I’m pleased to have Ed Cyzewski back at The Contemplative Writer with a guest post this week! Ed is an author and a contemplative who writes with great wisdom on topics such as prayer and the quieting of our soul. Today, this wisdom comes in the form of a post based on his recent book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration From Digital Distraction. Reconnect helps us learn to be present to God rather than to the constant call of technology. If you struggle with distraction or the need for validation, both of which can result from social media use, I really recommend Ed’s book.
Below, Ed talks about the effects of social media not only on our souls but also on our creativity.
Leah is highly accomplished programmer who has worked on some of the most important features on one of the most widely used social media platforms in the world. Leah also pays someone to manage her social media accounts, especially her Facebook pages.
Why would prompt someone with her credentials to take such a drastic step? Is she naïve to the many benefits of social media? Is she a workaholic who can’t make time for social connections on line?
Actually, Leah is protecting herself from a social media feedback loop that is addicting and destructive. She knows that because she helped create it.
This “Leah” is Leah Pearlman, the co-creator of the red notification button on Facebook. She had to hire someone to manage her accounts because the red notification button was too appealing and became linked to her self-esteem and daily moods (as of this writing the notifications are a red bubble on top of a bell on the Facebook home page). She went on to say:
When I need validation – I go to check Facebook… I’m feeling lonely, ‘Let me check my phone.’ I’m feeling insecure, ‘Let me check my phone.’… I noticed that I would post something that I used to post and the ‘like’ count would be way lower than it used to be.
Leah even used the word “addicted” in assessing herself: “Suddenly, I thought I’m actually also kind of addicted to the feedback.”[i]
Even for those generally unworried about the response of peers, social media still prompts us to curate our identity, selecting the “best” parts of ourselves to share with others. This sets a perfect trap of sorts in terms of spirituality, as we have more than enough opportunities to present or live under the influence of a fabricated false self already.
This can be devastating both for our souls and for creativity:
Do we find our affirmation in the integrity of what we create or in the chance reactions of distracted people, many who barely know us, on social media?
Do we find our worth in the chance feedback of social media or in the loving presence of God that doesn’t rely on careful programming, alluring designs, and enhanced algorithms?
When I speak of a false self, I mean that kind of mask or identity we imagine for ourselves. Henrì Nouwen wrote in The Way of the Heart about the pressure in ministry to be relevant and competent, rather than embracing the brokenness we find in silence and solitude.[ii] Whether we try to project ourselves as successful, organized, creative, wise, or smart, the false self steals the security and affirmation we could receive from God. Instead, we face the pressure to maintain and even protect the false self rather than discovering who we are in God.
Social media provides an opportunity to make the false self more concrete—at least in the sense that it becomes something you and others can see. It literally can become an avatar that is projected, and as we become entangled with our online personas and false selves, it may become quite difficult to discern who we are in the security of God’s love.
As more likes and followers amass in approval of the false self, we may fear the loss of this steady stream of affirmation and may do what we can to ensure that it continues to grow. That isn’t to say that every social media user is at the mercy of a false self. Rather, social media offers a perfect opportunity to “incarnate” the false self and to build relationships around it.
Are we truly seeing people as they are? Or are we only seeing a projected image that is meant to appeal to us? As algorithms help us find people who are most like ourselves and as social media results in people migrating toward divided echo chambers, we are at risk of losing touch with the complexity of each other while also reducing people to simplistic labels based on what they reveal online about themselves, such as their religious or political preferences.
While there are opportunities for connection, community, and encouragement via social media notifications, those notifications can also serve as a source of insecurity that drives us back to social media for another hit of affirmation. This ready-made, daily affirmation from friends, family, and even complete strangers can make it difficult, if not impossible, to give up a social media affirmation hub like Instagram or Twitter—although services like Facebook, YouTube, and SnapChat offer many similar quandaries for users seeking affirmation. You could get “amazing feedback” at any moment if you keep checking, keep posting, and then keep checking. This feedback loop runs counter to the vision for content offered by Thomas Merton:
In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from the effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting any immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.[iii]
The feedback on social media is quite immediate, especially if you compare it to the older publishing processes, such as a magazine article. We immediately know if our ideas, images, videos, or favorite articles resonate with our family, friends, and colleagues. The elation of that feedback can become addicting.
At the same time, we can also enjoy reading updates, viewing videos, and browsing photos from our friends, which go on in an endless supply. We have no end of sources for comparison and envy. The more we fill our days with the parade of images and videos on social media, the less likely we are to turn to God for our affirmation, identity, and security.
This post has been adapted from Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction by Ed Cyzewski (Herald Press, 2020).
[ii] Henrì Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence, 19-21.
[iii] Merton, No Man Is an Island, 127.