By / Jan 18

If you’ve used social media in the past year—and over 75% of Americans have — you’re probably in an online bubble without even realizing it. Thanks mostly to COVID-19, we’re living in a world where most of our connections are through screens. And that’s not a good thing. 

Social media use among American adults has been steadily rising for years, but as stay-at-home orders rolled out across the country earlier this year, it exploded. Platforms like Facebook saw up to 27% more daily users during the first few months of the pandemic. Zoom went from 2 million users to 6 million, almost overnight. And local apps like Nextdoor saw their users grow by almost 80%. 

As our work, school, and social life all moved online, we became even more disconnected from the world outside our screens. This rapid move to online communities was at least partially responsible for drastic increases in mental health issues. 

Approximately one in three Americans reported suffering from anxiety or depression in 2020, up from one in 12 in 2019. On a more concerning note, the CDC reports that 25% of young adults considered suicide at some point during 2020. 

While these numbers are staggering, we’ve overlooked the way our digital isolation has caused many people to lose their grip on reality. Conspiracy theories have exploded online. Both conservatives and liberals have become convinced that the success of the other side would mean the end of the republic. And the disconnect between the laptop class — those who see the world from their comfortable work-from-home lives—and the working class—the waiters, cashiers, and blue collar laborers who have been directly affected by restrictions shutting down their places of work—has grown larger than ever. 

Why is this happening? 

Simply put, we’ve lost the real-world human connections that keep us grounded. We’ve been forced into online bubbles on platforms designed to group us with people like us. 

When you open Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or virtually any other social media site, you’re seeing posts selected just for you by the AI algorithm. These posts are designed to connect you with people who have the same interests, have similar beliefs, and think the same way you do. Why? The algorithm is designed to increase engagement and keep you from closing the app, and logically, if you see things you like and are interested in, you’ll stay on the site longer. 

If the only things you read are articles tailored by the algorithm to fit your interests and the only people you talk to are those who post things that align with your thoughts, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into a version of reality that doesn’t exist in the real world. 

But social media algorithms aren’t new. As the hit documentary The Social Dilemma shows, they’ve been in place for years. So what’s changed? 

In a normal time, most of us have regular interactions with people who aren’t like us. We talk to friends or neighbors who are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. We visit with relatives who don’t share our faith or belief systems. We interact with co-workers who come from different backgrounds and see the world differently. Our real-world connections provide an unfiltered dose of reality that keeps us grounded. Last year, we lost that, and our online bubbles became more isolated than ever. 

Escaping our online bubbles

While our world may soon return to normal, our tendencies to withdraw into sheltered bubbles won’t disappear when we get the COVID-19 vaccine. So, here are three ways to escape our online bubbles in 2021:

1. Limit social media use carefully 

This might seem like obvious advice, but it’s not as easy as it seems. Social media apps are intentionally designed to keep us scrolling for as long as possible. Personally, I’ve found it’s helpful to limit notifications and block out periods of time where you don’t check social media. The only way to win the battle against mindless social media use is to be intentional about disconnecting. 

2. Get your news and information from multiple sources

It’s tempting to believe everything you read on the internet, but so much of what we see on our feeds just isn’t true. Take the time to research things before believing them, and especially before sharing them with others. Often, a quick Google search will provide the truth about something. 

It’s also helpful to seek out multiple sources to find the truth about issues. Don’t get all your news from one media outlet. Read and follow people who think differently, but who are thoughtful and sincere in their arguments.

3. Be intentional about making real-world connections 

Making a point to connect with people outside of social media — especially those who aren’t like us — is so important. Not every conversation has to be a political discussion or deep worldview debate. In fact, simple “small talk” can go a long way. Even in a time of social distancing, it’s possible to make these real-world connections. Video chats, texts, and phone calls are all far better than a Facebook message or Twitter DMs. 

These connections don’t happen on their own. Unlike social media, where the algorithm creates conversations, real-world connections require effort and intentionality. Pick up the phone and call an old friend. Text someone to see how they’re doing. Surround yourself (even virtually) with people you love and trust. They will keep you grounded — often without realizing it.

It might seem like our isolation is out of our control, but we can be purposeful about escaping our online bubbles. We don’t need the world to go back to normal to change the way we interact with others. In an online world designed to pull us apart, let’s choose to break out of our bubbles. In 2021, let’s scroll less and talk more. We might “like” fewer posts, but we’ll be free to love more people in the real world.

By / Aug 26

Washington, D.C., runs on adrenaline and 20-somethings. Young interns are always zooming from one place to another, doing their part in the running of this country. I’m one of them; but this summer, we all Zoomed a little differently.

Instead of finding an apartment, booking a flight, and showing up to the office in my new power outfit, I made the trek from my bed to my desk—less than five feet. My professional clothes hung unused in my closet, except for a jacket in case of a Zoom call with a politician. In our onboarding sessions, rather than asking where everyone comes from, we asked “Where are you quarantined?” Instead of sharing space with other interns or tagging along to Capitol Hill meetings, my time was structured into blocks on a Google calendar and squares on a Zoom call as I filed away my list of D.C. sights to explore. One afternoon, an intern joined our call from a coffee shop, and we all realized how shocked we were to see a public space open again. 

I became frustrated with myself when I couldn’t stir up the motivation to write that one paragraph or read more chapters or schedule another networking meeting. I’m a huge extrovert; I get energized when in a group, at a library, or working in a coffee shop. But doing all of this online did not give me the same energy that I would have if I were actually in D.C. Yet, I’m thankful we still had the opportunity to intern when many found their summer plans canceled. 

God’s work cannot be hindered by a virus

Rather than cancelling completely, my supervisors chose to painstakingly recreate the intern program, trying to make up for the losses of in-person interactions. I could have deferred the internship, and this was also a tempting offer. Why not wait until things get back to normal and go get my D.C. experience then? But waiting for conditions to be “perfect” would have been a mistake for me. If even the Supreme Court pushes on and still manages to hand down decisions, why shouldn’t I continue to work as well? 

I don’t know when my city will fully reopen; I don’t even know what life will be like when I move back to school for my senior year. But I do know that waiting for things to be perfectly aligned in what I envision is counterproductive. Work doesn’t halt; it simply relocates. Injustice doesn’t care that there’s a pandemic. Uyghur Muslims are still persecuted, and human trafficking victims are still in danger even when a new disease ravages the world. There are still experiences to be had and lessons to be learned even from a laptop screen in the same room every day.

Patience can fit all formats

Interning remotely meant I needed more explanation with less time to get a handle on things. It meant I got all my information through Slack and emails, which became an issue when the internet cut out as a result of being overburdened at my house. It’s hard to determine inference or how someone is really feeling, which meant my strongest people skills initially felt obsolete in this format. My internship became a time of active waiting. These terms sound paradoxical, but they perfectly describe the daily choice I had to make to work hard even when I didn’t know what would happen next. 

Every time I was kicked off a Zoom meeting due to internet issues, I tried to take a moment to breathe rather than groan and frantically click whatever I could to restore connectivity. I pushed myself to attend virtual coffee hours, game nights, and networking meetings because there are still stories to hear and friends to make. Seeing my supervisors work so hard to teach us well while also completing important work inspired me to do the same. Because others showed patience and understanding to me, I was motivated to give the same to others. This outlook of persistently pursuing connections and practicing patience turned what could have been a frustrating battle against technology into a richly rewarding internship and life experience.

God uses all situations for his glory and my benefit

An internship is not the pinnacle of this summer; it is the outflowing of a God-given initiative to discover his handiwork where it is evident and to seek biblical reform where it is not. I was taught about convictional kindness, human dignity, biblical diversity, and why I think office suits should become obsolete after the pandemic. We debated the death penalty, church culture, cancel culture, racial inequalities, tribalism, and more, but all encased with respect and care. 

These kinds of conversations can, ironically, become more productive in a Zoom setting; one person spoke at a time rather than shouting over someone else. God sent me a variety of projects to work on and amazing people to work with. He offered new connections I could make over one-on-one Zoom calls and hilarious memories related to the question of the day asked during group activities. 

That list of places to explore is still waiting for me. Someday I’ll make my way to D.C., but I’m not in charge of that decision. And that’s okay. God redirected my plans, and although difficult, he turned it into one of my best summers. I logged off my last ERLC Zoom meeting better equipped as a child of God and more knowledgeable of his work in the world. He used my doubts and the world’s uncertainty to show how he can bring good out of anything, and I am better for being a part of it. 

In his book, Onward, Russell Moore points out that our lives are an “internship for the eschaton: “Our lives now are shaping us and preparing us for a future rule, and that includes the honing of a conscience and a sense of wisdom, prudence, and justice. God is teaching us, as he taught our Lord, to learn in little things how to be in charge of great things.”

My little thing this summer was an internship. Only God knows how it will be used or what the next great thing will be. But I’m learning to seek after God’s shaping rather than enforce my “perfect” plans.