You are the biggest social media problem

April 30, 2018

A major evangelical website recently reviewed a new book on the rise of technology in which the review lamented the challenges Christians face when navigating the digital world led by Google, Amazon, and Facebook. It was a helpful review of what seems to be a valuable book. But there was plenty of cyberspace irony. The title of the post was optimized for Google’s search algorithms. The review featured a “buy this book on Amazon” widget. And the website prominently displayed easy-to-link quotes to share on social platforms such as Facebook.

The problems with social media

Such is digital life for Christians in the modern age. We have a love-hate relationship with the online realm. Everyone is dependent on technology, but everyone loathes some aspects of it.  For example, it seems like every week one of my friends creates a Twitter thread about how he is going to quit Twitter (some for the third or fourth time). And I can’t count how many times I’ve seen an article about “Why I left social media, and how it made my life better” go viral on social media.

There are, indeed, major problems with big tech that have led to some people deciding it is time to pull the plug. Privacy concerns have caused some to abandon social media once they realize just how much information big tech companies use to monetize their activity. Others become jaded by the false intimacy that social media provides as it creates the appearance of relationships without the substance. Still, others feel the burnout that comes with social media addictions that cause them to scroll mindlessly through their feeds any time there is nothing to do (and, often, when they should be doing something else).

Social media, furthermore, often fosters our worst shortcomings as fallen humans. When people Instagram a group shot from an event we couldn’t make, we’re seized by a fear of missing out. When a fellow Christian humble brags about a recent achievement (“So blessed to see this amazing thing God did that I want to subtly take credit for”), we’re gripped by jealousy and envy. When someone from an opposing tribe says something we disagree with, a never-ending supply of snark bubbles up from the recesses of our sinful hearts as we race to decide the most cutting way to point out their hypocrisy.

Worst of all, social media can be a distraction from the most valuable things in life. It’s a hindrance when a dad scrolls in one hand while pushing his child’s swing in the other; when a married couple with young kids finally escapes on a date night only to swap time showing Instagram pictures to each other, while capturing the perfect selfie to post later on; when the pull of the latest updates on the glowing rectangle on your nightstand means you choose Twitter over devotional time with the Lord in the morning, yet again.

Let’s be honest—we are all guilty of things just like this.

The problem isn’t social media

But the problem isn’t social media. The problem is you and me. We can’t blame technology for our shortcomings when we have Genesis 3 hearts in a Romans 1 digital world. Social media has weaponized the way Satan battles for our souls. It incubates, accelerates, and magnifies our appetites in ways that are deeply deceptive.

We can’t blame technology for our shortcomings when we have Genesis 3 hearts in a Romans 1 digital world.

Social media reveals root issues about our hearts. In a sense, we are what we tweet. From the outflow of the heart, a man Instagrams. Social media can bring about the best in our hearts as we celebrate what God is doing around the world. But it can also reveal envy, pettiness, snark, and the uncrucified portions. Moreover, what we consistently expose ourselves to online can have a shaping effect on our hearts. The danger for all of us is to manage our digital engagement without digging into the deeper issues of the heart that are the actual problem.

Social media reveals root issues about our time. If we spend one hour a day on social media, we will spend over two weeks of our year consuming digital content. Is that the best stewardship of our time? Should we be doing more productive things instead? Those are important questions, but the more fundamental issue is: How does our social media use fit into the call to make disciples? The danger for all of us is to restrict our digital consumption without digging into the deeper issues of our time and how we use it to make disciples.

Social media reveals root issues about our motives. If we are being honest about our motives, social media is more about personal brand management for many of us. It’s how we shape the way people perceive us. We minimize reality to maximize likes. We are tempted to manage our image at the cost of our integrity. The danger is that we modify our digital engagement without digging into the deeper issues of what it reveals about our motives and priorities.

Many people consume social media like we consume food. We start with good intentions, get undisciplined over time because we can’t resist the appeal, then we become ashamed at these patterns and go on a crash diet to try to correct the problem and get back to normal. That’s not a successful approach to dieting, so why would we think that will work when it comes to social media?

Colossians 2:23 warns us about approaches that have “the appearance of wisdom” in addressing an issue but that are “of no value in stopping the indulgences of the flesh.” Too often, we can overreact to troubling trends in our social media use with solutions that have the appearance of wisdom but are of no value in addressing our root issues.

How to use social media without forfeiting your soul

So, how can we use social media without forfeiting our souls? There are three ways we can engage with any form of technology, including social media.

  1. We can be slaves. Slaves to social media embrace it indiscriminately, without concern for how it shapes our character or how it connects to making disciples. That’s not the way of wisdom.
  2. We can be solitaires. Solitaires abandon social media entirely, without concern for what good elements we may miss out on. That’s not the way of opportunity.
  3. We can be stewards. This is the way of wisdom and opportunity. Stewards of social media recognize both the rewards and risks—the duties and the dangers—of digital consumption in a fallen world. While regularly examining our hearts, we keep the gospel in the forefront of our minds as we engage the digital world.

So, what are some practical tips for how to use social media without forfeiting our souls? Here are some keys:

Contribute to the digital community: The best thing you can do is have a clear picture of what your “lane” is in social media. Then, find intentional ways to add value to the digital community in that space. Don’t just be there to consume; make a contribution.

Curate your consumption: Every two to three months, I do a thorough review of who and what I follow on social media and prune it relentlessly. I haven’t been on Facebook for years, and my Instagram account is inactive. Instead, I have chosen Twitter as my primary platform, in part because I can use lists to sort and select who and what I see. The key is for you, not an algorithm, to control what you consume.

Establish boundaries: Social media will expand to absorb any amount of time you’ll allow it. So, it’s key to set boundaries. I no longer keep technology on my bedside table because I don’t want a glowing rectangle competing against my devotional time in the mornings. I try (and sometimes fail) to set “dead hours” during family dinner and on Sunday mornings where digital access is off limits. You need to find what works for you.

Consider digital fasts: Rather than quitting social media entirely, maybe you should consider a digital fast. Whether it is for a day, a week, or a month, you can disengage from all social media for a season to redeploy the time in other ways. When you notice that no one comments on how much they’ve missed you while you were gone, it will shatter your illusions of digital self-importance.

Maintain awareness and accountability: Before you post, ask yourself some diagnostic questions to ensure it’s worth it: Is this true? Is it edifying? Is it wise? I probably delete three to five tweets a week that don’t meet this threshold. Beyond your own self-awareness, it’s helpful to include digital media in your accountability rhythms. For example, one of my close friends will check in with me if he has hesitations on whether something he is about to post is appropriate.

Delay your consumption: One of the dangers of social media is the allure of staying current on the latest developments and breaking news. To break the cycle of urgency, delay your consumption. For instance, use an app like Pocket or email an article to yourself instead of clicking a link right away. You’d be surprised at how often the article that seemed so enticing in the moment isn’t all that relevant later that night or that week when you take time to read it.

Remember the past: One of the values of social media is that it leaves a digital trail of past experiences. I love using the Timehop app to remember the past and relive social media memories. It enables me to look back at God’s faithfulness in the good times and the bad. Remembering our past experiences on social media can empower us to reshape our current activities in the digital world.

Social media has created enormous opportunities and challenges for 21st-century Christians. The most important thing we must realize is that the problem isn’t with social media—it’s with us. But if we seek to be good stewards of our digital platforms, we can learn to use social media without forfeiting our souls.

Phillip Bethancourt

Phillip Bethancourt is Senior Pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas. Before he was called to pastor Central, he served as the Executive Vice President of the ERLC team. He completed an MDiv and PhD in Systematic Theology at Southern after attending Texas A&M University. Phillip and his wife, Cami, have been married since 2005, … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24