Get off your smartphone and live your life

I’m at a dinner with my friends. I momentarily glance up from my mushroom risotto, only to see everyone else glued to their phones. They’re busily picking the best filter to accompany the latest upload of the food they’re about to eat.

And then I wonder: if I enjoy a meal and none of my Insta followers see it — did it really happen?

Social media and smartphone technology are amazing, powerful, and helpful tools: I’m able to receive videos of my nephews taking their first steps, Facetime my mom from across the country, and search for hostels on the other side of the world. All while I’m sprawled across my living room couch.

Although technology continues to advance rapidly, the change in social interaction has been more of a gradual process. Technological progress has impacted users in ways of which we are just becoming aware. So how does this all affect the Christian community? How can we, as Christians, use social media and smartphone technology well?

We’re relational people, meant for deep and sacrificial relationships with one another. But the tricky thing with social media and smartphone technology is that what feels like social connectivity can sometimes look a lot like loneliness.

A 2013 study by Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan confirms that rather than fulfilling needs to be connected, excessive Facebook use may undermine one’s feelings of well-being and satisfaction. The individuals in the study who checked Facebook constantly were more likely to feel unsatisfied with their own lives than those who didn’t check it as much.

To mask these feelings of loneliness, the anonymity of social media lets us present the best version of ourselves to our friends and followers. The more time we spend engaged with one another through our screens, the more inward-focused we become. We obsess over ourselves: our image, our connections, our time, and our comfort.

And so the endless scroll gives way to insidious comparisons: we measure our own worth against our friends’ public displays of affirmation. Hanna Krasnova, a researcher who led a study on the phenomenon, says that passively consuming all of this information creates envy through “comparison with a person or group who possess” (or at least seem to possess) “something we desire.” We’re jealous, because we want to be cared for in a real and meaningful way.

Although we crave love, we often settle for likes.

Frankly it’s embarrassing how long it can take me to choose a profile picture. And doubly embarrassing: how many times I check back to see what people are saying about it.

We’re constantly documenting what we’re doing, promoting ourselves with images, statements, and articles that we think are worthy of attention. But what about the life behind the perfectly positioned profile picture? Because we are made to be loved and to be known, we are also supposed to be vulnerable with one another, to be held accountable to one another. It’s so easy to both present and protect ourselves through our phones.

Social media has become our quick fix for a desire to be accepted and emotionally supported.

Despite being able to stay up-to-date, our constant access to a wide network of friends fools us into thinking that it’s good enough. Being a true friend takes time. Apps like Skype and Facetime are the closest thing we have to face-to-face interaction, and they can be used to maintain a deep friendship when loved ones are apart. But most often, we use a like on a photo or a re-tweet as a substitute for actually talking to friends in person.

Although we crave love, we often settle for likes.

I’ve become really good at being passively engaged in friendships. I have forgotten (and am desperately trying to remember) what it’s like to be present with people, to offer them the dignity they deserve by simply paying attention.

Social media and phone interaction do not exempt us from spending time with our friends. But what does the word “friend” mean anymore? Is there any intimacy or investment involved?

As Christians we are called to participate in radically different kinds of relationships. This connection can only be found face-to-face.

Social media encourages a culture of constant access to a wide network of people and all-consuming entertainment. Our fear of missing out (FOMO) is fueled by social media; so we‘re consumed by our phones, catching up on all the fun things other people are doing. As Kristi Hedges says in her recent article in Forbes, FOMO leads to second-guessing the decisions we’ve made, ranging from our down time to what career we choose or when we decide to have kids. So here’s the irony: the fear of missing out means we’re actually missing out on our own tangible experiences.

My phone is my time-filler. Whenever there is a moment of free time, I jump to check my email, Facebook, or the news. I also pull out my phone in any social situation that starts to feel mildly uncomfortable. Real social interaction can be awkward and messy, but my phone has become a source of both comfort and control in these settings. And let’s be honest, we all like to control things. If we need space or alone-time, we can physically and symbolically create that distance.

Our society has created expectations of being constantly available, of being informed about the latest happenings online, and of establishing a presence on social media. This makes it that much more difficult to unplug. It’s hard to imagine that only 10 years ago people often left their homes without a phone, without any way of staying in touch.

The love we want to receive and the love we are supposed to offer is not a simple, accidental thing: it is an intentional and personal connection. Be present enough to engage with what God is putting before you. Be present enough to let things get awkward sometimes, to put yourself out there, to love those around you more boldly and more sacrificially than you are comfortable.

Because that’s community. It’s messy, it’s a bit scary, but it’s what’s real.

Originally published in Issue 19 of Converge Magazine.

Photo (Flickr CC) by mollybob.