It is quite strange to have written a book about using technology less at a time when it appears essential for our economy, relationships, entertainment, and overall sanity.
There is no doubt that some of my arguments in favor of prioritizing in-person interaction will have to wait until better times when this pandemic is past us. Yet, the majority of the message in Reconnect still stands. In fact, it may be even more important as we immerse ourselves in technology and routinely experience the real limits of interacting over a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use technology in our relationships, especially during a pandemic. Rather, we should use technology with our eyes wide open about its limitations, design, and strengths.
If we want to make the most of our quarantine time, preserve our mental health, and keep our relationships as healthy as possible, we owe ourselves a clear-eyed view of technology’s capabilities and very, very real downsides.
Technology Is Great for Information, Bad for Empathy
Webinars work really great because they can efficiently share information with as many people have an internet connection and a link. That plays to a strength of technology.
However, as we take to Zoom, Facetime, or Facebook Live for more regular social interactions, we should remember that technology makes it hard to fully engage with others in the same way as in person. The reason, in part, is that in-person interactions result in many non-verbal cues and expressions.
Communication is more than the words we say, and technology is very limited in delivering these cues and expressions.
Researchers have found that technology addicts especially struggle with empathy. This is because empathy is extremely difficult to convey over a screen.
That doesn’t mean we should leave our video calls with friends, family, or colleagues behind. Rather, let’s remember that we’re getting a limited experience.
Limited connection is all we’ve got right now, and I’m so grateful for all of the video calls I’ve had, but if you feel a lingering sense of disconnection or dissatisfaction with these calls, there’s a good reason for that.
It’s Nearly Impossible to Filter Out the Negative Side of Social Media
While we can carefully manage who we see in our social media feeds, keep in mind that social media will always promote the strongest reaction or the most shocking perspective because those posts drive higher engagement.
I turn to social media to see what my friends and colleagues are up to and to learn from experts who share their experience in their feeds. In fact, there are times when I turn to an expert or two on social media to help me figure out a news story.
At the same time, there will always be someone who shows up in the replies or comments with a bit of despair, anger, or sarcasm. I have found it’s quite hard to disengage from a fight or flight response when I start seeing comments on social media like that.
It’s as if my body reacts whether or not my brain wants it to react like that! Seeing strong reactions and emotions on social media can override my more rational responses to a crisis.
At a time when we are turning to social media to keep in touch with friends, family, and colleagues, let’s remember how quickly the most divisive or distressing content rises to the top. Pay attention to how you react to comments on social media.
If anything, this time could call for more intentional usage of social media, posting personal updates or checking up on the pages of individual friends and colleagues to post a note or to interact with them.
Beware the firehose of information that is the social media feed. It never stops–and that’s by design. If you’re already worried about the pandemic, then it may feel good to disengage for long stretches of time with whatever comes up on your social media slot machine feed that could always give you something exciting if you just… keep… scrolling.
Pay Attention to Your Reason for Using Social Media
At a time when the mental health of many is under strain and we’re looking for ways to make ourselves feel a bit better, social media can become a bit like candy in comparison to a substantial meal. While social media can offer helpful connections to a certain degree, we shouldn’t expect too much of it.
In fact, a co-creator of the Like button on Facebook shared that she simply can’t use Facebook anymore for the sake of her mental health. She sought affirmation on Facebook so often that she got addicted to the feedback of others on her posts.
This again drives home the importance of using social media with intention and limits. The designers of social media have packed in as many addicting features as possible to keep us hooked on their feeds, so it’s wise to set limits on our time even if we use social media and our phones with good intentions.
No one logs in to social media or picks up their phone with the intention of becoming distracted from their loved ones or their daily priorities. No one wants to feel worse after using social media to keep up with friends and colleagues.
Yet, the research available suggests that the downsides of social media and digital technology in general are very, very real. If we don’t have clear intentions and limits in place, even at a time like this, our mental health may begin to suffer as the days of our quarantine could turn into weeks.
Learn More Digital Formation vs. Spiritual Formation
My upcoming book Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction shares how digital technology is designed to shape us, what that means for spiritual formation, and how our spiritual practices can lead us toward the flourishing and health that God has in store for us.
Download My Free eBook: 10 Ways to Use Your Phone Less… and to Pray a Bit More