I was a freshman in college when Facebook came out and I distinctly remember thinking, “why would I need this? I have AOL Instant Messenger and MySpace!”
Well, times have changed. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram (and a slew of other sites I’m not cool enough to know about) have simultaneously brought us closer together and driven us further apart. With the exception of a few universally offensive statements or pictures, it’s a rule-free zone where we can interact with society while accepting minimal personal responsibility for the implications of what we do.
In absence of guidelines for healthy and polite social media etiquette, we are left to determine our own boundaries for navigating the seemingly endless opportunities available to us.
Before we snap one more picture of our hot chocolate topped with a foam leaf, perhaps we would benefit from a brief pause—an extra 30 seconds to ask five simple questions might suggest it’s time to unplug, or at least reconsider when and how we use social media:
1. Am I seeking approval?
If you’ve taken an introductory psychology class, you’ve probably heard of B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning. Skinner suggested that we learn behaviors through reinforcement.
When I seek validation through something I post and that little red flag starts popping up to notify me of each person giving me attention, it’s an addictive reward. And it works. I feel better, so I keep coming back for more. The next time I need to feel approval, I’ll return to the source that poured it out last time, and the cycle of reinforcement continues.
What are the bigger needs asking to be met here? Maybe it’s a desire for community. Perhaps it stems from unresolved conflict with someone I love. Or maybe I just thrive on pleasing people and hearing their praise. If your interaction with the internet is driven by a need for approval, consider healthier ways to address this issue and choose to stop reinforcing the unhealthy ones.
2. Am I boasting?
There’s sharing excitement and then there’s bragging. Truthfully, we each know which camp we fall in.
When the Apostle Paul described what it meant to love others, he specifically mentioned that love does not boast. That post isn’t “just a picture” or “just a tweet,” it’s an opportunity to love others in a way that reflects Jesus. Or it’s an opportunity to show them something quite different, something that looks nothing like Christ.
Examine your motivations and walk away before using social media as the adult version of show-and-tell.
3. Am I discontent?
Are you looking for something “better”? If so, walk away. Nothing you will read, write or see is going to solve this one.
Instead, ask yourself why you are discontent and address those needs. When we view social media from a lens of discontentment, whatever we find will be colored with bitterness and ungratefulness. Their lives will begin to look brighter than ours, while our lives will take on a sense of lacking.
Let us not forget—their world is as ordinary as ours and our life is as exciting as theirs. Do you believe that in your core? If not, take a break. Deactivate your account for a couple months. Create space to reevaluate and look for answers in the places you’ll actually find them. Stop asking the virtual world to solve dissatisfaction with the physical one.
4. Is this a moment to protect?
When my son crawls into my lap, he doesn’t want me to take his picture and shoot it across Facebook. He doesn’t care who else thinks I have a cute kid. He just wants me to hold him and see him. To feel his soft, chunky arms and to focus on the way his eyelashes move when he blinks.
When we interrupt lunch with a friend in order to quote her on Twitter, we invite hundreds of people into a conversation that could have been sacred; and we miss the sweet memories that may have formed had her words remained simply between the two of us.
Not every great moment needs to be shared. In fact, some of the best times are most enjoyed privately. If we suspend the present in an attempt to capture its beauty in 140 characters or less, we sacrifice our experience of the moment itself. We also rob each other of something that has been lost in our digital age—keeping a handful of memories between us and those we are closest to, or even just between us and God.
5. Is it kind?
Let’s return to Paul and his call to love. “Love is patient. Love is kind.”
Our culture tells us it’s our right to comment on everything, regardless of whether it was addressed to us and without consideration for how it might affect others.
We’ve replaced face-to-face confrontation with sharp comments and mocking memes. We write demeaning tweets addressed to celebrities or openly criticize individuals we have never met, hiding behind the convenience that they cannot directly defend themselves and nobody is putting our personal lives on display for public criticism.
We have been given covered space from which to throw grenades, without requiring us to take responsibility for the weight of our words, their effect on other people and their reflection on the Church. Jesus said the world would recognize us by our love. What messages are we sending?
A Better Way
Social media seems to be built around the idea that it can infiltrate nearly every part of our lives. And if we let it, that’s exactly what will happen. We are the ones who say when its reach becomes unhealthy.
As children, our parents laid out rules for our protection and as adults we took on the task of caring for our own well being and personal growth. It’s our job to set boundaries and ask tough questions, tending to the bigger picture of our relationships and the way our actions reflect Christ’s love for this world.
It’s worth noting that these are questions we ask of ourselves, not criteria for interpreting and evaluating others. We cannot know their hearts anymore than they can know ours.
Let us pause and give ourselves an honest moment to reflect—bringing discernment, love and wisdom to each picture and word we share.
Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in January 2014.