Social media is clearly the devil. There’s been a lot of research on how the more time we spend on social media, the more depressed and anxious we become. And this isn’t too surprising if you think about it. People only present the best versions of themselves on social media. They tend to post stuff about how things have gone well or about a great time they just had at that concert or with their significant other. People tend not to post about how they’re worried that their life is meaningless and they’re going to be stuck in a spiral of despair until they shrivel up and die. Well, not usually.
We inevitably end up comparing ourselves to other people, because we’re humans and what do you know, our lives do not seem to be going as well as all these other people. I remember one time I had to turn off instagram after it seemed like every single picture was of engagements, weddings, and people with their new girlfriends/boyfriends.
And if that weren’t enough, being on social media can expose us to the worst in other people. Things that make people upset get shared like wildfire, something that YouTuber CGP Grey calls mind viruses. It may be the latest outrageous thing from the president, the newest inane antic from the Left or the Right. And then you can always find the people who you swear must not actually have a brain in their heads. Maybe you just read what they say, mouth agape, emotions flared, or maybe you can’t resist getting into an argument with them about how stupid they are.
So yeah, social media sucks.
But we’re all still here, so we might as well learn to make the best of it. The following are ways that I think we can engage with social media that can at the very least mitigate the damage they can do to us, and at best actually help to make us better, more virtuous people.
1) Don’t make an echo chamber, diversify your feed
This is especially important in forums like twitter where you tend to follow a lot more than just your friends and family. The idea of the echo chamber is something that has been discussed in depth in the previous election cycle especially with regard to politics, but you can make a theological echo chamber for yourself as well.
It can be incredibly easy to surround ourselves with people we agree with. I know I like to see things I agree with more than stuff I disagree with. But this can be really toxic. If we only surround ourselves with people we agree with, we’ll never be challenged; we’ll never be exposed to different perspectives and voices.
An analogy is helpful: I think this is kind of like how if you have kids with people you’re closely related to, after a few generations your offspring will have much higher rates of various genetic disorders that wouldn’t be a problem if there were less inbreeding. In the same way, we can fall prey to intellectual inbreeding if we only surround ourselves with people and voices we agree with. Our ideas are never challenged by people coming from a different perspective and so they rarely get refined and improved.
Being exposed to people who disagree with you or have a different perspective than you does a few things:
First, it helps you to have a more accurate understanding of where other folks are coming from. You’re not relying on mind-virus caricatures, but you know what these people actually say themselves. It also makes this group personal. It’s easy to make caricatures of groups of people when you’re talking in the abstract, but when you have specific people and faces that are part of that group in your head, it makes you slow down and have more empathy.
Second, it challenges your own ideas. It’s hard to see the problems with your own tribe’s way of seeing things unless you have an outside perspective. After all, it’s always a lot easier to criticize other people’s ideas than your own. Of course, you may very well come out with your mind unchanged, but you may very well hold your views with more nuance or at the very least an appreciation for people who disagree with you.
Now, it’s also important to note that there are a lot of ways you can diversify your feed. You might need to make sure to follow more people who are progressive or conservative. Maybe you need to make sure to follow people of different racial or cultural backgrounds. Maybe you need to follow more women writing about topics you’re interested in. The various kinds of diversity are endless, but it’s important to not overlook different kinds of diversity.
As for me, I try to be intentional about following people coming from different theological perspectives than me, whether that’s people from different theological traditions: Reformed, Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Anglican, etc. or people who are more theologically or politically progressive than me. I also try to follow Christian voices who are minorities and/or women since I know that my own circles and reading patterns tend to vastly underrepresent these folks. And I can say that this kind of diversity in my twitter feed has been an incredible and eye-opening experience. It’s exposed me to a lot that I wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to. It’s challenged me and forced me to reevaluate my positions on a variety of topics and made me realize how different the experiences of other people can be.
2) Always put the best construction on things
It’s always easy to assume the worst, especially with people who are different from us or whom we disagree with. But not jumping to conclusions and assuming the best goes a really long way.
For example, if someone says something that you think is inane and stupid, stop and consider whether you are misreading what they’re saying. Are you reacting against what they’re saying just because it’s different from how you’re used to talking? Is there some sense in which what they’re saying might be true? Do you actually understand what they’re really trying to say? If you’re not sure, ask them. You’d be surprised at the fruitful conversations you can have if you just ask people for clarifications instead of just telling them why they’re wrong.
Consider also that other people’s experience is different than your own and that can be a cause for a lot of disagreements in both internet land and the real world.
Practicing putting the best construction on things also helps to put the brakes on social media’s tendency to make us more ornery and less compassionate to different people. Practicing this kind of empathy and patience can do wonders for your relationships with people both online and offline.
3) You don’t need to have an opinion about every controversy or follow every provocateur
Controversies come and go and every time people get enraged and throw out opinions and accusations like they’re candy. And we all know those people who just seem to always be inflaming people’s emotions, often intentionally (e.g. Donald Trump).
Some controversies are worth talking about; that’s sometimes why they’re a controversy, and some people’s ideas, no matter how provocative are worth dealing with. But you can’t and shouldn’t get involved with all of it or even most of it.
This takes time, but you need to figure out what sorts of controversies you want to follow and whether certain people are not worth having in your feed, despite what I said above about diversity. If something or someone is not challenging you or helping to learn more about the world and other people and is instead just inciting anger and bitterness in you, leave it alone. Get it out of your feed and your life as best you can. This is the kind of stuff that social media lives off of, but it’s super toxic.
4) Use technology as a supplement for, not a replacement of real community
We love social media so much because we are inherently social beings. This is how God has created us. We can find great community online. I know that I have. But this can never be a replacement for real flesh-and-blood and face-to-face community and conversation.
This point may seem obvious, but it’s worth mentioning and it’s worth reminding ourselves of. Our brains quickly get addicted to the rapid pace and stimulating content of social media. Real people and real situations can become boring or neglected. I think it takes a lot of intentionality to make sure that we are seeking out community in whatever form is available to us. And not only is this a persistent human need, but it’s something that’s vital for us right now, since we tend to be lonelier and more isolated than ever before. Social media can help with this problem in some ways, but it can also make it worse.
This might mean meeting up with friends you make online in real life. It might mean starting the conversation with that stranger or that person you see every day but don’t talk to. It might mean going to that bible study or joining that small group. Whatever it takes and whatever is available to you, practice being intentional about seeking out community in real life.
This doesn’t mean that good social media use can’t be healthy and give us some community, but it means that we cannot neglect embodied forms of community and rely totally on the community we find on social media.
So get out there, share that meme, engage in that conversation, and above all, don’t be a jerk.