“The change in communication technology is not additive; it is ecological.”
At the time of this writing, the homework assignment of a second-grader from Louisiana is taking the Internet by storm. The teacher, Jen Adams Beason, asked her students to “write about an invention they wish had never been created.” One of her students picked the cellphone “because my [parents] are on their phone every day…I hate my mom’s phone and I wish she never had one” the second-grader wrote.(1) Communication has changed so much, and so rapidly, that we have not adequately stopped to calculate the cost. Perhaps that is because, as Neil Postman enlightened us, “The change in communication technology is not additive; it is ecological.”(2) This concept is illustrated by an analogy used by Postman.(2) If you were to place a drop of red dye into a glass of clear water, what would happen? Would you have a glassful of clear water plus a small drop of red dye? Of course not, the red dye would affect every molecule; it would change the color of all the water in the glass. This is what Postman meant by ecological change. Postman pointed out that, with the advent of television, we did not end up with America plus television. Television changed every family, every political endeavor, every war, every church, every art form, and every individual.(2) We had an entirely different America. By the same token, smartphones and social media have not simply been added to our society, they have changed every aspect of our lives. A drive in the car has changed. A walk in the park with your children has changed. Broadway plays have stopped because a cellphone rang. Photography has changed. Marketing has changed. Family reunions have changed. The birth of a child and childhood itself has changed. Consider that in the United States more than 90 percent of 2-year-olds already have an online presence.(3)
How should a Christian approach Social Media and Communication Technology?
If we are to improve our lives and our communication we must pay attention to five crucial areas. These five areas are self-control, theology of communication, anxiety, identity, and relationships. These form the acronym STAIR. While this is not an exhaustive list, it will give us a start to winning in the struggle with our communication technology and social media.
My wife and I were walking down the sidewalk in one of the most romantic cities in the world. The cobblestone walk was bordered by a stone wall overlooking the Seine River, which was lined on both banks by world-renowned architecture. It was a beautiful summer afternoon in Paris. The temperature was in the mid-seventies with a sweet breeze wafting through the flowers and the green leaves of the occasional tree. But it was a heaven with hiccups. I did not enjoy the walk. The reason was the incessant interruptions of our phones every few steps. We would hold hands, then we would let go as one of us would get out our phone because it was obviously more important than a romantic stroll on a picturesque Paris day. It was a missed opportunity on the only free afternoon we had in Europe during our trip. We arrived at a restaurant without the benefit of experiencing the closeness and togetherness we could have enjoyed, that we should have enjoyed, during our walk. I felt cheated. Our technology had eclipsed our experience. It had come between a beautiful opportunity and us. I have digital pictures we took on that stroll. But I do not have the benefit of a conversation that could have been deep, meaningful and charming. Our communication technology was supposed to make our lives more meaningful, and it has in some ways. But if we do not learn to control it, instead of allowing it to control us, we are headed for many more missed opportunities.
Today the average adult in America will check their phones every six and a half minutes.(4) Proving that our children are digital natives, baby bouncers and potty chairs are being manufactured with slots for digital devices.(4) Eighty percent of teenagers sleep with their phones.(4) Unfortunately, during the dinner hour, most families in America are managing six or seven information streams including laptops, tablets, smartphones, desktops and one or two televisions.(4) College students using any media are usually using four streams simultaneously.(4) However, we do not need statistics to convince us of our inculcation into this realm. We have each experienced it firsthand.
How hyperconnected are we? If you are like most people you spend between one and four hours on your phone every day, and some spend much longer.(5) In a recent study, users were spending an average of over a quarter of their waking hours on their phones. Over a lifetime that time amounts to eleven years.(5) If we are to avoid, as Thoreau said, becoming the “tools of our tools,” we must be intentional. We must control our social media and communication technology instead of allowing it to control us. Back in 1949, Martin Heidegger warned, “We are delivered over to [technology] in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral.”(6) If we do nothing, we are unwise. Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an “ecosystem of interruption technologies,” as the blogger and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow terms it.(7)
So, how does one find the balance? As a Christian, I look for timeless insight from the Bible. Paul explained the choices that he had to make as a disciple. “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.”(8) Addiction to devices is real. Sleep deprivation often happens when an individual lacks the self-control to disconnect. Individuals who are addicted to technology can go on binges in which one session continues for twenty hours or more.(9)
By taking control of your tech you will retake control of your life. You will be its master and no longer it’s slave. There are apps available that will track or limit your time on your phone. Moment will track how much time you spend on your phone, how many times you unlock it, and it will allow you to set a time limit.(10) Checky is another app that will tell you how many times a day you unlock your phone.(10)
Having touched on controlling our use of communication technology, we know it is not going away. If we must live with our cell phones and social media, what guidelines should we use? I submit that we need a theology of communication.
Theology of Communication
What does the Bible say about communication tools and social media? It actually has much to say. The Word of God is full of timeless principles, including those to guide our communication. Everything the Bible tells us about speech, and communication in general, it tells about our texts and our posts. Our communication, whether verbal, written or digital, should comply with biblical guidelines. “Dance like no one is watching; email like it may one day be read aloud in a deposition,” so says Olivia Nuzzi of the Daily Beast.(11)
Following are some examples, followed by an updated paraphrase of my own.
When one is emotional, perhaps it would be best to wait before firing off a text or jumping on Twitter to unload.
Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him (Proverbs 29:20 NKJV).
Do you see a person hasty in his TEXTS? There is more hope for a fool than for him (Proverbs 29:20, my paraphrase).
One of the problems with social media is people who over-emote. Scripture advises us to hold back from oversharing.
“A fool vents all his feelings, But a wise man holds them back” (Proverbs 29:11 NKJV).
A fool POSTS all his feelings, But a wise man holds them back (Proverbs 29:11, my paraphrase).
If you are trying to please God with every area of your life, have you considered your online presence and all areas of your communication?
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my strength and my Redeemer” (Psalms 19:14 NKJV).
Let the POSTS of my FACEBOOK and the TWEETS of my TWITTER and the PICS on my INSTAGRAM be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer (Psalms 19:14, my paraphrase).
It is sobering to think about the fact that we must answer for our communication.
“And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you” (Matthew 12:36-37 NLT).
“And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle TEXT or POST you SEND. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you” (Matthew 12:36-37, my paraphrase).
I live in a city where Megan Meier committed suicide in 2006 because the mother of a former friend pretended to be a boy that liked her and then turned on her. When “Josh” told her she should kill herself, Megan did. The words of Proverbs never proved so true.(9)
Death and life are in the power of the tongue…(Proverbs 18:21 NKJV).
Death and life are in the power of the TEXT, POST or TWEET…(Proverbs 18:21, my paraphrase).
Anxiety is connected with many of the changes in our communication technology.
What originated as a mechanism for communication is now driving, demanding, and sometimes distorting our communication. In addition to communicating impulsively, we find ourselves driven to communicate more than we want or more than is healthy for us. We have never had the expectation before that we should be available to anybody, everybody, anytime anywhere.(12)
“I am an ADDICT. I don’t need alcohol, cocaine or any other derailing form of social depravity…MEDIA is my drug; without it I was lost.”-Student asked to go a day without technology-based devices (9)
The number-one health crisis in China is Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) with over 20 million teens addicted to the internet. Every South Korean student, teacher, and parent has been given a handbook full of warnings regarding the potential dangers presented by technology and screens, and 400 tech addiction rehabilitation centers have opened in the country.(13) A recent study by Pew Research indicates that people who use social media can experience greater levels of stress because they are exposed to so many negative events.(14) “Fear of Missing Out,” or FOMO, a phrase coined by MTV, affects many.(15) In a poll the network conducted with young people, 66 percent found it “exhausting to always be ‘on’” but 58 percent worried when that, when they were not connected, they were missing out on something.(15)
Is this the life God planned for us? On the contrary, God’s Word instructs us to “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God”.(16) God’s people are instructed not to be overly anxious. Perhaps taking a digital Sabbath would be a good idea. We could start by turning our phones on airplane mode while we are in prayer or in church. I understand the anxiety being away from the cellphone can cause individuals, but at least set a timer and check them at 20 or 30-minute intervals during family time.
Where do you find your identity? One used to find it in more traditional places like family, friends, and school. Now identity is affected by how many likes a post or a tweet has garnered. Who we are, and how we feel about ourselves, seems to be inextricably linked to our online presence today. Sherry Turkle does not suggest that we do away with our devices, but that we have a relationship with them that includes more self-awareness.(4) Turkle tells of Sharon, a 34-year-old colleague who is surprised when a friend refers to her cell phone as her “tiny god,” and wonders if that is how she treats her own smartphone.(4) Sharon is concerned about how social media is shaping her “sense of herself.”(4) She is concerned that she is spending an inordinate amount of time acting out a better version of herself that will be more admired by those who follow her.(4) If we are not careful, we can eventually outsource the responsibility and power to affect our identity to others. Instead of looking to our Heavenly Father to determine our value, “we continue to seek our security and purpose from…the approval of others.”(17)
“We make our technologies, our objects, but then the objects of our lives shape us in turn. Our new screen worlds have scintillating, pulsating surfaces, they invite playful exploration; they are dynamic, seductive, and elusive. It is not clear what we are becoming when we look upon them.”(18)
Finally, our relationships are changing so rapidly because of our communication technology and social media. You see it in almost every restaurant and coffee house. The picture has become a cliché. Four or five people in “text-neck” position, sitting across from each other, all on their devices, and communicating with invisible people. They are trading a real experience for a virtual one. They are alone together.(19) Let’s take a closer look at the scenario by unpacking a concept from psychologists called “The Social Capital Theory”. “Social capital includes all of the benefits that we gain from our social relationships.”(9) Psychologists describe three levels of social capital:(20)
- Bonding social capital is provided by loved ones, the family and friends to whom we are closest. These are the individuals we feel an emotional nearness to, and those who care for us when the need arises.
- Maintaining social capital requires maintaining some of our old friendships that might bring support when called upon.
- Bridging social capital is the lowest level, which includes the miscellaneous group that would include the rest of the people with which we are acquainted. These are not people who provide social support, but they provide other things such as information. This level of relationships may be wider but it is definitely not deeper. These are not the people we would call at 3:00am if we were having an emotional breakdown (or, for that matter, a flat tire). These are considered “weak ties”, whereas the relationships that make up bonding social capital are considered “core ties” by relationship network researchers.
“Every time you CHECK YOUR PHONE in company, what you GAIN is a hit of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you LOSE is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, felt.”
-Sherry Turkle in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
So what is the “trade-off”? Many times, while people are with their closest loved ones, they are distracted and communicating with others with whom they are not nearly as close. In social terms, this exchanges what we need more of in favor of what we need less of. We are losing depth to gain width. In terms of social capital, this pushes away what we need most in favor of what we need least. Many times, while people are sitting with top-tier, bonding social capital friends and family, they are texting or communicating with third-tier, bridging social capital “friends” that are not present. The most needed, most critical relationships are often ignored, taken for granted, and sacrificed on the altar of social media and hyper-connectivity. These third-tier relationships “offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”(4) Research now confirms what we already knew: the time we spend online, or on our devices, is stealing time from the people around us.(12) Even a silent phone changes our conversation. Studies have revealed that if a phone is present on the table, even if it is turned off, conversations turn shallower for fear of interruption.(4)
What can be done about this erosion of relationship quality? For families, device-free-meals are a great place to start. When going to a restaurant with friends, make a short stack of cell phones and whoever goes for their phone when it sounds off pays for the entire table.(21) “As a rule, if my use of technology leads me into deeper relationships with others, then I’m using it right. But if my use of technology creates distance or division from others, it’s time to recalibrate.”(21)
We can get back in the driver’s seat and take control of the communication chaos in our lives. We can be more intentional. We can practice self-control with our tech, communicate in a God-honoring way, reduce anxiety, gain our identity and value from Jesus Christ, and prioritize our closest relationships. In the process, perhaps we will be a greater light to others.
1 ‘I hate my mom’s phone & I wish she never had one’: 2nd-grader’s essay goes viral. (2018). Retrieved from http://insider.foxnews.com/2018/05/25/childs-essay-goes-viral-wishing-parents-cell-phones-were-never-invented-i-hate-it
2 Postman, N., (1998, March). Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change. Presented at The New Technologies and the Human Person: Communicating the Faith in the New Millennium. Denver, Colorado.
4 Turkle, S. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin Books, 2016.
5 Alter, Adam (2017-03-07). Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (p. 15). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
6 Heidegger, Martin, and William Lovitt. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Harper & Row, 1977.
7 Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W.W. Norton, 2011.
8 1 Corinthians 6:12 KJV
9 Rosen, Larry D. IDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
10 Hall, K. (2014, November 05). These Apps Help You Realize How Much Time You Waste On Your Phone. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/05/apps-smartphone-use-_n_6096748.html
11 Eggerichs, E. (2017). Before you hit send: Preventing headache and heartache. Thomas Nelson Pub.
12 Steiner-Adair EdD., Catherine; Teresa H. Barker (2013-08-13). The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age (p. 23). HarperCollins. Kindle edition.
13 Kardaras, Nicholas (2016-08-09). Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids-and How to Break the Trance (Kindle Locations 102-107). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.
14 Stress may be ‘caught’ from social media, study says. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/health/2015/01/23/stress-may-be-caught-from-social-media-study-says.html
15 Taylor, C. (April 29, 2011). For Millenials, social media is not all fun and games. GigaOM. Retrieved from http://gigaom.com/2011/04/29/millennial-mtv-study/.
16 Philippians 4:6 NKJV
17 McGee, R. S. (1994). The search for significance: Book. Houston, TX: Rapha Pub.
18 Turkle, S. (2002). Our Split Screens. Etnofoor, 15(1/2), 5-19. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25758020
19 Turkle, S. (2017). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.
20 Papathanassopoulos, S. (2011). Media perspectives for the 21st century. London: Routledge.
21 Barna Group; Jun Young; David Kinnaman. The Hyperlinked Life: Live with Wisdom in an Age of Information Overload (Frames) (p. 81). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.