Yesterday I walked to the bottom of our driveway to get the mail. Once again it was filled with sales flyers, political ads and a few bills. Nothing personal. I lamented how long it had been since I’d received a handwritten letter from anyone. I realized that, while my mailbox remained empty, my e-mail inbox was full. Yet, there was nothing personal in my inbox. It was all work-related information, requests, expectations and updates with the occasional devotional or notification that I was tagged in a Facebook photo. My inbox is a daily reminder of the “tyranny of the urgent” and the lack of personal connection that plagues our society today.
The rise of the Internet has made 21st-century life busier, more hectic and demanding. For example, in 2000, the average person spent 2.7 hours per week online. By 2012, that number had increased to 38 hours per week. Moreover, in 2012, 188 billion text messages were sent each day, 25 billion apps were downloaded and more than a trillion YouTube videos were viewed. Today, Facebook has 1.6 billion monthly active users, while Twitter has 305 million. The average person now spends eight hours and 41 minutes on electronic devices each day. And these numbers continue to grow.
The Internet and portable devices can play a healthy role in our world today. The Internet is home to a wealth of information and resources, most of which is free to anyone with an Internet connection. It also provides a fast, simple avenue for communication with others, making long distances much shorter.
However, as the Centre for Technology and Internet Addictions has stated, “the very nature of the internet lends itself to overuse and abuse, encouraging behaviours that are counterproductive, isolating and disruptive to ourselves, our families and our communities.”
One area where negative impacts are most apparent is the realm of social media. Rather than connecting us with others, Facebook can, in fact, be an antisocial network. Social networks have a tendency to encourage self-promotion as users attempt to create a public persona that will impress others. Many people spend countless hours keeping up their Facebook façade. Our society’s obsession with Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other realms of self-promotion has created a “selfie world” where we are constantly concerned with how others view us.
This fixation on self-image not only feeds narcissism, but also results in negative mental health outcomes. A recent study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found a link between Facebook use and depression, due to the effects of “social comparison.” As we see others brag about their accomplishments, travels and family successes, our own successes are diminished and our failures amplified.
When we put our lives on display for hundreds of “friends,” our focus on cultivating genuine relationships is often diminished. Virtual relationships can desensitize us to real people, undermining the value of the physical presence of friends. Distracted by our lives online, we lose our ability to hear the voices of those around us. For Christians, the lure of the online world poses a significant threat to our spiritual life. Collecting followers can become more important than following Christ. Instead of being Christ-centred, social media encourages us to be self-centred. Research has shown that technology affects our ability to be alone and silent, but it is in silence and solitude that we nourish our relationship with God. In this way, the digital world robs us of our “God space.”
It is time for us to examine our relationship with technology and ask, How does my pursuit of holiness inform how I act online? Here are some guidelines for establishing a Spirit-led digital presence.
Be humble. Instead of using social media as a tool for self-promotion, use it to point people to Christ.
Be real. Who you are on social media should reflect who you are in real life.
Practise moderation. Set limits. Maintain a healthy balance in your life (see sidebar for suggested boundaries).
Stay accountable. Once you set your limits, tell a trusted friend or family member. If you are married, be open and transparent with your spouse about your online activities. Avoid the appearance of evil.
Engage in people ministry. Social media will never replace face-to-face relationships. Invest in those around you.
Learning to disengage from the online world will allow us to engage more deeply with God and those around us. It is time to reclaim our real lives and our real relationships.
Nancy Turley is the territorial abuse advisor for the Canada and Bermuda Territory.
Setting Digital Boundaries
- Don’t check your smartphone until after morning devotions.
- Refrain from going online after 9 p.m.
- Don’t check or talk on your phone when spending time with friends or family.
- Take a digital fast on Sundays.
- Refrain from using digital gadgets at mealtimes.
- Limit checking e-mails or texts to once an hour.
- Pray daily for God to help you become a good steward of your virtual life.
Online Safety: Guidelines for Parents
In addition to posing potential threats to our mental and spiritual well-being, the Internet can be a dangerous place for children. Here are some tips for keeping your children safe:
- Teach your child never to give personal information over the Internet, such as their name, address, telephone number, password, parents’ names, the name of any club or team they are involved in, the name of their school or their afterschool job.
- Teach your child to avoid chat rooms and websites (e.g. Chatroulette), which can be used by sexual predators.
- Limit your child’s instant messaging to an approved friend list. Regularly check your child’s list to ensure that it has not been altered.
- Place your computer in an area of your home where you can easily supervise your child’s Internet activity. If you allow your child to have a webcam, place it in a public area of your house.
- Know how your child is spending their time online. Regularly ask your child about their online friends and activities. Roleplay with your child various dangerous scenarios that they could encounter online.
- Use parental controls and/or filtering or monitoring technology that block access to harmful sites and activities, such as pornography.
- Spend time online alongside your child and establish an atmosphere of trust regarding computer usage and online activities.
- Monitor the amount of time your child spends on the Internet, and at what times of day. Excessive time online, especially at night, may indicate a problem. Remind your child that Internet use is a privilege, not a right.
- Do not permit your child to have an online profile containing personally identifiable information or pictures of themselves.
- Instruct your child never to plan a face-to-face meeting with someone that they have met online.
- Watch for changes in your child’s behaviour—for example, mention of adults you don’t know, secretiveness, inappropriate sexual knowledge or sleeping problems.
Feature illustration: © vladguk/shutterstock.com