This morning at church Father Dave made an astute observation. The technology of texting and online social media has made communication fast and easy; but it has almost completely destroyed the art of listening. I sat in my pew amazed, because just yesterday I had a very nasty experience on Facebook. And only a few days before that, my daughter had her heart broken by a "friend" who betrayed her on a social media site called Hangouts.
My daughter's tablet is taking a long vacation. And it's not just to avoid the problem of mean girls. I've seen that being on her tablet is addictive. Research has shown that internet activity stifles creativity and actually, physiologically rewires the brain, scattering our attention like nothing else and rendering us increasingly helpless against our impulses. This truth negates the belief that technology is morally neutral, that a person's heart is the problem, not the technology itself. Do we really have the control that we think we do over our use of the internet and devices like smartphones? As with any addiction, denial is rampant.
Consider the observations of Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation:
"We think our many technologies give us more control over our destinies. In fact, they have come to control us. And this opens the door to the more fundamental point about technology: it is an ideology that conditions how we humans understand reality. To use technology is to participate in a cultural liturgy that, if we aren't mindful, trains us to accept the core claim of modernity: that the only meaning there is in the world is what we choose to assign it in our endless quest to master nature...
If we can use technology any way we like as long as the outcome results in our own happiness, then all reality is 'virtual reality,' open to construal in any way we like. There are no natural limits, only those that we do not yet have the technological capability to overcome. This point of view is ubiquitous in modernity but profoundly antithetical to orthodox Christianity." (emphasis mine)
Technology has become a worldview (the medium is the message) which trains us to privilege what is new and innovative over what is old, traditional, and familiar. Like listening. We've lost the ability to comprehend whether we should or should not accept a particular technological development. I've seen smartphones in the hands of babies. We need to wake up before it's too late! Society's addiction to television is bad enough, but when devices with internet access are appendages to our bodies, we have a serious problem.
And what about me? I've given up Facebook before, largely due to cyber-bullying, and only set up a new account when my grandma died, and I wanted to keep in touch with fellow grieving family members. Now having my own mean girl experience, would it be letting evil win to throw in the Facebook towel again?
I think most of us are at least peripherally aware that our data is not kept private by Facebook (but we shove this knowledge into our denial folder). I was particularly perturbed yesterday because I was unable to remove unwanted, harrassing comments from a birthday fundraiser that I have set up on Facebook. And the "report a problem" option was not functioning! The offender could not be removed from the event. Facebook's guidelines on their page for reporting a problem were to do it at the initial site of the problem. I'm amazed that I didn't tear my hair out.
There is also the issue of general dependency on the internet for financial reasons. My husband and I have a home-based business largely operated online, and Facebook is one of our avenues for generating income. FB has sometimes removed my husband's posts, and then they were negligent in communicating with him, leaving the issue unresolved. My husband also relies on Twitter to support our business.
Is being a FB member not only often a monumental waste of my time and potentially damaging to my brain in a real, physiological sense, but is it also being complicit with a company which is negligent, does not guard my privacy--is, in other words, morally questionable? That is something I'm still discerning.
I'm not saying that internet technology doesn't have many positive uses. For example, one reason I've stayed on Facebook is to respond to people's prayer requests. The internet is an enormous help to my homeschooling vocation (though, due to information overload, it's also a huge distraction and can result in much confusion.) The use of internet technology is not necessarily immoral in and of itself, but it very often presents what is called a near occasion of sin, which you can read more about here: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11196a.htm. Christians are obligated to avoid occasions of sin. The problem is, again, denial. Do we have the humility and self-awareness to admit that we are deeply addicted to smartphones, social media, and internet surfing?
I now know the ugliness of a cousin's heart who I thought was very sweet, thanks to her posts in my charity fundraiser. I would rather not have known. Social media has an undeniable tendency to bring out the worst impulses in people and is notorious for the ruination of relationships. As science has confirmed, technology is not neutral.
There is much more to be said on this topic, but for now I'll conclude with a few suggestions.
1. Just today I downloaded Chrome to my laptop and added their Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator feature. I now receive inspirational quotes instead of a newsfeed! This frees you up from distractions which impede your work productivity and concentration on managing your groups. I'm sure Facebook is mad as h*ll about this, because you don't see their advertisements anymore. You can also find many good suggestions for controlling your smartphone use online, which I can't personally advise you on, because I have a flip phone! Consider replacing your smartphone with a flip phone. I dare you. Double dog. Bet you can't do it, you addict, you.
2. Very few people have my cell phone number, and the message box is not set up. I do not text. Consider actually dialing up a number and talking on the phone. (Consider, even, having a landline with a cord! Bet you can't sit still for 5 minutes.) I can think of no circumstance in which texting would be necessary. And when you are on the phone, do not multi-task. First of all, multi-tasking is an illusion. The scientific reality is that we can't give adequate attention to more than one activity at a time which requires concentration. Don't surf the internet or watch TV while on the phone with a friend. Do not put people on speaker phone so you can do something else at the same time. I can always tell I'm on speaker phone. Turn off your phone when you are visiting in person. This is all a matter of basic manners, but we need to be reminded, because we are no longer a polite society.
3. Our children, including teenagers, should not have smartphones, period. Get your kid a flip phone. Babies should not have smartphones in their hands. These, I believe, are unquestionably moral considerations.
4. Recover the art of listening. You can't listen when texting. You can't listen when using social media. This means you can't have deep relationships with people. Think about it. Do you usually send a text or FB message because you really don't want to bother calling someone, because it's more more convenient for you? Even if it's your mom, daughter, best friend, or sibling? The truth is, many of us don't really want to talk to people unless we have to. I am arguing here that we have to. If you aren't in the habit of listening, you lose the ability, and you aren't really in intimate relationship with other people. We are literally losing our humanity.
5. Set a timer when you get on the internet and give yourself strict limits. Avoid falling into the black hole where you lose all sense of time--and with it, reality. Social media is not real life. It's a place where people create fantasy selves. Rarely do people present a realistic portrait of their lives.
6. So many people document their status on social media all day long. And what's worse, their children have no choice but to have their lives plastered all over social media too. This is dangerous. And it is a serious violation of your child's privacy. I actually got a bunch of flack when my teenage daughter did not want me to post her picture on FB, and I respected her wishes. People, you're just not getting it. Limit your children's pictures, your own posts, and the time you spend on social media, your smartphone, and the internet. Let's get back to Life.
Compare this picture to the one at the beginning and seriously contemplate--which do you want to be the picture of your life?