord,” and this can apply to our interactions, as well—with others and with God.
The last thing to remember about building community is that true community is not continual. The idea that we should stay constantly connected to friends and significant others is a new one, and it’s important that we set apart times of silence so we can intentionally unplug. We’re expected to keep our phones on us at all times, to work on vacation, and to message back immediately. But it’s healthy to regularly step back from this constant engagement to read a book, write in a journal, take a walk and spend some quality time with our Creator.
We are busy, but God speaks to us in quiet moments and urges us, over and over, to wait on Him. Elijah witnessed many forceful elements—a powerful wind, an earthquake and a fire—but God finally presents Himself in a gentle whisper, in the lull after the disasters.
Community with others is precious and necessary, and we were designed for it, but the most invaluable community is with God Himself.