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

Order Reconnect Today

Download the FREE 4-Session Reconnect Discussion Guide

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

The Challenge to Pray in a High Tech Consumer Society

Distraction from a mind filled with thoughts is one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual formation according to most Christians I’ve heard from in the past few years. This comes as no surprise since we are immersed in a distraction-rich ecosystem.

If our smartphones and other digital devices leave us feeling distracted and a bit at the mercy of their content, what is driving that distraction?

I would argue that, in part, our consumer economy that relies on advertising for entertainment and business revenue can’t be overlooked as a factor in filling our minds with thoughts. Some estimates say the average person is exposed to 10,000 advertising messages per day.

In other words, we can’t even process how many ads we’re seeing and hearing.

Adding to the complexity of our advertisement-driven economy, these ads are often selling us the comfort, status, and efficiency that we either crave or try hard to resist. These ads are appealing and tap into real needs and desires that may or may not be good for us.

The pursuit of comfort and the use of elegant interruptions are detrimental to the flourishing of Christian spirituality because they distract us and can even give way to a resignation. We may accept that the distractions and diversions of our smartphones and other screens must be accepted at face value.

What can we do about distraction? We may well feel helpless as advertisements distract us while pushing and pulling us toward the latest product or lifestyle.

In 1983, the journal “ETC: A Review of General Semantics” published an interview with French philosopher and devout Christian Jacques Ellul about the role of technology in society and the wider trend of efficiency and manipulation. Ellul shared his concerns about advertising:

“Advertising has now created a new type of man . . . Publicite is one of the ways to shape a new mentality for modern man. It has succeeded in making modern man into a consumer and has pushed him to take advantage of consuming. And now, advertising has shaped a conformist man . . . a man who is more into pleasure. He is a lot less worried about his work, more worried about consuming than living the agreeable part of life . . . I think for this reason we find ourselves in a society which more and more tries to strip the individual of his responsibility. And it seems that we are in a completely different world compared to other societies. And being in the presence of such complicated phenomena, we do not have the impression of being able to do much.”

This creation of a society that conforms to the demands of advertising and resigns itself to accepting the distractions can feel hopeless. How can spirituality thrive when there is a daily avalanche of offerings that demand a reaction and push us toward action?

While some may prefer drastic measures, most of us will benefit from a commitment to become the kinds of people who can sit in silence and intentionally move away from our screens for set periods of time.

Even two minutes of intentional silence (heck, use a timer if you want) can help us get our bearings and lay the foundation for a habit of daily silence.

Give yourself a bit of silence in the car on the way home from work or the store and then work on expanding the time a little bit each week.

Learn what it feels like to be free from the noise and appealing colors of your screens so that you can be fully present for God. Over time you’ll get a better handle on what it feels like to be present in the moment rather than at the mercy of technology.

Some Next Steps…

If you’re ready to remove some of the prompts to use your smartphone more frequently, consider this list of changes you can make to your phone via the Center for Humane Technology.

As you remove these prompts and make more space in your life for prayer, consider new prompts you can create for prayer. For instance, you could take a few minutes to write down some thoughts about the previous day each morning and use those as a prompt for prayer. Or you could read the morning office and seek a word from scripture to carry with you throughout the day.

 

Photo by Aaron Sebastian on Unsplash