Social media makes us unhappy. Or, more precisely, social media increases unhappiness for many of us. I spend a lot of time interacting with University students, many of whom are becoming aware that their use of social media is bad for them, or that smartphones are destructive influences in their lives.
Which we might cheer at: recognizing a damaging influence and removing it is a good thing for someone to do. Except, if I suggest that they leave social media or abandon their smartphones they find the idea utterly implausible. More than that the suggestion that they could impose limits on their online behaviors or use of their phone surprises them and often seems just as implausible.
These students, though mostly Christians I know through our church, have been catechized in a world that sees limits as inherently evil. It’s more than that though, anecdotally many of them understand that limits can be goods, but the idea of giving up any aspect of these platforms sounds like nonsense-talk to them.
There is mounting evidence that engaging social media with strict limits—or leaving entirely—is a path to health. Facebook’s own research suggests that Instagram is toxic for teen girls; Jonathan Haidt’s recent work finds a correlation between Instagram’s rise and the epidemic of anxiety and depression in the same demographic; and they’ve proved that they can use Facebook manipulate our emotional states, and angrier people spend longer scrolling and so look at more adverts.
Combine that with smartphones, which are incredibly addictive, most people use much more than they realize, and just being in the same room as yours—even when it’s off—demonstrably reduces our ability to solve problems and remember things. As John Mark Comer puts it, “they make us dumber.” (The Relentless Elimination of Hurry, 37)
It’s possible to present lots of counter-evidence of the good these platforms and devices can be used for, but it would be foolish of us to ignore that there is a problem that affects all of us to some extent and some of us to a large degree.
We could scoff at Gen Z’s addiction to the platforms and roll our eyes at their refusal to do something about it. That would be to miss the point though. They’re right, it is implausible in the world and stories that they inhabit to impose limits on these artifacts or online spaces. It remains implausible even if we’re only suggesting that it might be wise for some to renounce them for their own good.
This is a problem, and it’s all of our problem. A good community would make it plausible to renounce social media or smart phones for some, and for everyone else to impose appropriate limits.
Leaving Feels Like Banishment
It is becoming normal to see social media as a location, or even a place. This has been true to some extent since the earliest message boards and finds its natural end—or perhaps its nadir—in Facebook’s metaverse. Social media functions, depending on how its used, like a bar, or a community hall, or an underground fight ring. There are friends that you meet there, and perhaps only know from there.
Unlike any other place though, you carry it with you in your pocket. You can’t leave it behind. The willpower required to not visit is much higher when it’s constantly at your fingertips. Not to mention the endorphins your smartphone pushes to you when you check the app and find a notification.
To leave social media is not akin to uninstalling a game from your phone you find yourself wasting a lot of time on. It is closer to moving out of town and not visiting that set of friends anymore. It feels like loss, especially when the friends probably aren’t the problem, it’s the location you meet them in. Even imposing limits sounds like cutting off your nose to spite your face—it feels like becoming a social pariah for nebulous abstract goods (like hope, and sleep).
For the average Gen Z student I interact with, it’s actually worse than that. If the primary setting for many of your social interactions is one or another app on your phone then even my suggestions—that you turn your notifications off or turn your phone off while you’re asleep—sound draconian. To leave these apps behind is unthinkable. Based on the reactions I get to gentle suggestions it sounds like I’ve recommended the Green Martyrdom of the desert fathers or the early medieval Irish monks: leaving Civilization to live in a cave or on a distant Skellig.
We could again scoff at the reaction, if they think this is martyrdom then their frame of reference is severely out of whack. Maybe so, but if we don’t reckon with the emotional resonance of these ideas then we won’t make any progress in helping young people embrace appropriate limits for them. If we move within the story they live in, we are asking for a level of renunciation akin to moving away from your town and standing on a stylite for the rest of your life. Even if after they have these terms seem entirely overblown. The idea of being a ‘digital monk’ is inherently silly, which you can demonstrate by putting a whole host of other words in front of “monk”; that’s not what the monastic life was. However, the implausibility problem faced by Generation Z in their relationships to these technologies means it can feel like that sort of renunciation beforehand—even if all you’re suggesting is only using the platforms on a laptop.
I get the reactions I do because it feels like I’m gently suggesting exile, or banishment. Which is a useful Biblical motif to draw on. Exile is what happens to the people of God to judge and chasten them—exile is the consequence of destructive behavior. Using social media or smartphones badly may not be sin, though it could be, but it is destructive. Leaving behind well-worn patterns in our lives can feel like exile even if it is instead exodus. I am not suggesting exile, but pilgrimage through the desert to a promised land with a table laden with choice food.
To continue with the ‘place’ analogy, David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock talk about Generation Z, whose lives are increasingly online, as living in digital Babylon, in their book Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon. This is the place we’re exiled too, and for many of us leaving entirely is not an option, so we carefully resist as Daniel did, we seek the good of the city as Jeremiah taught us to, and we applaud those who get to leave the city entirely in the hope they might be preparing Jerusalem for us.
Of course, the spatial analogy breaks down if examined for too long. Not least because social media platforms aren’t places. The anthropologist Marc Augé defines places as spaces that help us anchor our identity and reinforce social relations, in his book Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, whereas non-places are spaces we don’t live in but remain anonymous and lonely—like airports or shopping centers.
It depends on your frame of reference how you categorize online spaces. Do they nurture social grouping that help us form identities? Or do they let us pass through with the veneer of human contact? I think that for the majority social media is a non-place. Even for those who manage to use these platforms for truly social identity-forming, they are having to work against the intent of the media. The platform pulls the other way.
Plausibility Requires Hospitality
A healthy society, and healthy communities, would work on making embracing limits plausible. We would bolster the stories required to allow people to make these choices and encourage some to leave online spaces altogether. My contention is that plausibility is increased by hospitality
What does hospitality to the Gen Z student who is frightened of using Instagram less look like? There are two strands to this answer. Firstly, it looks like hospitality looks to any other sort of person: being in a home, sitting around a table to eat together, and cultivating cross-generational friendship.
Secondly, it looks like a community that embraces people that are not like them—which we learn to do first around a table. Leaving social media is often paired with leaving a smartphone, despite their apparent utility, because of the addictive draw they exert. If you’re noticing the impact of the dopamine hit that social media is designed to give you with every like, then removing the dopamine dispenser can be a wise idea.
The University I work at is introducing a new way of monitoring attendance at lectures and seminars, an app where students register the code the lecturer provides at the start of the session. It will make a number of things easier—this is hardly a new idea, the University I used to work for has had a similar system for many years.
In a briefing on the subject, the obvious question was asked: “what about those students who don’t have a smartphone.” My previous institution had a few answers to this that weren’t ideal, but they had thought about it, partly because it was introduced in a bygone era (less than ten years ago). In this meeting, it got looks of utter surprise. “They can buy one,” we were told. It is an elite University, most of the student have a lot of money, and I’m sure the number that don’t own a smartphone is very low. I’m sure it wouldn’t be zero, though.
What would hospitality look like to these students? The barest and most basic slither of kindness would be to provide an alternative, even if it was clunky and frustrating to use. We would not insist every one of our students drank alcohol at an event, even if we are convinced that alcohol can be a joy within careful limits. I don’t think we should consider smartphones or social media all that differently.
You can see problems with the same shape in the way the narratives were drawn in the UK around the Covid-19 app that was supposed to tell you if you’d been in contact with someone who had been exposed. It has been long abandoned by much of the population, but for a brief period it was patriotic to download the app, and irresponsible not to. While you were not forced to use it to ‘check in’ at restaurants, an alternative method was not provided.
Or again, consider the way many churches would organize a giving campaign, with QR codes on the seats to let you input your pledge or directly give—we need to ensure there’s an analogue option too.
Hospitality to those who leave social media behind looks like remembering to include them. The digital world, while useful, is not the centre of our lives. If we want to ensure that everyone is included, without making assumptions about why they engage with digital systems and spaces as much or as little as they do, then we need to fight to not make those who withdraw forgotten. We need to fight to keep the spaces as useful tools, not the centres of our lives.
Our communities can embrace these tools, though I would encourage some wariness, but we must provide options that don’t require them providing options that don’t require them.
When we have people to our home for food, especially larger groups, we provide options. Not so much in case someone doesn’t like something, but in case they don’t eat it at all. My home is often filled with large groups from our church, including people I haven’t met before they walk through my door. It’s normal to make sure there’s an option for vegetarians. Sometimes that means just cook the meat on the side, or make a vegetarian dish for everyone; sometimes it means cook two things. It’s normal for us to think about what we’d offer someone who is gluten free. Some allergens might be harder to cater for—though it’s rare that people don’t give you some advanced warning of that—but we do the best we can. We want people to feel welcome, even if I don’t understand why they don’t eat meat. I don’t conform myself to them, necessarily, though I may on occasion, but I do ensure that they too can sit around my table.
Too Small an Answer
I’ve talked to a few people more experienced in thinking through these issues than I, and they agree that there’s a problem with the plausibility of leaving or reducing the impact of social media. When I suggest that the answer to the problem is hospitality, I get a response along the lines of “the magnitude of the problem far exceeds the proposed solution.” I can see why.
It does sound like a trite, hackneyed, Christian response. As though gathering around a table and eating would somehow change the whole world. Except it always does.
The problem I have outlined can be summarized in two ways. It’s a problem of story, and a problem of community. It’s a problem of story because of plausibility—it sounds like exile, it sounds like being asked to embrace a narrative of exclusion for very abstract gains. Which is why it’s a problem of community: when community is only found via digital means, you need an alternative before you can consider leaving.
Both of these problems are solved by hospitality in the literal and figurative senses. An alternative community is forged when people are included. The church does this when we ensure we include all sorts of people in what we’re doing as best as we’re able, and when we sit together and eat around a table.
Stories are reforged and reframed around tables—hospitality, in all its forms, is how we change the story. Our use of technology tells us a Promethean story, of humans who wrest the ability to shape the world from the hands of God and who now freely create our own worlds in the limitless internet. When we encounter someone who has set themselves limits it challenges our story—our social imaginary—of endless expansion and the destruction of limits. When we encounter that rare person who has renounced some or all digital spaces entirely, we are confronted with a story that says we don’t need that control, or that connection, to be truly human.
Perhaps we assume they are proud and placing themselves above us, or that they are addicts who deserve sympathy but whose actions do not speak to us. To sit around a table with them is to see that the world is bigger than we think and that we may have to make our world ‘smaller’ to discover that. Or, less grandiosely, it’s in community with others that we find out that more is possible than we realized.
The broader sort of hospitality described above—the kind that includes those who chose to eschew these digital tools—is part of the answer. But the heart of the answer is old-fashioned table-fellowship. Why? Because it always is. Since God meets with man at a Table laden with bread and wine, every table in the world is changed by the echoes of that weekly once-in-an-epoch event. Not that the simple hospitality of a key of tea and bowl of curry I can offer you is in any way sacramental, but it carries enough echoes of the sacrament that it starts to reknit our souls. If at the Lord’s Supper God meets with man, then at our tables man can meet with man because God has done so first, even if some round the table have not known this for themselves.
We Would All Gain
If we would do this, take steps of hospitality to those who might renounce or restrict their steps in digital spaces, we will find that we will all gain. If our churches do this there will be benefits to those who don’t take their ‘digital martyrdom’ from those who do.
I’m not advocating for widespread digital renunciation, but for the acceptance of these monks among us. We should be free in our communities, churches, and businesses, to pursue using each individual technology, each tool and digital place, as wisely as possible.
Which, incidentally, in the church we are largely not doing. Swept along by the fervour of advocates and seeing new digital horizons as inevitable long before they are, we hurtle into new territory like conquering heroes, assuming that presence is akin to wisdom.
An organization can push their social channels and laud the ‘digital monk’ without contradiction. Though to do so will by necessity require careful thought about what wise use of each individual media looks like, and more than likely not doing things simply because we can.
After all, the story we will learn from our friends who renounce the digital spaces we love, or from ourselves as we embrace wise limits, is that doing things because we can is never the path of human flourishing. If we see that people live equally rich, and often richer, lives without these tools—without living in these locations—it will slowly change our social imaginary. We will all see that it isn’t implausible to leave, not to set limits. Instead, it is possible to not be mastered by these technologies.
I haven’t renounced social media. I’m not really intending to, though I am considering what wise limits look like in my life. But some of us probably should. If we believe we will learn about humanity from those who do, and that we will become more humane through their witness, we need to engage in deliberate hospitality towards them, in acts of societal friendship.
We might even discover that we need these revolutionaries rather than the other way around.