Welcome to our quarterly “Let’s Talk!” Let’s Talk is an event we do where we take something that is relevant in the culture or in your lives, and we examine it from a Christian worldview. A “worldview” is simply how you view the world; it is the way you interpret and understand everything. Think of it like the lenses through which you see the world around you. Scripture teaches us that all things were made by Christ and for Christ (Col. 1:16) and that we should do everything we do to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). So, in everything a Christian does they should be thinking, “How do I glorify Christ with this?”
Now, let’s begin to think about the topic at hand: Social Media. While I will be focusing primarily on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, etc.), I also think there are many similarities with other technological trends like video games (console games, or handheld), and video streaming services (YouTube, Netflix). Now, let’s go ahead and start with a little exercise. If you have a smart phone or tablet, go ahead and stand up. If you have a video game console at home or play games on something like a smart phone or tablet, stand up. If you have access to a Netflix account or regularly watch YouTube videos, stand up. Okay, go ahead and sit down. Now, if you access the Internet at least once a day, stand up. 5 times a day or more. 10 times a day or more. 20 times a day or more.
In preparing for tonight I read a couple of books, but one in particular that stood out was a Pulitzer Prize finalist titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, written by Nicholas Carr (Also see Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, and Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman). In the book, he asks and answers the question: how is the Internet changing our brains? I’d like us to look at three that I think the Internet, social media, video games, and the like can change us: How We Think, What We Love, How We Relate.
How we think
The Internet has an incredible power to change how we think – I’m not talking about what you think about (that’ll be later), but how you think. In The Shallows, Carr explains that our brains are physically changed by the different things we do, and the different technologies we use. The neural connections in our brains will either be strengthened or weakened by how frequently they are used. This means that in time, depending on what we do, our brains can literally rewire themselves. Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Norman Doidge M.D., in his book The Brain that Changes Itself, explains, “If we stop exercising our mental skills we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead,” (317).
For example, when someone goes blind, in time they find that their other senses are now heightened. Due to the advent of modern science, we can now do brain scans and see that their brain has in fact rewired itself – it has reappropriated the part of the brain and those neural connections that would normally be used for sight and is now using it for the other senses.
This is fascinating stuff. This means that the more and more you do or use something the more and more it literally alters your brain. And while the technologies we use are typically making life more convenient, this means they come at a cost. For example, if you dig holes with a shovel, it will take a long time and it will be hard work, but you will in time find that you have strong arms. But, if you dig holes with a backhoe, while it will go ten times faster and will require almost no effort, you’ll find that you won’t have strong arms any more. This is especially true of our mind. For example, if you choose to use a calculator to solve a math problems rather than do it in your head, it will be quicker and easier, but the part of your brain that you once used in math class will begin to shut down – your brain will literally rewire its circuits for other purposes. For simplicity’s sake, I am going to call this “The Law of Consequence”: the inevitable consequence of how we are shaped by the tools we use.
So, what is the Law of Consequence for the Internet and social media? Well, Nicholas Carr gives us a haunting warning, “One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s [ability to change], you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.” One study has shown that the Internet is so powerful in shaping the brain that those addicted to the Internet show the same brain patterns of a cocaine addict.
The beauty of the Internet is that we have an endless amount of information, and we have access to it instantaneously. This is a wonderful thing – we have more information at our fingertips than any other generation that has walked this earth has. But, this comes with a price – the Law of Consequence.
The Internet does not teach us to think deeply. The Internet has taught us how to think in the same manner it delivers its information: high volume and instantaneous. We are used to scrolling through feeds and seeing thousands of little bite sized pieces of information, as quickly as possible. Nicholas Carr says that the Internet gathers our attention, only to scatter it. So, the more time we spend surfing the web, the more and more we train our brains to be scattered. The Internet gives our brains the ability of breadth, but at the expense of depth. We are like people who enjoy skimming along the surface like a jet ski, rather than plumbing the depths like a scuba diver. Example: “how many of you have already spaced out at least once during this sermon?”
Why does this matter to us as Christians? Well, for a number of reasons.
– Life is not shallow. If you try and go through life with a mind that can only accept superficial, shallow answers for problems, not only will you live a shallow life, but the complexities and problems of life will reduce your worldview to rubble. A person trying to survive on eating nothing but fortune cookies will soon find himself starving to death. So too, our souls were made to thrive in this complex world on something more than little bite-sized snippets of truth here and there.
– The Bible is not shallow. In one sense, the message of God’s Word is simple, but it is also very, very deep. In one of Peter’s letters he explains that the Apostle Paul sometimes writes complex things, but he encourages his readers to wrestle with them and think deeply, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen,” (2 Pet. 3:16-18). Christianity is much more than “thinking”, but it is not less. Fundamentally, God has revealed Himself to us through a Book – and if we have so trained our brains to not be able to sit down and read it, then we have reason to be concerned.
– God calls us to think. Just this morning in our Bible reading plan we read this, “We have thought on your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple. As your name, O God, so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with righteousness. Let Mount Zion be glad! Let the daughters of Judah rejoice because of your judgments!” (Ps. 48:9-11). Some translations use the word “meditate” there. We could look at numerous other passages that say the same thing, but the truth is that God calls us to meditate on His Word, to love Him with our minds, and to have times where we simply, sit, and be still before our God. The Internet is no friend to sitting still, or being silent.
What We Love
How does the Internet and social media affect what we love? Just this week there was an article in the New York Times by Arthur C. Brooks about narcissism increasing today. What is “narcissism”? It is an unhealthy infatuation with oneself. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, all of the leading psychologists and psychiatrists were saying that the big problem was low self-esteem; the reason that criminals were committing crime, the reason we were so depressed, the reason we were so anxious was all linked to having too low of a view of ourselves. So the remedies all began to focus on telling people that they were really great, and they needed to gain a higher view of self. But, he writes, “Like so many excesses of the 1970s, the self-love cult spun out of control and is now rampaging through our culture like Godzilla through Tokyo.” He points to 2010 study from the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science that found that narcissistic tendencies in college students have doubled since the 80’s. Modern leading psychologists no longer are seeing low self-esteem as the major problem for our society’s ailments – quite the opposite actually. What could be leading to such a high spike in narcissistic tendencies? I’ll give you one guess, and it rhymes with “Shmocial Shmedia”.
The term “narcissism” comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man who, upon seeing his own reflection in a pool of water, falls in love with it and sits and stares at it until he starves to death. “In the modern version, Narcissus would fall in love with his own Instagram feed, and starve himself to death while compulsively counting his followers.” Social media has made it socially acceptable to shamelessly and unapologetically self-promote ourselves. Selfies, tweets, posts, snaps – sometimes used as a way to make a memory, share important information, or encourage others. Other times, if we are honest, we just want to make ourselves look good. Social media can quickly become nothing but a hallway of mirrors, where we are constantly reminded of how great we are. We, like Narcissus, have just fallen in love with our reflection. add some diagnostic questions here. i.e. “do your posts tend to happen when you’re doing something cool/exciting, so others can see how cool/exciting your life is? How about on good hair/makeup days? When you win, vs. when you lose?
The danger of this is how quickly we can lose sight of what we are supposed to truly love most: God. Life was never meant to be mirror that constantly reminds us how awesome we are. “All things were created through [Christ] and for him,” (Col. 1:16). Everything has come into existence by Christ and for Christ. You were not designed to love yourself most, but God most. You’re life is never meant to be about you – it is meant to be a window to God, a portal for others to see that He is awesome and great, not you.
You know, it is easy for us to look back at Christians in the past who supported slavery or the oppression of women and say stuff like, “How could they be so blind to the Bible’s teaching against that sin? How could the church so easily partake of such unmistakable sin?” I wonder if hundreds of years from now, Christians will look back at Christians today and say, “How could they have been so vain? How could they have been so blind to the sin of their own self-promotion and the Bible’s clear teaching against it?”
Here is a simple question you can ask yourself before you post something: “Why am I posting this?” That may be the clearest way for us to figure out what our heart really loves most today.
How We Relate
As I am writing this sermon, I am sitting at a coffee shop, and a group of about ten young, 20-something girls walk in. Nearly all of them are staring facedown into their phones, occasionally glancing upwards at each other to talk, but for the most part silently engrossed in their glowing screens. Then, one of them holds her phone up for a selfie, and every girl immediately snaps into formation, puts their phone away, and begin smiling and giggling like they are having the time of their lives. After a few snaps, they all sink back into their original phone-gazing position. This periodically happens throughout their stay, jolting to life whenever a picture is being taken, but becoming zombie-like as soon as it goes away.
The strangest thing about this whole scene playing out before me is how totally normally it is. I had to remind myself that if this scene were to happen 10 years ago, everyone else in the coffee shop would be bewildered. But this is totally, strangely, normal today.
Social media was created as an addition to our social lives – a way for us to stay connected to each other, share our stories, and grow together relationally. However, what was intended to be an addition has now turned into an obsession. What was intended to be a crutch, has in fact, become more important than our legs. Young people who have grown up saturated in social media report higher levels of social anxiety, loneliness, and dissatisfaction with their social lives than any other generation before them, despite all the ways social media gives us to connect. In Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, she says, “We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone.”
We have become so familiar with interacting with one another through social media that we have almost forgotten how to interact in person. We no longer are using social media as an extension of our personas – it has wholesale become our persona. The Law of Consequence is in play here: if we train our brains to operate in the relationships with pattern of the Internet, it feels difficult, awkward, and stressful to do otherwise.
So what? A young digital native might say, what’s so wrong with just interacting through social media? Well, there are many answers, but let’s look at a few:
– The anxiety of social media. Social media unavoidably leads to comparing oneself to others. Everyone gets an opportunity to create their social profile, making it look as interesting as possible. How many followers do you have? How many likes? And is it more than your peers? Everyone feels a pressure through social media to always being coming up with interesting stuff to post – because if you aren’t posting, and if it isn’t cool enough, then you become invisible.
– The false expectations of social media. Because everyone is desperate to look like they are living the most interesting life in the world, they then are tempted to do what the girls at the coffee shop did – make their online life look more interesting than their real life. When I was a kid, girls were struggling with comparing themselves to the models and girls they would see in magazines, but they could simply be reminded that the glossy pages of a magazine was a photo-shoot, not real life. Instagram, however, leads us to believe this is real life. The filters, the poses, the staging – all of it is set up to make it seem like this person’s day-to-day life is always extraordinary, always interesting, and they always look incredible. This then naturally leads to us constantly feeling disappointed that our normal lives don’t seem to measure up to the people we follow on Instagram.
What Can I Do?
So how should a Christian use social media today? Cautiously. When you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through a newsfeed for no reason, ask yourself, “Is this really what I want to be doing right now? Am I okay with my brain being shaped by this? Is there something else more constructive, relaxing, or mentally engaging I could be doing right now?” Before you post or share something, ask yourself, “Why am I posting this? Am I trying to just look better? Am I just showing off?” Pray before you post something. Ask God to give you pure motives, and that the post would be a blessing to others. Spend less time on screens and more time interacting with real people, reading books, doing a hobby, etc.
Arthur Brooks recommends a simple rule for posting. He says, “Post to communicate, praise, and learn – never to self-promote.” Lastly, go on a social media fast. Delete all of the social media apps and games off of your phones and go seven days without accessing any social media. If social media isn’t your struggle, then go seven days without playing a video game, or seven days without using Netflix or YouTube. What do you have to lose? It will all be there when you go back. If anything, being deprived of it will show you how dependent and addicted to it you may have become. Paul was able to say that he would not be mastered by anything but Christ (1 Cor. 6:12). If you find that social media is mastering you, than you have just found something that is trying to serve as a rival god to Christ.
Dear friends, the simple truth is this: nothing will satisfy you other than Christ. Your identity, your approval, your worth, your validation, your satisfaction, WHO YOU ARE is already given to you, in Christ. There is no amount of popularity or comfort that social media can give you that will ever scratch that itch. If you find that you simply cannot give it up, then you need to remind yourself of the gospel. You need to remember that the validation that Christ had earned, the Father proclaiming “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased,” (Matt. 3:17), is available to you through Christ. So who cares what other people think of you? You know what God thinks of you! Rest in that.