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Confessions of a Social Media expert

When you need to leave your phone behind

Forgive me for what I am about to say, as it may sound mildly blasphemous coming from a full time Social Media producer: I regularly consider deleting all my social media accounts. The highly addictive nature of social media sometimes feels like it can only be conquered by complete abstinence. But, could becoming ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ social media be missing the point?

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Last Friday, survey results were published from a study by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement, which revealed four out of five social media platforms are harmful to young people’s mental health. Instagram was labelled the worst (here).

Chief Executive of The Royal Society for Public Health Shirley Cramer believes that social media platforms should introduce a pop-up image to warn young people when they’ve been using it a lot. She added that platforms like Instagram should warn people when images have been digitally enhanced.

The results of the Royal Society’s study don’t surprise me. If anything, they only increase my desire for a complete social media purge – even though I’m 29 years old, and the study was conducted on 15 to 24 year olds. I don’t think anyone would contest the idea that social media is a bit of a relentless vacuum that can steal us away from more important things, including our relationship with God.

“It’s important for us to remember that we’re still entirely human. We have limits upon our capacity.” – Tanya Riches

Tanya Riches lectures at Hillsong College on theology and culture, including social media. She thinks the idea of a pop-up to remind us to take a walk or get some fresh air is a great idea. “In a globalising world, most of these platforms are setup to run 24/7,” says Riches. “The idea is that they are available internationally for people when they are awake, but obviously, none of us are (yet) able to be awake 24 hours! So I think it’s important for us to remember that we’re still entirely human. We have limits upon our capacity.”

Steve Kryger, who blogs about our technological age at communicatejesus.com, isn’t quite as optimistic about the idea of a pop-up being the solution. He says a pop-up would only be useful if we actually want to take breaks, “but if the desire to break isn’t there, they serve little purpose and are easily dismissed. We need God’s help to create the right desires.” He points to the promises of Ezekiel 36: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

Kryger believes a better question to ask ourselves is: “Is this helping me become more like Christ? If not, we would be wise to question what we’re doing.”

“Our phones and other devices are just as distracting and dangerous for our spiritual health.” – Steve Kryger

When it comes to spiritual disciplines like Bible reading and prayer, social media isn’t the only distraction. “Our phones and other devices are just as distracting and dangerous for our spiritual health,” according to Kryger.

“I have become much more conscious how often I reach for my phone, and now make a very intentional choice – for example, when waiting for a train, or to meet someone for lunch –to not look at my phone. I try to use this time now for quiet and prayer,” says Kryger.

However, Riches believes that thanks to Christians who are working in the digital world, technology can play a positive role in our spiritual health. “You can find apps that help you read your Bible, apps that remind you to pray, and you can get access to worship music online instantly, to assist you in your spiritual disciplines,” she says.

“We’re only going to get the type of relational input we need if we put our phones down.” – Tanya Riches

But Riches cautions that technology can alienate one generation from another. Instead, we all need mothers and fathers of the faith and, “we’re only going to get the type of relational input we need if we put our phones down.”

I’m inspired by an example Riches shared with me about a recent dinner she had with some of her heroes in the faith. She said that upon arrival she deliberately left her phone at the door, to prevent her from being tempted to text friends, or respond to emails. Because she was free from the distraction of her phone, she stayed much later than she would have and said she was able to spend more time really listening to their hearts.

In our “always on” culture, Kryger reminds us that “stillness, quiet, focus and concentration are much needed in our time with God.” This isn’t easy because even if we are using technology such as email devotionals to help us read the Bible, our attention can quickly be drawn to scrolling through Facebook instead.

“Turn it off. Turn your phone off. Turn notifications off.” – Steve Kryger

Riches receives daily Bible verses via email, but admits she has to become “sneakier and sneakier” in order to prioritise the things that really matter. “Fatigue is a real issue. You don’t realise how tired you get when you’re on the phone,” she says.

Kryger’s solution to the endless distraction of social media is a bit more black and white. “Turn it off. Turn your phone off. Turn notifications off. Remove apps from your phone.” He points out that apps are designed to suck up as much of our time as possible and it’s not easy to delete them – but God is worth it.

“We must do whatever is necessary to remove whatever draws us away from God,” encourages Kryger. “And we must pray for a hunger for God that is stronger than our desires for anything else.”

“You’ve only got one life! Live it!” – Tanya Riches

I agree with Kryger – God is worth whatever it takes. For each of us, this will mean different things. Some of us may need to delete apps and social media indefinitely, and for others, it may mean utilising technology more strategically, such as downloading a Bible app, or an app that reminds us to pray.

But at the end of the day, sometimes I think we need to just put our phones down altogether. As Riches says: “We aren’t living in the internet. We live on earth. And we believe in a God who incarnated himself. So plant something and watch it grow, get a hobby or find a way to make sure you’re really here. You’ve only got one life! Live it!”

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