Is Social Media an Enemy of Your Soul?

Before I get into this, I’d ask you to reflect on your initial reaction to the length of this post. I know based on studies I’ve read and other’s anecdotes/comments and my own personal experience and reflection that most of us will be immediately turned off by it and probably just not read it because it’s too long. It sounds self-serving, but I’d suggest that this is another negative effect of social media. We have been more and more trained to only want to consume sound bites and extremely brief articles. I challenge you to challenge that training. Challenge yourself to thoughtfully engage with longer-form media. We so readily spend 1.5 to 2 hours on mediocre movies. Many of us, in the cumulative, spend far more on social media in general, endlessly scrolling and liking. It seems to me that spending 30 minutes, even, on an article that may leave us with something far more rewarding, is worth the time. You may not and probably won’t have your mind changed–but you probably will at the very least come away with your own thoughts better articulated in your head.

Over two years ago now, I wrote about a concept I called the humanization of social media. Unsurprisingly, not much has changed since then in terms of how people generally use and consume social media. I do still recommend at least considering the suggestions at the end of the post, but I have recently concluded that it’s not enough. In short, I am skeptical that social media can be redeemed and repurposed for good.

Why? Because the whole engine behind social media is geared towards making us the worst possible version of ourselves. I hope you’ll stick with me and hear me out on this and not dismiss it as just another whiner about social media. Trust me, I used to be the guy who quickly dismissed those who would wring their hands about the negative impacts of social media (and new technology in general). As a person who works in software and loves technology and gadgetry, I am anything but a Luddite.

First, let’s give a nod to the many articles and studies done on the subject of the negative effects of social media. For myself, though, a top negative effect is how social media is used to foster a mob mentality in our culture and to leverage that to unjustly attack (often paradoxically in the name of justice), to silence, and truly and actually damage the lives of individuals and their families. I’ve seen this seep into my own profession, and most recently, it’s been on high display in the wake of current events. The net result of all of this is a de facto totalitarian regime that coerces people to conform to whatever the largely unthinking mob determines is virtuous du jour.

I recently wrote all my government representatives/leaders asking them to work towards making social media companies accountable to ensure that the freedoms that we are guaranteed in this country are realized and protected. I suggest you do the same. It is obvious now that we cannot trust these companies–even though founded in the tradition of the liberal and egalitarian internet–to do the right thing.

I propose, for instance, requiring them to be no more restrictive of free speech than our federal laws are. An interesting side effect of that would be the blocking of cancel culture by companies trying to use their commercial leverage to force social media companies to limit free speech, as has happened recently with Facebook and a cohort of large companies. After all, if it were illegal for Facebook to limit free speech beyond how it is limited by our government, then they would be powerless to comply with such commercial pressure, and companies would have no incentive to abuse the system like that.

But while these larger civil liberties concerns are very important, they are not why I have decided to again rethink my engagement with social media. Those problems are just symptoms of the larger problem, which is how social media affects each one of us personally, and specifically, how it is a real danger to our spiritual lives and our ability to grow as persons.

I have written many times on the importance of fruitful dialogue as a means of personal growth. I even wrote a prayer for it. Yet instances of that kind of dialogue in social media are rare, to say the least. I used to think this was an individual problem, that is, that each of us can and should make decisions to engage with each other on social media in a mutually respectful way, where we treat each other as fully realized human persons, not simplistically as avatars of ideas that we loathe.

While there is obviously truth in the idea that we can and should do that, what I have come to recognize is that there is something innate about social media that works against us. I have sadly observed a gang of Catholics viciously attack a priest friend of mine, simply because he is not fully supportive of Donald Trump. This is but a small example in a sea of examples where individual Catholics callously, rashly, and often calumniously attack everyone from their parish priest all the way up to the Holy Father himself.

I mention these because, while this kind of behavior is par for the course in social media, these examples are striking to me. We Christians are called to love even our enemies. How much more so are we called to love our brothers and sisters in Christ! Time and again Scripture exhorts us to avoid bickering, back biting, and tearing each other down. No less than Christ himself taught us to regard each other with compassion and to be willing to suffer even injustice patiently, to be almost irrationally generous with each other–to the point of offering our other cheek to someone who strikes us. We are told quite explicitly that they (those outside the Body of Christ) will know us by our love one for another. How terrible we are in exemplifying this! And this failing is at its worst on social media.

Now, take this consideration and zoom out. How in the world can we begin to dialogue with non-believers who hold almost no common presuppositions about the good and the true with us, if we can’t even respectfully dialogue with our fellow Catholics? When Catholics can’t hardly type fast enough to publicly criticize the latest word and action of the Vicar of Christ, how in God’s name are we supposed to exhibit love and bring the lost to Christ?!

I say that we cannot. And it’s not entirely our own fault. Yes, it is largely our own fault, but our culpability is significantly lessened by the nature of social media. It trains us to be eminent cretins. We see this flippant, rash, hateful, mean, unjustly judgmental, arrogant, proud–in a word, sinful–behavior modeled in every corner of social media. I include comment boxes in “social media,” as they are just one more example of social media. They were, you might say, the prototype for social media and remain a strong example of it. Even many blogging sites–especially the ones that make it easy for people of strongly different opinions to voice their opinions and use their publishing tools to quickly respond to others fall into this, and some sites effectively take it as their mission to be this worst-kind of being online. Everywhere online where people have been given the tools to–anonymously or not–express their hot takes, this kind of worst-of-us behavior prevails. It is all over Twitter. It is all over Facebook. It’s all over YouTube. It is all over comment boxes. It is everywhere.

We humans in our fleshly nature tend to emulate the behaviors that we are exposed to. We often judge what behavior is acceptable on a kind of lowest common denominator setting. We are very inclined to respond in kind. So when we see this nasty behavior everywhere, our nature inclines us to imitate it. I have observed that I myself am hugely susceptible to respond in kind–despite my best efforts to be cognizant of this tendency and a strong desire to be better. It really takes a saintly demeanor to not fall into this, and I ain’t no saint. Judging by what no doubt we’ve all seen online, pretty much none of us is.

So no matter how saintly some few of us may aspire to become, the deck is truly and nigh on immeasurably stacked against us. It is simply too easy to be dragged into this kind of behavior, and it’s baked into the way that social media (including the broad definition given above) is structured. Social media is, in my judgment, a structure of sin.

Who can argue that we, as a society, have gotten better these last fifteen or so years? Have we improved our tendency and ability to listen to each other? Have we increasingly learned to treat each other with mutual respect? Have we become less polarized and more able to work through issues to find compromises (where applicable) and to learn from each other even when we disagree?

Is it not true, rather, that by almost any measure along these lines we’ve gotten worse? Isn’t it more or less axiomatic at this point that we are, as a society and culture, more divided and polemicized than we have ever been? What could more contribute to this condition than hugely popular platforms that entice us to spend nearly every free moment of our waking hours (and many lost, sleepless hours) on them, that are structured to reward us with scientifically measurable physiological responses (dopamine hits) for sharing things that our in-groups like and for loudly and rashly decrying those things that our in-groups do not like?

I can see nothing in living history that has contributed more to the polarization and the progressive mutual dehumanization of our fellow human beings than social media, and that extends out into the media in general because social media has its tendrils in virtually every aspect of media these days. Company metrics inevitably involve social media, and there is a whole cottage industry around social media experts–all of which are desperately competing and paying to get you to like, share, and click.

Now, some (including my prior self) have defended the notion of staying engaged in social media. Some have referred to it as the contemporary town square, and I admit that one of my better motivations for remaining engaged in the past was to use it in this way–to thoughtfully engage with people, even people who strongly disagree. And that view is, in theory, a valid view. However, in practice, it seems that such an experience of social media is vanishingly rare.

How many of us go to social media with anything approaching a primary goal of engaging other people in fruitful dialogue to learn from each other? How many of us think of it as a primary means for personal betterment? I think, at best, we can say that we might accidentally get bettered. We might accidentally fall into a valuable discussion. Depending on our feed curation, we may be more or less likely to run across something that helps us to grow personally, but it hardly can be said–I will wager–that we often find ourselves in dialogues that are anything like fruitful or evangelical.

If we honestly reflect on our experience of social media, I suspect the large majority of it is something like a mashup of news, people trying to highlight something meaningful from their own lives (family posts, food posts, travel posts, activity posts), and a whole lot of opinion flinging, either in the form of posts from those we follow or their sharing highly opinionated articles, videos, etc. that they found. And, perhaps most notably, I will wager that the vast majority of our friends are those who largely share our views on things.

I know for myself, especially after the curation efforts I recommend from the “Humanization of Social Media” article, I find that I have at most a handful of people on the list with whom I often differ on matters of any weight–unless they are strictly, say, family or a long-time person I’ve known. This is the “echo chamber” we so often hear about. Because most of us don’t have the desire or stamina (however you want to view it) to constantly expose ourselves to ideas that we strongly disagree with, it’s very likely we have filtered our experience of the “town square” to be mostly those we agree with, or we have, at best, implicitly agreed to avoid and ignore each other when we blab on such issues. Indeed, the post prioritization algorithms take into account what we “Like” and prioritize similar content, whether we intend to filter to what we like or not.

The reality of social media seems to be, for those of us who don’t thrive on conflict, that those we follow/friend are not those with whom we naturally strongly disagree. Social media is a lot less like a town square and a lot more like an ever-present, informal party with friends and family. Thus, its potential for personal growth through fruitful dialogue and for evangelization seems exquisitely low.

That brings me to another significant concern about social media, and it is its potential for time wasting. This is, next to how it influences us to behave towards each other, a primary consideration in my deciding to largely abandon it. I’ve found that no matter how well I curate my feeds, I would slowly add feed after feed of content with questionable (and not infrequently somewhat bombastic) content. This, in addition to the enjoyment of feeling like I am more connected to people I care about, leads inevitably to a perfect storm in which I am induced to spend way more time than is wise on social media. And social media itself very often links to other forms of media, which are even more time consuming, and they often induce you to go to other sources, and so on ad infinitum. It is a remarkably difficult thing to manage, even with the best intentions.

And the thing is, it’s not simply idleness, which is not a good thing in itself, but it is that often–very often–due to the nature of social media, it sucks you into things that lead to the the sinful conditioning above. Because everything is geared towards some kind of virtue signaling to one’s in group, there are strong incentives to share things that make your group look good and smart and right and The Other to be bad and dumb and wrong. There is very little dialogue. On the contrary, it is mostly various groups preaching to their own choirs, and a large part of that preaching is inevitably some kind of vilification of ideological opponents.

So we are sucked in to waste the majority of our valuable free time on things that make us worse people. The system is broken. It is, I think, irredeemably broken.

The system is broken. It is irredeemably broken.

What are we, then, to do? As ever, I do not advocate for a retreat into one’s self away from the world. I mean, for some of us, that may indeed be the answer, but not for most. Probably the worst thing we could do would be to literally cancel everyone and thing that doesn’t agree with us–that is in fact one of the most atrocious tendencies of this new culture that has emerged from social media.

We’ve now lived with this stuff for about fifteen years, depending on how you measure, and we’ve grown to think that it is the only way to be online. It’s not. Before there was social media, there were blogs. Before there were blogs, there were plain ol’ personal sites and forums. Before those we had bulletin boards and IRC and usenet. I’m not saying any of these is absolutely better. They all tend in varying degrees to magnify our worst social tendencies, but not all are equally bad for us.

In general there are a few attributes that I think we can identify and try to avoid.

  1. Speed and ease of commenting. Anything that makes it more or less a click away for people to comment will, naturally, invite comment. If the platform promotes giving hot takes, it’s going to lead us down the wrong path.
  2. The ability to click or tap and express an emotional response. Liking, clapping, +1ing, thumbs-upping, hearting, etc. We’ve come to expect and kind of demand this kind of facile expression of emotion, but it is this in fact that tends us towards writing and sharing things “just for the like.”
  3. Ease of re-sharing, re-tweeting, etc. This isn’t in itself so bad, maybe, except that combined as it usually is with the above two things, it leads to a lot of uncritical sharing, inevitably resulting in viral sinfulness.

Uh.. so.. wow. Am I saying that basically the main three things that make social media “social” are the things that make it structurally sinful? Yuppp.

If we think about the core problem in most of this, it has to do with how we enable our baser nature to express itself. What makes social media distinctly social media is that it is an enabler and inflamer of the passions. When we are enabled to quickly and easily express anger and outrage–especially to a large audience (imagined or real), that’s a bad thing. When we are conditioned towards quickly speaking before thinking or even listening–truly listening–that’s a bad thing. When we are incited to share things that make us proud of ourselves, that tends toward pride and self-absorbed concern, which easily becomes a bad thing. When the easiest thing for us to do is express an emotion (clicking to share an emoji), that is very often not the best thing.

That’s not at all to say that emotions are all bad. By no means. They have their place, but generally, their best place is to be expressed in person and, often, one to one. The best emotions–such as compassion–lead to expressions that must be personal.

Too often we do things on social media to be seen to do them. We call that virtue signaling. By enabling that shallow (at best) expression of virtue, it often gives us a sense that we have done something meaningful when we actually haven’t. By precluding such largely meaningless expression of virtue, that urge within us remains, and we may (and hopefully will) be motivated to do something truly virtuous.

I see no way to stop this than to stop engaging in social media. I have deleted my personal Twitter account. I don’t really have much else beyond my extremely curated Facebook. I have unfollowed almost everything and everyone. Sorry, friends. It really is not personal. It’s just that even people I like who probably have (or at least believe they have) good intentions often share things that suck me into the system.

My plan is to try to be much more conscientious about what little use I make of Facebook. For instance, I want to think, “I wonder what so and so is up to” and then go specifically to his or her page, rather than allowing Facebook algorithms determine which friends’ posts I see or don’t. I also think this will help me to avoid the habit of being sucked into endless scrolling. It’s much more directed and intentional usage. And it’s at least a little less lazy, because it’s a pull model rather than a push. I have to first care about someone, then find out what’s going on, rather than lazily wait for them to inject themselves into my attention. (I also think if we all did this, the temptation for self-aggrandizing “look what I did” posts would diminish, at least some.)

As for following things I’m interested in, almost all of them have other subscription mechanisms that are more reliable anyhow. For example, I may be interested in Bishop Barron’s publications. I’ll more reliably get those through email. I may be interested Open AI; well they have a blog I can subscribe to. You get the idea–I don’t need to rely on the hit and miss nature of FB’s algorithms to follow things I’m interested in, and in many cases, I’m already subscribed to things really interesting to me.

Because at least some friends have expressed interest in what I write, I plan to still share my writings there. But no longer will I write only on Facebook or simply to add commentary to an article I’m sharing. I will be publishing my thoughts here and/or elsewhere (if, for instance, I write for a publication). Those who are interested in my writing can subscribe here. For the time being, at least, it will be my primary outlet. I’ll post things from here to the Faithful Fathers FB page and Twitter so that folks in those places can follow that way, if they like.

I also want to be much more intentional about what I write. This is another big area of concern I flagged for myself–getting sucked into politics, in particular, is so easy for me, and yet it is of such little lasting value on average. It is the easiest area of human concern to become polarized about, and I don’t want to provide opportunity for that to happen.

Instead, I want my writing to flow either from prayerful study and reflection, or for some intentionally evangelical purpose, or to build up my brothers and sisters in Christ somehow. I aspire to pick back up on writing my books that have been languishing. Social media has been a big time suck not only on the consumption (mindless scrolling and clicking) side of things but also in how it prompts me to write on things that are almost certainly less valuable.

I probably will still share the occasional family/activity update. Those are mostly harmless in my view, and since much of my family is on FB with me, it’s a good way to keep them in the loop–like a mini occasional newsletter.

I plan to also still share tidbits like quotes and other brief edifying things that come directly from my studies and prayer, because I think those are good and uplifting for others, even if they don’t warrant a blog post.

I will be avoiding one-click reacting and certainly avoiding comment threads, preferring instead one-on-one messages and conversations. I learned long ago that having an audience predisposes me and others to care less about learning from each other and more about appearing to be smarter or righter. And even though I think, say, a Care emoji is a good thing, there is a slippery slope there I want to avoid. If I really care, I will do something meaningful that is a manifestation of that, even if it is simply to drop a quick note in Messenger or email.

In short: no more mindless scrolling, no more click emoting, no more commenting, no more re-sharing. No more letting algorithms drive my behavior. No more giving into a platform that is designed to cater to our baser nature.

That’s my plan. I know not everyone is a writer. Not everyone has the same particular vocation. But I feel pretty confident in assuring you that social media is not good for you in many ways, and perhaps most importantly, it is likely an occasion for sin. So please consider being cautious of it, even if you don’t abandon it. I think we will be better individually, the less we use it, and also–consequently–better as a society. There are so many better ways for us to spend our time.


UPDATE (2020 July 8): A friend pointed this video by Bishop Barron out to me, in which he notes a particularly harrowing recent experience with the vileness so common in the Catholic online community these days. He echoes what I noted above about our failure to have and exemplify love for one another, and he exhorts us to be better. I hope folks will listen and take his words to heart.