I’ve gotten a lot of questions lately from friends asking what I think about the documentary on Netflix about social media called “The Social Dilemma.” I don’t have the time right now to dedicate to a full review, so I’ll say simply that it is essential viewing. If you use social media at all, you should watch it. If you have kids or work with kids, you MUST watch it. I recommend watching it with your kids. None of my kids are on social media, but we’ve told them that before we even have that conversation we will watch together.
Some of you know that I just finished writing my dissertation on digital technology and theology, so you can imagine that I have a lot of thoughts on the topic. I’m also a habitual, borderline chronic, user of social media myself, so the issue is deeply personal to me. Everything that I saw in the documentary confirmed what I discovered in my research. In fact, I used several of the people interviewed in the film as sources in my writing.
I think I can summarize the message of the film this way: Most people have no idea just how much they are being manipulated by social media. It literally highjacks our brains. I think the worst thing about the film is its title. It’s not a social dilemma. It’s a social experiment. We are all mice in an elaborate social experiment that is barely ten years old. The results of this experience are literally everywhere we look: social decay, a pandemic of mental health sickness, casual dehumanization, excarnation (a drawing away from the physical world in favor of the virtual world), etc. And the situation is rapidly devolving. It used to be that a match would get lit in the real world but would only really spread on social media. It is now reversed. Now, matches are lit on social media which turn into conflagrations in the real world. I have so many more thoughts – some of which I’m trying to turn into a book.
The number one question that I get from people is some version of “when are you going to get off of social media?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question. My wife largely left social media after getting freaked out by the film. I told a student this morning that I literally think about leaving social media every single day. There is not a day that goes by where I am not tempted to chuck it all. It too often brings out my worst characteristics. It is too often counter-formative to the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in my life. To put it simply, it too often makes me feel gross. I don’t like what I see in others. I don’t like what I see in myself. Even when social media is at its best, I can’t escape the feeling that the human brain wasn’t designed for this kind of “community.” It definitely wasn’t designed to take in information the way that social media feeds it to us. Social media too often makes my brain feel the way that my body would feel if I lived on nothing but fast food.
The natural question is, why stick around? Why not pull the plug? If I’m being completely honest, it’s because at some level I’ve become addicted – and so have many of you. I don’t want to be over-dramatic. Behavioral addictions are simply not the same as physical additions, but it is naïve to ignore that at some level many of us are addicted to social media even if our brains know it is toxic. (Read Adam Alter’s book Irresistible for a thorough treatment of the ways that digital technology turns us into addicts.)
There is another reason why I’ve decided to stick around. At least for now. I believe very strongly in what a lot of people call incarnational ministry – which is just a fancy way of saying that you can’t do ministry without being in the midst of people you are trying to serve. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to live where they live, but you definitely have to be able to speak their language and understand and appreciate their world. Increasingly, digital spaces are “third places” for people. A third place is a gather place outside of the home and outside of work or school. Third places are coffee shops, churches, parks, etc. Digital spaces have come to supplement or replace these third places. In the age of COVID, digital spaces have even become second places as students haven’t been able to go to school and employees haven’t been able to go to work. We can have a discussion about whether this is a good thing for our society or a really bad thing. You probably know where I stand on that question. However, my own social dilemma is how I can choose to abandon digital spaces when so many of the people I’m ministering to live so many of their waking hours in these spaces. I need to be able to speak into the various things that they are seeing online. I at least need to be aware of these things.
Maybe I’m just searching for a justification. I honestly have a hard time imagining being on social media years from now. It is just exhausting to even think about. How much longer can we keep this up? But, for now anyways, I’m sticking around.
I’m trying to be more disciplined. I’m trying to use social media in accordance with Christian virtue rather than allow social media to reshape my virtues. It is a difficult battle. The spirit is willing. The flesh is weak. I’m just being honest. But maybe that struggle is ultimately a good thing? (There I go justifying again.) If character is formed in struggle, is it possible to have our Christian character formed by the struggle of living virtuously online? Is it possible that social media could actually make us better people? I think that those of us who choose to stay on social media have to hold onto this hope.