Assistant Editor Dan Hoffman takes a closer look at the quality of life off the cyber grid.
Posted in , Nov 16, 2016
The benefits of social media are obvious. We can stay updated with our friends and reconnect with old ones; Twitter and Facebook curate news and entertainment for us based on what we like. We’ve shared stories about how a force for good often works through the internet, reconnecting people with lost things, calling good Samaritans into action, even saving lives. But is there a point when our helpful distraction becomes a harmful addiction?
A recent New York magazine story, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” by Andrew Sullivan gets to what may really be at stake when we overuse social media—our spiritual lives. “Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom,” Sullivan writes. “Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes. We have gone from looking up and around to constantly looking down.”
One of the first well-known Internet bloggers, Sullivan eventually realized that he was plugged in so often that his virtual life had replaced his real one, and he could no longer be alone with his thoughts, prayers, or observations of the world. “Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise,” he writes.
I suffer from this affliction myself sometimes: scrolling through social media like a zombie, doing nothing productive, feeling like I’m avoiding something important. This feeling increased since I’ve begun meditating, so much so that sometimes I feel guilty for being on my phone. I’m more aware that with every app I open, I’m missing out on the present moment. Which is ironic, because for most of us, FOMO (fear of missing out) is why we began feverishly checking our newsfeeds and Instagram friends in the first place.
Overloading our minds with social media has implications for spiritual life because it’s in silence and solitude—and perhaps most importantly, our present-moment experience—that spiritual life happens. Maybe I’m meant to have a revelation while I’m bored and waiting for the train, or meant to learn something from a friend face-to-face instead of through Facebook comments. If I block out the real world for the virtual one, I may miss out on what God can tell me.
I recently blogged about my silent experience at the Abbey of Gethsemani. There’s no doubt in my mind that had I been checking my phone, it wouldn’t have been so meaningful. Sullivan had a similar insight at his own religious retreat. “The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn,” Sullivan writes.
Of course, the internet and technology aren’t inherently bad, but in my own experience, and in Sullivan’s, we need to question whether we use it as distracting noise or a more efficient way to reach out to others. As for me, I’m far from giving up my smart phone, but I’ve started to designate times when I’m completely off the grid—and these are some of my finest moments.
How do you think the internet and social media affect your spiritual life? Share your story here.