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The scene seems ubiquitous these days. You’re in line at the grocery store and take out your phone — you’ll do a quick runaround of social media and email, as you wait to put your broccoli on the conveyor belt. Or you go out to eat and notice that the couple next to you is lit up by a fluorescent screen, more present to others than to the person two feet away from them. Fights erupt on social media and you feel the need to differentiate and defend.
Most of us are still chained to our devices. The recent Netflix documentary film, The Social Dilemma,1 brings together a handful of past Silicon Valley executives to begin to question and consider how our social media practices — and even algorithms and business models — actually detract from human freedom, connection, health, and social stability. The question for Christians is not only how social media has changed the landscape of civility and discussion, but also how it is forming us either Godward or selfward. And fundamentally, how technology exposes the human heart.
The Social Dilemma focuses on three main problems of the medium: advertising in an attention economy, mental health, and social destabilization. Concerning the first, experts weigh in to note that in only two industries are customers called ‘users’: illegal drugs and social media software. With built-in dopamine rewards — consider notification buttons, retweets, and hearts and likes that keep us coming back — we unthinkingly reach for social media to get our next ‘hit.’ We bring questions about our likability, popularity, intelligence, and competence to social media; and we ask it to answer them for us.
Increasingly sophisticated algorithms keep us looking — to shop from an ad, or even in more sinister ways to make us a “human lab rat.” As Jaron Lanier (a virtual reality pioneer and writer) notes, the real ‘product’ of social media is “the slight, gradual imperceptible change in our behavior and perception.”2 Our attention has become the form of payment in what is now being called ‘surveillance capitalism.’ How long we scroll, what we look at, how we interact are all being taken into account to deliver up what increasingly holds our attention. Since, technically, we don’t pay for social media, it is instead our attention that pays the price.
While we might not like our attention being monetized, we can still wonder: isn’t technology, specifically social media, simply another tool? Tristan Harris, former Google Design Ethicist and now the president of Center for Humane Technology, remarks, “no one got upset when the bicycle showed up.”3 You could use it or not and when you didn’t, it sat in a shed gathering dust. Social media, however, is engineered to keep our attention, and to change us. Addiction and manipulation is built into social media to keep us coming back, and much of this is having dire consequences on mental health. The film reports that self-harm and suicide are exponentially increasing for teen girls (up 70–151 percent), as well as depression, less risk-taking among teens, and waiting longer to get drivers licenses. Every high-powered tech executive interviewed in The Social Dilemma severely limits his or her own usage and most often will not let their children use social media. Social media is not a neutral tool — it preys upon human weakness. Harris later reminds us that in many of our movies we imagined artificial intelligence would mean the rise of machines that would overwhelm human strength — but now our AI does the opposite: it overwhelms human weakness.
While we imagine social media as a tool for connection, it more often is a tool of isolation and destabilization, not simply on the individual level, but also in societies. Social media is wreaking havoc on the democratic process. Over the last several years, we’ve found out how social media puts us in echo chambers. In the 2016 US presidential election, there was concern that Russia was interfering with our democratic election by ads shown on Facebook. The increase in violence, political destabilization, culture wars, and tribalism are fed through social media. For instance, in Myanmar cheap cell phones are automatically loaded with Facebook, and Facebook has not stepped in to limit hate speech. The UN contends this has contributed to destabilizing elections and to a refugee and human rights crisis with 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing rape and mass killings.4
In the context of the recent presidential election cycle in 2020, an article in the New York Times mentions that it was by inserting more humans into the process that Twitter and Facebook regulated their platforms to preserve democracy: “They added friction to processes, like political ad-buying, that had previously been smooth and seamless. They brought in human experts to root out extremist groups and manually intervened to slow the spread of sketchy stories. They overrode their own algorithms to insert information from trusted experts into users’ feeds.”5 While this may or may not bode well for large liberal democracies, it seems almost inevitable that smaller countries that aren’t global superpowers will be left in the dust of algorithms that continue to subvert truth for political power.
What is (increasingly left leaning) big tech doing? Will they regulate the political destabilization, get rid of the rabbit holes meant to alienate, radicalize, and expose children to untruth, immorality, or violence? Are they responsible to do so?
THE PROBLEM FOR CHRISTIANS
Given the reality of social media — how it manipulates users for their attention, negatively affects mental health, and even destabilizes many of the virtues we hold dear, such as freedom — what is a Christian to do? We may know about social media’s addictive qualities. But, like Tim Kendall, who though he was the president of Pinterest, found himself continually coming back to social media platforms when he was home from work, we seem powerless to change our behavior. The largest questions about tech and our use of it (or addiction to it) are oriented around issues of truth and formation.
The first point to note is that social media has left behind the notion of objective truth. What someone considers ‘true’ is what is on your screen (which is different from other people’s screens). Tristan Harris notes bleakly, “If we can’t agree on what’s true, we can’t navigate out of our problems.”6
In a recent article, Dr. Alan Noble, a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, writes about the ways the Trump administration has used truth for political power and the detrimental effect on our social life: “what concerns me more is that once we no longer care about the truth, our own deliberations will become corrupt. The positions we take and the policies we advocate — in the name of life or morality or justice — will not be restrained by truth.” The how of political winning, no matter the side, won’t matter. Noble calls us to preserve truth.7
Christians assert that truth is ultimately found in God, the source of truth. But as a society, we’ve gone past the idea of relativist, self-construed ‘truth’ to an all-out manipulation of reality. As Christians, we must stake the claim that what is true matters, even if it means losing power and authority. This has implications for our use of social media and what that involvement looks like.
There is also the concern of the formational aspect of social media — our devices habituate us to come to social media for worth, validation, and sociability. Yuval Levin, in his book A Time to Build, notes the difference between institutions that form and mold us and platform; platform is performative, offering “ways for us to shine and be seen, not ways for us to be transformed by an ethic shared with others.”8 The social media platforms we use form us into paparazzies, requesting pictures of ourselves and always needing to perform rather than live our lives.9 Furthermore, we consume at least five times as much information per day (through our feeds) than we did 50 years ago. We also spend as much as 12 hours a day on a TV or computer screen!10
For all the fears around AI, ultimately our technology has been created and is manipulated by humans.11 What the executives in The Social Dilemma never get to is the problem of the human heart. In fact, the opening montage shows several young, nervous-looking Silicon Valley executives unable to confidently state the problem with the social media landscape. The attention economy, surveillance capitalism, and political destabilization are not just issues to be solved with better technology. We need better humans who create better technology. And the only way we get better humans is through recognizing our deepest need: we need a Savior — and limits on an app won’t save us.
When algorithms are created by humans to emphasize profit over virtue, or to increase our screen addiction, they get at a larger problem than where our money or attention goes: they evidence the way sin twists the human heart. A new algorithm won’t save us, only Jesus does. He is able to “remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh,”12 transforming our desires and drawing us toward the redemption of all things.
Our habits matter. Christian virtue and Christian institutions, like the church, form us in ways toward love of God and neighbor. Social media forms us toward the self, and insomuch as it considers others, it is to see in them an “us” or a “them.” We must realize that when we pick up our smartphones or log in to social media on our laptops, what we’re asking our feeds to answer are spiritual questions: Am I worthy of love and belonging? Where do I fit? What is my good work to do? The answers our feeds give us most often leave us restless, envious, dissatisfied, angry, and numb. There is a better way.
A WAY FORWARD
Many simply eschew social media, or severely restrict it for their children. If we choose to engage with social media, what might be some ways forward? We must always return to praising God for His infinite virtues, recognizing and repenting of our own sinful hearts, and practicing small habits that orient us toward loving God and loving neighbor.
Considering these habits, The Center for Humane Technology advises basic principles for using technology,13 and more specifically, how we might practically implement Christian virtues, such as truth, goodness, and beauty, when we pick up our phones.
We need to first consider what we give our attention to. Paul reminds us “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8 NIV). Meditating on Scripture, encouragement from a friend, thinking through ways to meet the tangible needs in your community — these are ways we work toward virtue. The envy or anger that you may be prone to when you pick up your phone are not. Consider something as small as a lock screen to remind you of the most formative things and choose what is most praiseworthy before defaulting to social media (my husband’s lock screen says, “Bible before e-mail”). Using screen time settings to limit social media and taking a digital sabbath on Sundays are ways we can use our time for the things that shape us toward God.
We also need to consider to what extent our time spent on social media forms us toward loving God and neighbor or thinking too much of self. While we might learn about local poverty through an app, we must also take steps to engage issues instead of simply responding on social media. We must do rather than simply virtue signal.
Social media does not have the final say on who we are. We are made in the image of God, with bodies, minds, hearts, and souls. When we become enamored with our devices, we often lose aspects of our humanity — we stay too much in our minds, we become sedentary, or we forget truth is objective and outside ourselves. Go back to the Word of God to orient you rightly toward being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14 NIV) before you engage social media.
We are built for community. Commit to local institutions to form you more than isolating echo chambers of social media. Consider a weekly check-in with others about your social media usage versus your time spent in Christian or neighborly community. Whether you choose not to engage at all in social media, delete apps off your phone, or use a search engine that doesn’t have access to your data, recognize that the largest questions about your time and heart center not so much on what you do not give your attention to but what captivates your heart. The heart is wicked and deceitful, as Scripture says,14 and we need saving. Yet, too, as we grow in sanctification, we are formed more by God than our devices, to look more like Jesus as we practice doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.15 —Ashley Hales
Ashley Hales holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Edinburgh and spends her time writing, speaking, hosting the Finding Holy podcast, and mothering her four children with her pastor husband. She is author of Finding Holy in the Suburbs (IVP, 2018) and the forthcoming book, A Spacious Life (InterVarsity Press, 2021).
- The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski, Netflix, 2020, https://www.netflix.com/title/81254224.
- The Social Dilemma, https://www.netflix.com/title/81254224. Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) is reviewed at Christian Research Institute’s website equip.org. See Douglas Groothius, “A Creator’s Remorse in Silicon Valley,” Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 01 (2011), https://www.equip.org/article/creators-remorse-in-silicon-valley/.
- The Social Dilemma, https://www.netflix.com/title/81254224.
- “UN Blames Facebook for Spreading Hatred Against Rohingya in Myanmar,” CBS News, March 13, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/facebook-un-blames-social-media-giant-for-spreading-hatred-rohingya-myanmar/.
- Kevin Roose, “On Election Day, Facebook and Twitter Did Better by Making their Products Worse,” New York Times, November 5, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/05/technology/facebook-twitter-election.html.
- The Social Dilemma, https://www.netflix.com/title/81254224.
- O. Alan Noble, “Christian Witness Demands That We Defend Truth — and Reject Donald Trump,” The Public Witness, September 28, 2020, https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2020/09/71762/.
- Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community, to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream (New York: Basic Books, 2020), 34.
- The point was made by Yuval Levin in a recent Trinity Forum lecture.
- Nicole F. Roberts, “How Much Time Americans Spend on Screens Will Terrify You,” Forbes, January 24, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2019/01/24/how-much-time-americans-spend-in-front-of-screens-will-terrify-you/?sh=5215c7351c67.
- For more, see Charles Edward White, “Who’s Afraid of HAL? Why Computers Will Not Become Conscious and Take over the World,” Christian Research Journal 39, 06 (2016), https://www.equip.org/article/whos-afraid-of-hal-why-computers-will-not-become-conscious-and-take-over-the-world/.
- Ezekiel 36:36 ESV.
- “Get Involved,” Center for Humane Technology, https://www.humanetech.com/get-involved.
- Jeremiah 17:9.
- Micah 6:8.