The Magazine of the Presbyterian Church in America
Part 4

By Ann Kroeker

Our Spiritual Social Dilemma

Shining light into a dark place

By Ann Kroeker

Published December 30, 2021 / First published in byFaith Magazine Q1 2021

My friend Charity Singleton Craig recognized the negative effects of social media long before the release of "The Social Dilemma" on Netflix. Several years ago she noticed how changes on Facebook and other platforms made her "agitated, discouraged, sometimes jealous, often feeling inadequate. My brain begins to speed up, move from topic to topic," she writes. "I began frantic searches, scrolling faster, pulse rising."

She tried to manage her attention and emotions in response to the content showing up in her feeds, but she explained, "[T]he effort I've taken to protect myself from the negative effects of social media now outweigh the benefits of it, both personally and professionally." As a result, she did more than remove the apps from her phone - in 2018, Charity took radical action and quit social media altogether. She closed her accounts and walked away.

Her bold decision sparked numerous healthy discussions as she inspired others to consider the effects of social media on all aspects of their lives: mental, emotional, relational, intellectual, and spiritual. But after a flurry of interaction, few people made the same choice as Charity. Most remained on the platforms, assuming they could handle the way content was delivered to them - perhaps they felt sharp enough to notice the effects, and strong enough to resist.

Competing for Our Attention

IF YOU'VE WATCHED the documentaries or read articles revealing the way social media operates, you know they're driven to captivate us, to hold us on the platform long enough to serve up a sponsored post - an ad. It's a monetizing move. Some say that if a platform is free, you are the product. In "The Social Dilemma," computer scientist Tristan Harris suggests it's more that these platforms are "competing for your attention" - our attention is the product.

That's one of many things Charity realized she did not want to keep offering up to Silicon Valley. She wanted to give her attention to people and activities that mattered, and it wasn't happening for her in those apps. She walked away from digital and focused on analog options. She called friends and talked with them. She wrote letters. We met for tea at a local cafe. At that point in her life, she knew the algorithms were hard to resist and settled into a life that created space to read, pray, and meditate; she sought slower ways to live and relate that felt more meaningful than a retweet or a like.

Michigan State University Professor Emilee Rader, who studies human-computer interaction with a focus on sociotechnical systems, says, "[T]ech companies are in the business of grabbing attention, and monetizing the attention they grab." These systems aren't designed to support our longing for meaningful connections. Why? Because there is no heart, only machine learning, pushing content in front of us and affecting us in ways we barely discern, if at all. If we open the apps and their AI can keep us there, they can send ads and make money, so they're actually designed to exploit our desire for another dopamine hit - that reward pathway triggered when we hear a social media notification. These platforms capitalize on our tendency to develop habits of mindless scrolling, tumbling into the rabbit hole of sites such as YouTube or the seemingly random and endless stream of posts on sites such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok. Or, worse, outbursts and arguments signal to the algorithm to feed us more of whatever elicits a reaction, that we might intensify conflict and strife.

Driving a Wedge Between Us

IT WASN'T ALWAYS THIS WAY, though. Social media started as a creative use of technology to connect people with each other and be, well, social. The person at Facebook who created the "like" button did so thinking it would spread positivity. He never dreamed it would result in anxiety and depression that set in as people-especially young people-compared the number of likes. He couldn't have anticipated that online bullies would combine painful comments with insulting emojis to diminish and demean those with modest like counts.

As humans drag each other down with those tools, the social media companies themselves, driven by the bottom line, watch our use of features such as the like button to track that action-among many actions-and analyze our interests and behaviors. Innocently, we log in with the desire for human connection, but developers have designed these algorithms with the purpose of logging, even manipulating, our every move. "They watch everything from the people you are friends with to what you click on," Rader says. "They consider what you scroll through, how long you spend on a post, and which links you click on and read. They're taking signals and pieces of data and painting a picture of you. Then the system uses that data to choose what to show you.

The machines are affecting us, changing us, and in many instances driving wedges between us. That heartless digital code is changing our hearts, our minds, our choices. It's transforming the way we engage with others. People we know in person are behaving on social media in ways we never imagined possible. They're using startling language and exuding an uncharacteristic attitude and tone.

Then again, maybe we're the ones changing and others don't recognize us.

The documentary bluntly said we've been manipulated and affected so much we can't hear each other anymore, we can't trust each other anymore. We're pressed deeper into a space where we're no longer listening to one another, settling into the echo chamber delivered up for us moment by moment. We test new apps promising a different experience, forgetting we take with us our language and actions. When we get there, we're affected by those on the platform and the platform itself.

Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak, Slow to Anger

HAVE WE STOPPED to evaluate our own online behavior, our voice, our digital "tongue," if you will? James writes, "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" (James 1:19). His three simple commands apply both to in-person interactions and online: Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.

Maybe it's time we tape that onto our laptops and phones so it's front and center when we're on social media. Next time a friend posts an offensive meme, let those commands guide our next steps. We can tame our digital tongues and read quietly, discerning our friend's deepest concerns and processing her beneath-the-surface meaning. God's truth can slow down our itch to shout a response in all caps. His Word, with the power of His Spirit, helps us manage the anger that rumbles inside when we spot someone's outrageous message or abrasive tone; the Lord Himself can keep us from responding in kind.

In Chapter 3, James elaborates on the power and dangers of the tongue, for with it "we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so" (9-10). If we're staring at screens cursing people made in the likeness of God, these things ought not to be so. Let our mouths offer blessings, even online.

In James 3, he also urges us to tap into the wisdom from above and stay gentle, open to reason, impartial, and sincere, offering even more guidance for managing our online interactions. Each time we open an app, let's seek wisdom from above to stay gentle, open to reason, impartial, sincere.

As we grapple with why our friend or acquaintance would share some outlandish post in his feed, we can also ask practical questions seeking insight and wisdom:

  • What's the original source of this content?
  • Can that source be trusted, or could this be manipulated or falsified content?
  • What is its goal?
  • Why is it making me feel this way?

Even if we can't unearth answers, slowing down will help us with the next step, which is to ask:

  • What response would reflect my values, personality, worldview, and my faith?
  • How might I live by those principles from James?
  • Is it better to stay silent and not respond to this?
  • How shall I conduct myself in these online spaces?
  • What digital legacy will I leave if I write, share, send, or respond to this?

When we do speak, whether using video or typing a response, let us choose our words with care, for they have power. Marilyn McEntyre writes in her book "Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies," "Loving language means cherishing it for its beauty, precision, power to enhance understanding, power to name, power to heal. And it means using words as instruments of love."


Our Purpose for Having a Social Media Presence

WE MAY WANT TO spend a few minutes pondering our purpose. Whether you're a business owner who uses social media to promote your service or a grandparent hoping to relate with friends and family, look for ways to use this technology to live out your purpose as a believer, bringing the light of Christ to dark places.

We have the light of Christ and can shine for His glory as instruments of love with the power to heal. Even online.

We also have access to technology that can reach the ends of the earth.

If we use that technology instead of it using us - if we make intentional choices about how and why we're in those social media spaces - we might find creative ways to shine this light for our friends and followers and complete strangers who stumble onto our posts. Instead of abandoning social media or limiting ourselves to following only those who think exactly like us, what if we engage in a purposeful, discerning way that intentionally shines the light of Christ, bringing hope and truth and joy to a place that can feel increasingly dark?

You Are the Light of the World

MATTHEW 5:14-16 RECORDS the words of Jesus saying, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."

We are the light of the world and can shine our light before others. If we revisit social media wise as serpents, gentle as doves, we can tap into its potential to reach the ends of the earth. This may mean staying active in online spaces where people think differently.

Once we recognize that platforms serve us content and nudge us to read, share, and respond, we begin to notice that they steer us into echo chambers where like-minded people say things that confirm how we already think. Our tendency is to search for and respond favorably to information that confirms our existing beliefs. This "confirmation bias" makes it hard for us to maintain an open mind and heart while interacting with people who have different ideas.

Perhaps, when we feel the pull of these natural inclinations, we can recall that wherever we find ourselves we can bring light - and we can be light.

While Paul was waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy, he was disturbed to see the city full of idols. He reasoned with the Jews, interacted with people in the marketplace, and conversed with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Eventually he was brought to the Areopagus and invited to speak. He drew from what he saw to share the truth by pointing out the inscription he spotted on an altar in the city, "To the unknown god."

He introduced to the Athenians "The God who made the world and everything in it" (Acts 17:24). He stayed and lit up that city, spending time with people he did not agree with to, as author and pastor Mark Vroegop often says, build bridges of grace that could bear the weight of Truth.

Reaching People with the Click of a Button

PAUL HAD TO PHYSICALLY travel in order to serve others and spread the truth of the gospel, often risking his life. We, on the other hand, can sit in front of a laptop at home or pull out a device while we're out on a walk to spread light and love and the Good News of Jesus Christ. We hold in the palm of our hands powerful publishing and distribution tools. We can type a word of encouragement and - with the click of a button, from the palm of our hands - touch someone's heart.

We have to use this tech with our eyes wide open, knowing we cannot resist their efforts completely; they will affect us. But if we stay aware and on guard, we have potential to reach the ends of the earth using these apps that have made communication quick and accessible. If we can reconcile the reality that those companies seek to profit - we can use their tools to pour into people in meaningful ways.

What gift can we give the world today? What light can we shine? What love can we convey, share, send? Selecting our words with care, we could leave an affirming message in someone's comments. We could share one person's uplifting post with our own friends and followers while deciding not to amplify a volatile message we haven't researched. We could write a few calm, kind, bridge-building thoughts to connect with people we disagree with. We likely won't persuade them to our point of view, but we can ensure they are seen and read by using that platform's tools. Sure, it will track our emoji. It'll take note of our gif. It'll log exactly how long it took us to read a person's post and plug the topic into its algorithm. But I can also choose where I go. For example, I can open up Instagram, type in Charity's name, and go straight to her account to see what she's been thinking about and sharing.

That's right. Charity returned to social media.

Charity has shared how Cal Newport's book "Digital Minimalism" helped her think through her use of social media. Newport says the core premise of the book "is to be more intentional about technology in your life. Digital minimalists carefully curate these technologies to best support things they value." Charity wanted to do the same, to be more intentional about technology that she had previously joined without a second thought. She wanted to curate and use technology that supported the things she valued.

"I began to see a way back into social media that would support the things I deeply value," she explains, "while hopefully not dragging me back into the parts I deeply abhor. Namely, I miss connecting with like-minded people about ideas we care about. I miss engaging with people around documented moments of life that don't really fit anywhere else. And I miss encouraging people to hang in there when life feels overwhelming. As I looked for places to reconnect and share words of hope, Instagram seemed like the most logical place."

So she came back to social media - but just one platform, to avoid being overwhelmed while staying connected. And to shine the light of Christ.

Step Away or Step In and Make the World Better

YOU MAY NEED to step away from social media for a season, to get a break. Or maybe you'll schedule a weekly social media sabbath to connect with the physical world. You may choose to leave social media for years, like Charity did. After all, we don't have to be in those spaces.

Silicon Valley executives interviewed in documentaries and in articles across the board describe how they limit their kids' exposure to tech. They know the damage it causes. They know the end goal is not to bring light and life to the world. They know it's messing with their kids' minds and manipulating their actions.

And yet toward the end of "The Social Dilemma," someone offered a question social media executives should ask themselves - a question I propose each and every person with a social account can ask, as well: How do we make the world better?

As believers, how do we make the world better?

Doesn't this invite us to envision kingdom-driven possibilities? If we monitor our use, check our hearts, pray for wisdom, and select our words with care, what good can we do? What gifts can we offer the world?

Our digital legacy can be a trail of love that leads to the Savior. We can engage in meaningful ways to shine like stars in the world, holding fast to the word of life. We have the light of Christ; we can shine for His glory. Even online.

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