A few days ago, I started hearing buzz around the documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” It is a documentary on NETFLIX that exposes how addiction and targeted ads and videos aren’t accidental side effects of social media use, but they are planned features to keep the user coming back. Although its original design was intended for good, many of the former tech executives in the documentary say that social media apps are now monetizing this addiction and have the potential to shape beliefs and behaviors in negative ways.
As a Christian, this is disconcerting, and yet if we look at the last few years, we can understand how this is true. Between the Pizzagate conspiracy on TikTok and the Flat Earth Conspiracy theories seen on YouTube, we see just two substantial examples of how social media has affected the beliefs of its users. Not to mention that psychologists are now linking social media use to seeing increased depression in children. So, what are we to do? How do we ensure we aren’t addicted to technology and our minds and behaviors aren’t altered by smartphones?
Justin Early, in his book The Common Rule: Habits for Purpose in an age of Distraction says, “Habits form much more than our schedules: they form our hearts.” I think this is a wise word for believers wrestling with how to use technology well. Here are a few “habits” or ideas that will better help you grapple with how to use technology well.
Make your smartphone work for you
A few years ago I read a book called The Tech-Wise Family. In his book, Andy Crouch argues that we ought to be putting technology in its proper place. In other words, technology should serve a purpose; you shouldn’t serve technology. In order to do this, Crouch gives 10 Commitments or guiding principles that will help you form a better relationship with technology.
One of the principles I recently started practicing was making sure that my smartphone “goes to bed” before I go to bed and “wakes up” after I wake up. My phone shouldn’t be the last thing I see at night or the first thing I see in the morning. This seems like common sense, but truth be told it’s something I haven’t been practicing during most of 2020. I’ve found myself scrolling the news or social media in bed. As I checked my phone for more updates on the many happenings of 2020, I slowly became more addicted to “news.” What originally started as a quick five-minute habit turned into something I’d do and lose track of time (and precious minutes of sleep).
One practical way to enforce this habit is to limit what apps you can use and when. Most smartphones now have screen time limits where you can shut down and wake up apps at specific times. I now have a minimalistic list of apps that I can use (messaging, notes, etc.) in addition to the main purpose of the smartphone, actual phone calls, from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. No more mindlessly scrolling through Twitter before bed. No more ending the day with fear-driven news or peeking in on the latest evangelical Twitter battle.
We should view our use of social media as a good news tool, not sticking our heads in the sand about hardship, crisis, and heartache, but as a method to take the good news to those hard places and meet the needs of others.
After putting these guidelines in place, I was surprised at how much more reading I finished in a night and how I was able to fall asleep faster. I was no longer going to bed anxious about the news or what a neighbor said on Facebook. Now I jot down my to-do list for the next day, pick up a book, and read until I’m ready for sleep. It’s been incredibly life-giving.
Know when to step away
Another good practice is learning how and when to unplug. I often set good boundaries, only to slip into bad habits again. This is a good signifier that I need to unplug for a few days and reset boundaries. Tiffany Shlain, a Jewish filmmaker and author of 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day A Week recommends unplugging for at least one day a week. In her book, she calls this a “technology Shabbat,” modeled after a traditional Jewish shabbat. One day a week from sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays, their family powers off every cellphone, iPad, TV, and other computers in the house. They kick off the shabbat with a big meal, signifying the communal aspect of shabbat, and she has said that this has been one of the most life-giving habits for her family.
Andy Crouch, in The Tech-Wise Family, says something similar. He recommends shutting it all down for one hour a day, one day a week, and staying unplugged for one week a year. As Christians, this idea of sabbath rest from technology shouldn’t feel too unfamiliar. After all, we see an example of our good and all-knowing God modeling rest in the creation narrative. And historically, Sabbath rest, moderation, and fasting have all been disciplines that were practiced regularly by Christians. Practicing these disciplines directly combats a cultural gluttony that values independence, surplus, and instant gratification. Rather than succumbing to addiction and the instant gratification that smartphones can bring, we have the opportunity to point to a better way of living: one rooted in Christ, our ultimate sabbath.
See the potential for gospel good
It’s tempting to get caught up in a doomsday approach. It seems like just about every major problem in society has the potential to lead toward the end of humanity as we know it—or at least, that’s what the talking heads tell us (and the end of the documentary suggested). But as a people who base our entire existence on the hope of a suffering King who has promised to come again, we can have a more redemptive lens. We know that God has promised to make all things new. And in the meantime, he has charged his church with the mandate to go into the world and preach the gospel, and to be for the flourishing of others around us. Social media can be a powerful tool toward those ends, so we choose to steward it well.
We should proclaim Jesus every chance we get on social media. We can point to rhythms and resources that help others walk faithfully with Christ. We must model Christlike discourse online when the rest of the world is yelling. We have the opportunity give generously to GoFundMe accounts and other organizations raising funds for worthy causes. We should view our use of social media as a good news tool, not sticking our heads in the sand about hardship, crisis, and heartache, but as a method to take the good news to those hard places and meet the needs of others. In other words, we use social media for Gospel good and don’t allow social media to use us for evil.
These are just a few habits we can practice, and they aren’t exhaustive. Rather, my prayer is that they serve as a catalyst for you to spend some time thinking and praying through how you can, as Andy Crouch says, put technology in its proper place.