Like most other mornings, I wake up early to the sound of a digital wind chime. I roll over and unconsciously slide the unlock bar on my phone, briefly checking my email and scrolling through last night’s Tweets and Facebook statuses.
Moments later, I’m at my desk with a cup of coffee, ready to meditate on scripture and pray before rushing off to work.
Father, I ask for grace to walk in Your peace and presence today.
An Instagram image of my friend’s birthday party flashes through my mind. Was my ex-girlfriend there?
Teach me Your wisdom and help me share it with others.
I wonder how I should respond to my brother’s Facebook message. I need to do a better job of staying in touch.
Help me to honor Your name and remember Your ways in all I do.
My next thought is replaced by the image of college jocks doing the Harlem Shake underwater on YouTube … How do they hold their breath for so long?!
As I integrate more and more social media into my daily routine, I find it increasingly difficult to clear my thoughts and focus on one subject, and I doubt I’m the only one who struggles with this. Twitter feeds and Tumblr dashboards condition us to engage in multiple conversations at once. Instagram trains our minds to rapidly jump from one subject to the next in less than a few seconds.
Our brains effectively adapt to process the most common forms of sensory perception they receive, so this begs the question: Are our phones and social media killing our patience? Are they changing our conversations with one another and with God?
More than half the world is now on some form of social media. Today, one out of every seven minutes spent online is on Facebook. Twitter receives about 300,000 new visitors daily. Not coincidently, a study by Lloyds TSB Insurance showed attention spans have fallen to an average of five minutes, down from 12 minutes in the late ’90s.
Social networks reward us for responding quickly and encourage us to move away from conversations as soon as we lose interest.
They also allow us to process multiple subjects at once. For example, it’s not uncommon to scroll through Facebook and read a C.S. Lewis quote posted above a picture of your friend’s homemade sushi and below a meme comparing modern hipsters to Steve Urkel.
This rapid mental stimulation makes our minds adept at quickly interacting with vast amounts of information. But for many of us, this has a trade off. If we’re not careful, we might continue to lose patience for long conversations and prayers, especially those that do not capture our immediate attention.
Culturally, this loss of patience is seen clearly in the growing popularity of speed dating. A friend once invited me to go with him to a quick round downtown, saying, “You’ll meet 20 girls in an hour.” Since I had no other plans for the night, I lackadaisically agreed. Later that night, I found myself zipping down a line of tables, making fast-paced comments like, “I love dogs, too!” and “I thought about studying anthropology.”
It seemed like a conveyer belt of conversations, and although I had never speed dated before, it felt oddly familiar to my online interactions. Sadly, I made no genuine connections and walked away with nothing other than the knowledge that most girls like dogs and anthropology.
Of course, this is a goofy example, but a serious problem arises when our relationships with our friends, family and God parallel our interactions on social media. If we only have attention for that which is immediately pleasing, we might miss some of life’s most important interactions.
Throughout scripture, we see examples of God leading His people to listen with patience and focused attention.
When God calls Elijah to wait for His presence on a mountain in 1 Kings 19, for example, Elijah must resist the distractions of the wind, earthquake and fire before he hears the Lord’s voice in a “gentle whisper.” Had he let his mind wander, he may have missed the God of the universe speaking to him. Today, if we allow social media to deeply influence the way we think outside of digital space, we run the same risk of overlooking the most important voices in our lives.
Inherently, social media platforms are neither good nor bad. They are tools that allow us to globally share our thoughts, ideas and creative works with others. When used wisely, they have enormous social benefits (think Arab Spring, NGO fundraising and breaking news coverage). When used excessively and without proper perspective, they can shift our minds to demand rapid, widespread interactions and increase our susceptibility to distractions.
Most of us continue to have healthy, thriving relationships outside of social media. The key therefore is not unplugging altogether, but rather examining how each platform affects our minds, and then creating balanced approaches to minimize damage on our focus and patience.
Because really, Harlem Shake videos should never take the place of deep conversations.