This is the first in a four part series exploring the Christian’s approach to social media. Today we will consider the dangers of social media and in the coming weeks tackle the benefits, why and how I use social media and finally offer some tips
Toward the end of 2014 I was asked to take a session on social media for a group of young people.
As I did a little research on Christians and social media I came across St. Pixels, Church of the Internet. St. Pixels is an online ‘church’ where people create an avatar and ‘meet’ together via internet at particular times throughout the week. This is an attempt at Christianity in a virtual world. One man who is involved in this experiment said that it’s great because everyone is real, open and honest; there are no pretences.
What are your immediate reactions to St. Pixels?
I have huge concerns about this kind of experiment because I fundamentally disagree with this approach to church. How can you be real if you can’t shake a hand, give a hug or look someone in the eye?
Scripture tells us that Christians must never give up the habit of meeting together (Heb. 10:25), and I would argue this means physically in person. Indeed, John laments the limitations of the technology of his day as he writes ‘Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete’ (2 Jn. 12 ESV).
This idea of creating an online persona, and restricting interaction with people to social media and the like, is the danger I wish to address before briefly highlighting a few other dangers.
It is inevitable that engaging with social media will have some kind of impact on our lives – if it didn’t we wouldn’t do it. After all that is the reason we do anything, because it impacts our lives. Sometimes this can be for good, but on other occasions it can be negative.
One of the negative impacts that social media has is the creation of a graven image. Not in the sense that we create a physical image of God, but in the sense that we carve out a particular online image for ourselves. It is almost an exercise in branding, or rebranding, as we let people observe us as the people we want to be instead of the people we actually are. Perhaps you remember the ‘naked’ campaign where women put up pictures of themselves online with no makeup on to raise money for charity. Apparently, research revealed that on average women took 300 photos before they found one they were happy to put online. I am not sure I believe the statistic but I am sure most of them took more than one! This illustrates the point – we portray a particular version of ourselves.
Once we have created this online image we can very quickly become consumed with how many friends or followers we have; how many retweets, favourites or shares we get; what replies or comments are posted; who is befriending or following us.
The result of this is that our online image begins to shape us; in other words we begin to take our identity from it. A poor day online is a poor day, whereas a good day online is something to record in our journal (or perhaps more realistically tweet about).
The apostle Paul warns about this kind of behaviour in the book of Colossians:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 2:20-3:4 ESV).
In the Colossian context people were taking their identity from their religious image. They followed rules and regulations to make a name for themselves, to be honoured and adored by others, to be accepted. Paul’s concern was that they were getting their identity in all the wrong places. If you have been raised with Christ, he says, then your identity is in Christ and that is what matters. Acceptance from Christ far outweighs the acceptance of others, or at least it should.
Regarding social media the same principle applies. The danger is that we take our image from our online persona and how successful we are on that front. But, Paul would gently remind us that our life is now hidden with Christ in God. Your photograph got no likes? So what, you are seated with Christ in heaven. Your tweet got no retweets? So what, your life is hidden with Christ in God. Your Bible College lecturer stopped following you? So what, you will appear with Christ in glory.
Allowing social media to define our image is a massive danger, and yet very subtle. We must protect against that – and I find that meditating on Paul’s words to the Colossian helps me recalibrate how I think about my identity and self-worth. No longer do I find satisfaction in online activity, but rather in heavenly thinking because Christ is seated with my life hidden in God. When he returns it will not matter how many likes my new profile picture got…but it will matter on whether my mind is on heavenly things or not.
Our hope is our identity in Christ, not our social media profile!
As mentioned above this is not the only danger. Here is a brief list of other dangers, some related and some not.
Speed is one of the big selling points of social media. Talk to your many friends immediately; share your spectacular photograph instantly; follow your favourite celebrity incessantly. This is the attraction, the speed with which life can take place – the good things are shared in a moment and the bad buried in a flash.
However, this poses a huge danger. It is all too easy to make a rash statement with social media and have a plethora of people see it. There are many things we are willing to say about people when they are not present (although this should not be), which we would never dream of saying to their face.
Social media can make that moment public. Our thoughts, reactions and misguided judgements are broadcast in a second for the world to observe. A moment of anger can cause irreparable hurt all because we can express that anger to the world with great speed – often not allowing yourself time to thoughtfully consider our reaction.
Slightly related to the above danger is the fact that what we put on social media is primarily read.
The danger with this is that tone is very difficult to discern in only 140 characters. This makes it exceedingly easy to be misunderstood. What is said in jest could easily be taken seriously; sarcasm could be interpreted as venom; empathy could be read as self-pity.
It can be very easy to be misread and misunderstood.
Social media proves dangerous in that it drains us emotionally.
Think about scrolling down through your newsfeed: cute picture of a baby (aww!), a tribute to someone who has died recently (sadness), a rant about politicians (funny or annoying), a picture from a Saturday night (shocking), a celebration of an anniversary (happiness), a family member sharing news you’ve not heard yet (anger).
Look back through the list and note the range of emotions experienced inside two minutes of scrolling through a newsfeed. That is a lot of emotional energy expended in a very short time.
This drain on emotions then impacts how we function in life.
This danger is such a subtle danger that many of us are blind to it.
Have you ever celebrated how many followers or friends you have? Do you keep track on how many followers and friends your friends have? Is your mood dictated by your online ‘performance’?
We can so easily slip into the trap of finding our satisfaction in our social media persona.
The danger of pride can very quickly lead to this danger – promoting a false image of yourself.
To a large degree we exercise control over what appears online. We choose what pictures go up, we choose what we say, we choose when we appear online, and so on. Almost like St. Pixels, we create this online persona which we hope will make people like us, or admire us, or trust us, etc.
In real life, as we spend time with people in person they are able to observe us constantly. They see every small reaction, note how we talk to so and so, remember when we spoke, or failed to speak, and a host of other characteristics and traits. Undoubtedly we do not want some of those traits broadcast and so we choose to keep them to ourselves.
Social media is a dangerous thing, especially for the Christian. However, it is not all bad and so next Monday we will note the benefits.