I am in the last week of my renewal leave. The church gifted me with a three-month leave which began in November and ends on the 15th. One of the things that I committed to during that time was to take a break from social media. I didn’t really set any hard and fast rules but I was intentional. First of all, I removed all my social media apps from my smartphone and iPad. Then I committed to not post on or read anything on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. Was I faithful? Well, I cheated a little. When I was on my Macbook (not very often), I pulled up Facebook a couple of times to check on some of my friends. Was it a good idea? Yes!
It was a very good thing to take a break from the “always on” world of social media. It helped me learn what is good about all these new innovations, and learn what can become very unhealthy.
Let’s start what I learned about how it can be unhealthy. Number one: it is addictive and I mean addictive in the scientific understanding of the word. Research shows that both sharing and receiving information through social media works on the pleasure centers in our brain. That can lead to all sorts of unhealthy behavior. As I took a break from it, I found myself still picking up my phone to check out twitter or trying to hit a button to share a photo I just took on Instagram. I began to realize how much these things intruded into my life. I took my boys to the zoo without access to all these things and found it freeing not to take a cute picture, post it on Facebook and then check back to see if anyone commented on it. I actually took a few pictures with my regular camera and enjoyed being present with my boys.
Number two: It can get in the way or actual social interaction. How many times have you been eating dinner while everyone at the table was staring down at their phones or iPads? This isn’t just from social media, texting, web-browsing, anything that takes your attention away from the ones you are actually with can be a hindrance.
Number three: It can cause you to miss things. Social media is a great way to kill time. Stuck in a long line at the grocery store? Not a problem, check out the latest twitter feed. Flight delayed and stuck at the airport? No problem, you can see if anyone has endorsed you on LinkedIn. When I no longer had those options I looked around. You know what? There is some really interesting stuff out there. I am an introvert, so there are times that I really need to close out the rest of the world. But I have found, that being open to it more often leads to some great experiences. Without the urge to pull out my smartphone or iPad or laptop I found myself engaging in conversations with strangers or just noticing the beauty and wonder around me.
Number four: I think it makes me dumb. See my previous post on that topic here.
So, now that my leave is coming to an end, am I going to leave these things behind forever? No, because used appropriately, they have some great redeeming qualities.
Number one: Social media can keep us connected. I live in a generation where very few people stay put. I grew up on a small town and none of my childhood friends live there anymore. They are scattered throughout the United States. My college friends are even more dispersed. I have friends from every stop of my journey of adulthood and I rarely, if ever, see them. But through social media, I get to keep them in my life, at least a little. I can watch their kids grow up in photos and hear about their great joys and their great sorrows. If I am smart about it, I can enhance this with a phone call or an actual visit. I also belong to a very large church family. University has over 6000 members and I am also still connected to friends at my two previous churches. I could never maintain any sort of contact with all these people without social media.
Number two: Social media allows us to hear voices that would not otherwise be heard. Think about it: it wasn’t too long ago that our information about what was happening in the world came from either word of mouth or major, powerful, expensive media. Television, radio and newspapers largely controlled the flow of information. Then media exploded. There are basically endless sources of information now between cable, internet news, magazines, internet television and on and on. We went from too little to too much. Here is the twist that social media places on the whole thing: you can hear things spoken and shaped by different voices. Virtually anyone can share information. Now that isn’t always a good thing, there is more false information and more urban legends than ever before. But it is still an amazing thing. If someone I am connected to on twitter reads an article they find interesting, they can share it… immediately.
I could go on for a long time about the pros and cons of social media. The most amazing thing is that it is always changing. A few years, or even months, from now, this post will seem horribly outdated. The technology will change and how we use it will change. But this won’t: none of this stuff is inherently good or bad. It is how we use, how we relate to it.
I hope I use it better now.