Social Media’s Solutions Often Make Our Problems Worse

Where does your mind turn in a free moment?

When it’s time to relax, what do you do?

What do you crave?

These are the kinds of questions that the designers of technology have in mind when creating devices, apps, and other tech-centered “solutions” to our perceived problems. And even before we realize we have a problem or a craving, technology is there to present a version of what we desire.

Consider some of our most important and meaningful desires in life.

We all want to do something meaningful and important that somehow makes a difference. And even if some people are largely absorbed in themselves, they’ll never flourish until they turn their gaze outward.

We all crave interpersonal connections with others. We want to belong, to be seen, to be appreciated as we are, and to know we have a place to call our own.

We all need downtime for leisure, freedom of thought, rest, and restoration.

Spirituality weaves its way through all of these areas of need, and my sense is that the goals of spirituality and overall human flourishing often suffer because of the technology-driven solutions offered to our most basic needs and desires.

That isn’t to say that technology and spirituality are completely at odds with each other. They can work together toward shared goals.

I receive spiritual direction over Zoom. Churches are streaming services online, and we keep in touch with others via phone calls, text messages, emails, and video conferences.

The meaning and connection that spirituality offers is not fundamentally opposed to technology in theory. Taking a smartphone in hand to send a message to someone is hardly anti-spirituality.

But, what if I can’t stop picking up that smartphone ?

What if I have a hard time putting that smartphone down?

THAT gets us to the deeper issues at the root of technology’s proposed solutions to our deepest desires, needs, and challenges. In the view of technology’s designers, it’s often the case that our good and essential needs, desires, and challenges are reduced to a marketing sales pitch for a tech-driven solution that may not truly fulfill our needs.

In fact, the tech-driven solution often makes things worse. Technology can offer a solution of sorts, but too often it’s a partial solution or a counterfeit solution.

Consider how the person craving connection with other people may opt for the easily accessed and socially distanced option of social media. There may be some meaningful connections made via groups or in some discussions.

Yet, that genuine need for connection drives the design and features of social media sites. The good of interpersonal connection is exploited in these social media apps that use the feedback of other users and the most engaging content of others to keep you hooked.

As a result, I’ve found myself less physically, mentally, and emotionally present for others because I’m “engaged” on “connecting” with others on social media. Social media uses up time I could spend with others in person or in one-on-one interactions. Social media fills up my mind with the most engaging (or enraging) content, making it harder to hear other people or to be silent and still before God.

It’s true that we can do good through social media. We can meet people and even loosely maintain some relationships, but how many relationships can we realistically maintain on social media? Couldn’t we just as easily use an email or a text message to maintain that relationship if it is a high priority for us?

Most importantly, what do we lose when we use social media to meet some of our deepest needs for connection, relaxation, or entertainment?

Do we lose time to make deeper connections with individuals? Are we actually relaxing or being entertained? Wouldn’t reading a book, doing an art project, or intentionally reading a newspaper be a better, more restorative practice?

Consider how much better it is to read a few focused articles in a newspaper or newspaper app vs. the reactive stream of outrage and tragedy that afflicts us on social media where we may not even know the reliability of a story’s source.

The more I think about what social media is and the impact it has on me, the more I’m convinced that it offers partial or counterfeit solutions at best to my problems. In too many cases, social media often makes my challenges worse.

Saving Our Souls from Social Media Division, Despair, and Deception

social media distraction

There’s nothing like a national crisis to stir up a bit of trouble on social media.

I frequently turned to social media for curated reflections in 2016 and early 2017, and it proved to be severely detrimental for my mental health.

So far as I can tell, I had relatively good motives. I was seeking out the opinions of a wide variety of experts in real time.

Why would that leave me feeling anxious, sad, or hopeless?

Divisive, Extreme Views Thrive on Social Media

The challenge with social media is that it rewards the most divisive, shocking, and reactionary voices with more attention, not less. Taking the most recent news of Greta Thunberg’s advocacy to take action against the global climate crisis as an example, the critics who shared some of the most controversial or even cruel responses to her received the most attention on social media this week.

That’s just how social media works.

As I have used social media with more awareness (and MANY more limitations), I’ve noticed how the most extreme and divisive views tend to get the most interaction and responses. Even if I want to seek out helpful perspectives on social media, I’m also exposing myself to the toxic actors as well.

Most bloggers and social media users know that the easiest way to draw a crowd online, or anywhere really, is to start a fight.

Even worse, numerous reports and studies of social media trends have found that more groups and nations than ever are employing automated “bots” or programs written to promote certain content. Pew Research estimated in 2018 that 66% of links shared on Twitter were shared by bots. In other words, there is an unknown amount of manipulation to social media trends.

We Are Exposed to Despair on Social Media

If you’re already a bit nervous about an issue, event, or an individual, you will most assuredly be exposed to a wide array of responses on social media that may leave you wondering about your own views.

Perhaps the person voicing reasons for despair or a lack of hope will place just enough doubt and unease into your mind to leave you feeling unsettled. In fact, you may even know on an intellectual level that such a despairing view is most likely wrong, but just knowing of the possibility may be enough to disrupt your day.

Even when I’m expecting to find people on social media who are drowning in despair, their comments on otherwise informative posts can still change my mindset.

Social Media Can Spread Deception

If the primary way to get noticed on social media is to trigger a reaction of any kind, then the truth of a statement is less important than the sentiment it stirs up in readers. In fact, we all struggle with confirmation bias that expects people to act in certain ways.

Narratives, whether based in reality or in a twisting of the truth, can be woven on social media and passed off as factual because they fit within our expectations.

If we’re already despairing of a situation on social media, then we may be more likely to believe a story that alleviates that despair.

If a particular narrative, whether true or not, has already left us angry or divided from others, then we may be more likely to believe a story that justifies that anger or those divisions.

Finding confirmation bias in my own social media use has been humbling but quite good for my soul.

Saving Our Souls from Division, Despair, and Deception

Now is a great time to ground ourselves in silence before God and awareness of our family and friends immediately around us. Social media can sweep us away in a current of emotions that can leave us feeling fearful, angry, or uncertain.

There’s only so much we can do in a given day, and most of what we can do that will make the most difference for our souls and for our neighbors won’t require extensive time spent on social media or any digital devices.

If you need to check on the news, consider going to a few different news websites rather than subjecting yourself to the chaos of social media. While there may be a time to engage experts on social media or to share posts on social media, beware the way that we can be swept away by the emotions, divisions, and narratives placed before us.

Social media is not designed to help our souls to thrive, and any benefits it offers for connection come with perhaps even more serious threats for disconnection from one another and from God’s present love for us.

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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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Photo by Bruno Reyna on Unsplash