Recently I watched a documentary which interviewed a number of successful ex-social media executives expressing their concerns about the negative ethical impact of social media. This is not to say that the use of such is inherently wrong, since the same has been utilised effectively as a means for the furtherance of the gospel and many other helpful and legitimate purposes. There are important issues that need to be considered to avoid its misuse and allowing ourselves to be over-influenced by the way it can slowly and subtly morph our lifestyle and behaviour.
Social media makes use of algorithms, advertising and an artificial means of ascribing self-worth or achievement. A great deal of information is collected to shape models to cater for highly individualised tastes based on what information a person has viewed meaning each person’s experience of social media is highly unique. This also limits the type of material received in news feeds which becomes increasingly selective. Inevitably this can result in exponentially polarised viewpoints if individuals spend a lot of time on their newsfeeds and less time accessing information through more reliable and accurate means. This can create a distorted picture of reality.
Coupled with the use of algorithms is the prevalence of fake news. If ‘fake news’ supports our favoured position, it is tempting to post it unquestionably. Nonetheless, the old adage ‘never believe what the papers say’ should be a helpful warning to be even more careful about checking sources and reliable first- hand evidence or a least a report with a degree of journalistic integrity. We should remember that when something is posted it becomes visible in the public domain and it would be wise to look before we leap.
The use of likes and various emoticons in response to a variety of posts can lead to a quest for self-worth based on clicks of a button. This can take the form of a picture representing ourselves in the most attractive means possible or drawing attention to our human achievements that we desire recognition for. Our self-worth should not be reduced to an artificial and superficial cry for approval but based on how we stand before a holy, righteous, and loving God and be determined by our relationship with God and the authoritative truth of God’s word.
A few decades ago a number of Christian authors were concerned by the amount of time people spent in front of the TV screens. This equates to a significant portion of their lives. Even more seriously, when there is a group of teenagers sat in a circle barely conversing but each engrossed in social media on their respective devices it is obvious that this is not the way that we were created as relational beings and to be in fellowship with God and the people of God.
It makes sense to ration the amount of time that children in particular spend on social media. Many underestimate how much time they are occupied with the same and it would be fascinating and liberating to determine how that time could be spent more constructively. It would be a useful exercise to log the amount of time spent on social media over the course of a week. It would also be prudent to consider carefully at what age a young person should engage in social media and before doing so be carefully advised regarding the advantages and disadvantages of the same. Again it makes sense to prevent children from having their devices in their rooms late in the evening or at night since this can affect their sleeping patterns.
Social media can help us to connect with friends and family though it should not replace face to face contact if possible, even amidst the current pandemic. It has great uses for organising social events but is better as an end to a means rather than a means to an end. It is akin to whether we eat to live or live to eat. Another concern of the documentary was children choosing online activity over sports or music practice. We should not become slaves to social media but be able to use it responsibly and if necessary, not to use it if it preoccupies our time and attention.
Every time we use social media, we have the opportunity to help or to harm. Often, we say things that we regret yet we cannot retrieve and hide the words that we have uttered. We will all have to give an account for every idle word that we have uttered. Many ministries are innovative and able to make the gospel available to some who might not hear otherwise though online church is no substitute for the real thing. Zoom meetings are an excellent stop gap though we must not get too used to patterns of behaviour that are convenient to our schedules rather than making fellowship a priority in our lives.
On a personal note, having recognised that in addition to a variety of useful means, I have at times and more than I would like to admit, used social media more so than I would have wanted to. Hence, I have enjoyed having a short break from Facebook and am much the better for that. Whilst I have good reason for its use particularly regarding ministry, I can see the benefit of regularly scheduling breaks away from it, to ensure that it serves a meaningful and balanced purpose rather than being preoccupied and a servant to it.
One last thought. What is the next technological stage beyond social media? Some have acquired headsets creating the ultimate dimensional experience in playing games that completely absorbs and distances people from others and from reality. We should never lose sight of the fact that we were made by God and for God and to be in right relationship and ongoing close fellowship with Him.