Is Social Media Giving Us More or Fewer Choices?

The promise of technology today is an endless supply of choices. We have so many apps to choose from, where an abundance of users deliver an immeasurable amount of posts, videos, and images for us to view.

Dotted throughout this ecosystem, we find links to articles, ads for products, and instantly streaming videos that are ready to go if we simply stop scrolling for a second.

Group video calls, personal video updates, and online watch parties enhance the experience and possibilities of social networking online. Book clubs, interest groups, and religious gatherings all benefit from these free and easy ways to get connected.

Each time we scroll through social media, the choices and possibilities may leave us feeling overwhelmed, especially in the midst of a rapidly changing national crisis such as police violence or the COVID-19 pandemic.

We may even spend much more time online than we intended, scrolling through news stories, expert commentary, and the reactions of friends, colleagues, and leaders we respect.

What Is Social Media Designed to Do?

Humming along in the background, social media companies track our actions, compiling profiles of users so that advertisers can better target each person with customized content.

Social media is now a vital part of advertising in the “attention economy.” The companies that can attract the most attention, have the best chance to make a profit from that attention.

The companies behind social media have every incentive to keep us hooked and have designed their products to be as addicting as possible. While we see endless opportunities to connect with others, to learn, and share our perspectives, social media companies simply want to consume as much of our time as possible.

The features on social media, such as infinite scrolling, the red notification alert, the likes and comments, and the groups and posts that show up in your feed are all designed to keep you hooked or to crave more.

What Are You Choosing to Do on Social Media?

This brings up a vital discussion about choice and freedom on social media.

If companies have every incentive to keep us hooked…

If the designers, engineers, and psychologists have maximized the addictive qualities of every feature to manipulate us…

If many former social media investors, executives, and engineers have stopped using social media for all of these reasons and more…

Then how much control do we have over our usage?

If social media triggers a pleasant little hit of dopamine each time we check on a new update or find an amusing post by a friend as we scroll through our feed, then why wouldn’t we keep checking in?

Why wouldn’t we feel unable to leave our homes without our phones if they are so good at delivering quick hits of pleasure that hardly last?

We are being manipulated through hacks to our psychology and physiology. Our good and healthy desires for community, information, and amusement are exploited against us to our detriment and to a company’s profit.

As social media sucks us in each day, our choices and possibilities become narrow. We feel the pull to return to social media, and once we’re on, we may struggle to leave.

We are free to stay, to be manipulated, and to continue to experience the quick hits of affirmation and pleasure, but the manipulation is strong enough to make logging off seem impossible at times. Our choice to put social media down isn’t cut and dry because of what we’re up against on our devices and in our feeds.

How I Give Myself More Choices

I have found that I have the most freedom and agency to choose what I will do with my day by limiting social media with blocking programs like Self Control 2, Freedom, or StayFocusd.

If my choices for the day include social media, I have found that social media is designed to captivate my attention to the point that it doesn’t share well with any other goal I have.

If I choose social media without a plan to block or track my usage at times, social media will end up choosing how I spend my free time much more effectively than I will. I have the freedom to limit my usage and to set up blocks to protect my time, but once I step out of those blocks, it may be extremely hard to follow more intentional boundaries for my mental health and the benefit of others around me.

The more I limit my choices on social media, the more choices I have everywhere else in my life.

The less I limit my choices on social media, the fewer choices I have everywhere else in my life.

There may be some people who can use social media without blocks or intention at this time, but given enough time and attention, the algorithms will go to work. When working properly, they will keep us engaged as long as possible.

As long as we are engaged with social media, we can choose whatever we want–on social media.

My hope in writing Reconnect is that more people will reclaim their time and attention, using social media within beneficial boundaries. This ensures that their lives will be filled with choices that align with their desires and not the desires of Silicon Valley executives.

Learn More about Spiritual Formation vs. Digital Formation

Read a sample from Reconnect about “Reactive Mind”

Learn more about Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction

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Reconnect

How Good Are We at Figuring Out What’s Wrong with Us?

 

I found it personally revolutionary to take a few minutes each day for an Examen practice where I assess the highs and lows from my day, look ahead to the next day, and offer everything to God. A little self-reflection can go a long way.

From clarity over anxiety to sources of fear and anger, I had a much better grasp of my day and how I was reacting to it. On my best days, I could develop better responses and habits to meet its challenges.

However, even with a daily practice of self-reflection in place, I couldn’t quite pin down some of my most obvious struggles without help. The low hanging fruit here, of course, was smartphone and social media use.

How Often Did I Use Social Media?

When I began tracking my smartphone and social media usage, I was simply astonished at the amount of time they consumed each day. It was beyond absurd.

When I limited myself to 40 minutes of social media use each day on my computer, the minutes flew by as I composed replies to posts and tweets, watched short video clips, or scrolled through the posts by friends, colleagues, experts, and random people on my daily feed. If 40 minutes flew by, how long would I spend without a buzzer giving me a five minute warning that my daily limit was fast approaching?

The Moment app suggested a starting goal of 40 smartphone pickups and 2 hours and 30 minutes each day of screen time on my phone. That struck me as a bit excessive, but sure enough, I was picking my phone up and logging time very near those targets. How bad was my usage without this tracker sending me periodic reminders?

While self-reflection can help us begin to understand WHY we may indulge too much into social media or turn to our phones far more often than needed, I was either unable to unable to or too unwilling to see the scale of my misuse of technology with clarity.

Do We Underestimate Our Vices?

Generally speaking, I think most people tend to underestimate our vices. We may recognize some bad habits, but we may never fully see their size and impact without some kind of wakeup call from outside ourselves. Thankfully an app that tracks our usage isn’t very hard to use and learn from when we’re ready for the truth about ourselves!

Certainly social media and smartphones aren’t our only vices. They simply strike me as some of the easiest to recognize–with a little help.

A dramatic increase in depression among teens and young adults correlates strongly with smartphones becoming pervasive. Most people recognize that they probably shouldn’t use their phones or social media quite so much.

However, most of us remain unable to see just how dramatically these tools for connection are leaving us disconnected, fragmented, and even isolated because we don’t even know how often we’re using them. It runs counter to what we would expect, and perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to recognize with clarity.

Having taken some time to assess my own  mental health when I am on social media or off it, I have since decreased my daily time significantly,  turned to third party tools like Later or Buffer to manage my posting, and slashed my smartphone usage by a wide margin as well.

While working within these constraints can be a challenge some days, I can safely report that by and large these changes have been quite good for me and I’m grateful for the freedom these boundaries provide. Perhaps the counterintuitive nature of these boundaries is what makes it so hard to make better choices:

Removing boundaries on smartphone and social media use can level us disconnected from ourselves and the people closest to us, while we gain more freedom by placing boundaries around social media so that we can connect to the people closest to us with real presence and undivided attention.

 

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

Creating a Contemplative-Friendly Smartphone to Find Time to Pray

iphone-for-prayer

The best step I have ever taken for my spiritual health, personal sanity, and relationships has been removing Facebook from my iPhone. The second best step has been imagining ways I can turn my phone into a prompt for prayer.

I think we all know what happens when we’re carrying a phone around. I keep checking and checking and checking it. Every time there’s a free moment, the phone comes out and I scroll through whatever app I can find. It’s an impulse or habit for many of us by now. When I had email and three or four social media accounts to flip through, I could waste a ton of time on my phone.

Our attachment to our phones is becoming legendary. People experience anxiety apart from their phones to the point that those trying to break their attachment can buy fake phones that are sized and weighted like real ones. We have anxiety complexes over dead batteries. We check our phones the first thing in the morning and right before going to bed.

Although I am far from the most virtuous or disciplined person with my phone, I decided to try using my phone as a prompt to pray and to even lead me toward contemplative prayer. I’ve written about this in my newsletter, but now that I’ve given it a shot for a longer stretch of time, I finally feel able to publicly offer a few thoughts on what has worked.

What I Don’t Use

I tried using podcast prayer apps, but I don’t really have the time to dive into podcasts all that often, and lately I prize silence more than anything else. If I have a quiet moment, I’m not going to put something on!

Having said that, I did use Pray as You Go for a season and really benefited from it. It’s especialy ideal for commuters. Others have strongly recommended the Abide app. If contemplative prayer is new or intimidating to you, a podcast like Pray as You Go may help you take steps toward reflecting on scripture and making time to be still.

I have also used the Jesuits app on and off again. It offers some simple Examen questions, a scripture reading, and a brief reflection. It’s also on both Android and Apple.

My Essential Smartphone Contemplation Plan

Most importantly, I wanted for my iPhone set up to make prayer or reading deeper articles easier and more or less automatic. My home screen includes the apps for the Examine, Pocket, the Clock, and Safari (the Mac internet browser), which are my main sources of smartphone-based contemplation.

Safari always has the page for the Divine Hours at Vineyard Ann Arbor loaded. I often access the Divine Hours in the morning at the very least or during a break at work when I take a little stretch break when I remember to set my Pomodoro timer. The Divine Hours offer small and large passages of scripture and prayers that you can read, meditate on, or recite throughout the day.

The Examine app remains one of my most valued apps. By offering a series of prompts about what’s encouraging or discouraging from my day, I can practice the Ignatian Examen once or twice a day in order to take stock of my soul and to better direct my prayers. Most importantly, the Examen helps me to become aware of when I need to remain silent and become more present for God’s love.

While the Clock is a standard, ho hum app that I suppose most people may not even consider using, I use the timer all of the time for centering prayer. I mean, who can judge when 20 minutes have passed? I just set the timer and leave it alone while I sit and either focus on breathing quietly, praying the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner), or centering on a “sacred word.”

As for reading contemplative materials, I keep my Pocket app on my home screen in order to read articles that I’ve saved throughout the day. Pocket has a really clean interface that makes it easy to read without distraction. I save articles all day, so it’s ideal to have a place where I can access them when I have a moment. I also subscribe to the daily email from Richard Rohr, which has been a real lifeline some days.

In fact, I have relied so deeply on Rohr’s emails that I set up my own Contemplative Writer website that offers daily or weekly subscription options that send contemplative scripture and articles to subscribers. There’s the daily option to sign up to receive new posts in your inbox  or you can sign up for the weekly contemplative prayer email.

What I Hide or Don’t Have on My Phone

As I mentioned already, I don’t have Facebook on my iPhone. I don’t have Messenger, Twitter, or Hootsuite either. I manage all of that on my computer for the most part.

I do use Instagram on my phone, but I do my best to hide that way in the back and mostly manage it through the Later app, which has been a true lifesaver when combined with Canva.

My data plan with Consumer Cellular is fairly limited, and I have data turned off for almost everything except for email, maps, and Safari, primarily so I can access Rohr’s emails and the Divine Hours on the go. Everything else, including Instagram and the NHL app, have data turned off.

Most importantly, my goal all along has been to train myself to pray before I do anything else. That’s a challenge most days when work time is limited, and it’s especially hard as our family transitions to a new town. However, there’s no denying that I immediately feel a bit of guilt if I start answering emails before reading the Morning Office or reading Rohr’s email.

I’m sure this little contemplative smartphone plan will evolve in the years to come, but for now, I’m at least a little more likely to pray and a lot less likely to turn to my phone for idle distraction when I have a few free minutes. In fact, I’ve often pulled my phone out, realized I don’t expect any urgent emails or need to open any apps, and just put it away. I’m far more aware of the ways that my smartphone becomes a distraction and barrier, even if I know there is always a lot of room for growth.

Who knows, maybe a year from now I’ll just trash all of these ideas, delete my social media accounts, and buy a flip phone.

 

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I’ll be sharing more about these ideas in my newsletter and in my upcoming book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction (releasing June 2, 2020).

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