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.

Social Media Puts Me in a Position to Lose, So Now What?

When I log on to social media, I feel like I’m destined to lose.

Not to brag, but I follow some really smart and interesting people. It’s tough to stop scrolling through their posts, often to my own detriment. There’s only so much you can learn while scrolling through social media.

The infinite scrolling feature on most social media sites ensures that I’ll literally never run out of something else to find, not to mention the promise of refreshing my feed for the latest posts.

Then there’s the matter of notifications, because who can resist a bit of affirmation? I can get a daily dose of likes and compliments if I play my cards right and avoid controversial topics.

Two unhealthy false versions of myself face off, as the lazy, distracted side of myself meets the side of myself that craves to be viewed in a positive light as an insightful writer.

I can’t afford to let either fabrication override my true self that is a mix of both and a whole bunch of other things. That’s why I’m so uncertain about what to do with social media these days.

I’ve studied the tricks that include red notification buttons since red gets the most engagement, auto-playing videos that make it as easy as possible to keep watching, a spinning update wheel that resembles a slot machine when refreshing a feed, and even a slight delay in revealing notifications in order to build suspense.

I know all of these tricks, and yet I feel sucked in by them. Knowing that the creators of the red notification button and the infinite scroll buttons can’t resist them either makes me feel better, but only drives home the point that with social media the average user is destined to lose to the engineers because the engineers are even beating themselves with their design.

I simply don’t know what to do with social media. It’s conventional wisdom in marketing and publishing circles that Facebook offers great engagement per post, but I’m not sure how present to be when I know that I am more likely to lose time, attention, and focus when using social media, let alone my concern for other social media users.

Perhaps the question is this: What do we hope to gain from social media? And then there’s a follow up question about whether it’s actually delivering those things.

Is social media promising us a certain level of connection and interaction and then pulling a bait and switch with extremely addicting features that make it difficult to stop and do something else more beneficial with our time?

If our goal is to deliver a lot of data and view a lot of ads, then social media is working just fine as it is, but I don’t think the goals of social media companies line up with the best interests of their users.

As of right now, I’m not sure how to use social media, but I sure about how to not use it. I’m using time limiting apps, blocking apps, and tracking apps in order to keep my usage under control even if I can’t make good choices in the heat of the moment.

If the makers of social media are devoting so much time and so many resources to capturing our attention and time, it’s time for us to use time and resources in order to guard our attention and time.

 

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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 Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash