How many times have you checked your social media today? Once, maybe twice? Or, perhaps, more often than you care to admit? If you are like most Americans, your smartphone has become an integral part of your life, so much so that it feels strange to be without it. On a recent trip to Europe, I felt very disconnected from the world since I chose not to switch my phone to an international plan. I would instinctively reach for my phone to look something up only to realize that I’d have to rely on a good old-fashioned map for the information I needed. On a typical day, however, I don’t think twice about using my phone to look up all kinds of information. According to a survey conducted by Deloitte, smartphone owners ages 18 to 24 checked their phones and average of 74 times per day. Considering the fact that we spend at least some of those hours sound asleep, that means smartphone owners are checking their phones over four times an hour. Spend just a few minutes in any public space (coffee shop, train station, grocery store, etc.) and these statistics are confirmed.
Social Media: Constant Connectivity
But, we’re not always happy with the way we use our time when it comes to smartphone and social media use. In fact, most of us have a love/hate relationship when it comes to social media and smartphones. 67% of Americans own a smartphone, according to a Pew Research Study, and 90% of those owners say that they frequently carry their phone with them. And it makes sense. Our phones keep us connected no matter where we are. We love the instant access to information and people that it provides us but we also love to bemoan how it impedes us from forming and maintaining authentic relationships. We say that staring at our screens prevents us from engaging with the people right in front of us. So what are we to really think about being constantly connected? Is it helpful or harmful?
Sometimes we talk about social media use as if it’s an epidemic where teens and children eyes are perpetually locked on the glowing screen in front of them. There’s certainly research out there that supports the finding that our brains can be negatively affected by social media use. For example, one study found that the reward center in the brains of teenagers was activated to a greater degree when they viewed photos that were perceived as more popular because the photos had more “likes”. Other researchers have coined the term “Facebook depression” to describe when people feel a sense of loneliness or envy after looking at other people’s posts on Facebook.
Social Media: The Dark Side
In my own practice, my clients and I have identified that sometimes their anxiety or sadness is triggered when they perceive their friends on social media as having more fun, being more accomplished, and living a problem-free life. Of course, that isn’t true, but it’s easy to compare yourself to others and feel your self-worth take a tumble when you scroll through photo after photo and post after post of your friends having the times of their lives. Often, my clients and I talk about how social media often only gives us a biased view of the lives of others: one that is skewed towards the good and the positive and conveniently leaves out the not-so-good. Once my clients have made this connection, they limit their social media use and remind themselves that they are only seeing part of the story and this helps to reduce those feelings of anxiety or sadness.
The Wall Street Journal even recently reported on a small group of teenagers who forgo social media altogether. One researcher, Jacqueline Nesi, who was consulted with for the article, estimates that about 5-15% of teens don’t use social media. One teen who was interviewed said of her decision, “I’ll be with friends eating, and they’ll say, ‘Let’s post this on Instagram!’ Sometimes I feel like saying, ‘You should be talking to me and the other people here, not posting things for people who may or may not care, just so you can get more likes.’ ”
And there is an even darker side to social media use. For example, social media and technology use can lead to addictions. One psychologist, Nicholas Kardaras recently warned in The New York Post about the reality of internet addiction. He writes, “That’s right — your kid’s brain on Minecraft looks like a brain on drugs. No wonder we have a hard time peeling kids from their screens and find our little ones agitated when their screen time is interrupted. In addition, hundreds of clinical studies show that screens increase depression, anxiety and aggression and can even lead to psychotic-like features where the video gamer loses touch with reality.” Research findings and the clinical work of psychologists like Dr. Kardaras clearly point out that technology use can have harmful and potentially addicting effects.
Social Media: The Positive Side
But don’t go deactivating all of your social media accounts just yet. There’s a positive side to social media and technology that’s often overlooked in favor their downsides. For starters, we aren’t all addicted to social media. In fact, many people still believe in and try to follow certain smartphone etiquette. For example, a Pew Research study found that for more than the majority of people, while smartphone use is acceptable when walking down the street, waiting in line, or using public transportation, it is not acceptable to use it while out at a restaurant, at family meals, during a meeting, at church or worship services or other quiet places like movie theaters.
There’s also the reality that social media enables us to create and maintain connections with people whom we would have never been able to connect with before. Whether you follow your favorite Catholic blogger on Twitter or keep up with cousins who live across the country, social media made it possible. Pope Francis, in Amoris Laetitia (278.), writes that, “When well used, these media can be helpful for connecting family members who live apart from one another…Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication.”
Social media can help us sustain connections when it isn’t possible to spend time together in person. Think of the military officer overseas who keeps in touch with his family or the son in college who is able to stay connected with friends back home. It’s only when the digital relationship replaces the in-person relationship that social media becomes harmful rather than helpful. For example, someone who isolates himself or herself from friends and prefers to compete against other virtual players in their favorite online game. And, in his World Communication Day Address, Pope Francis makes this very point when he says, “It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal. Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups.” If our hearts are seeking a genuine connection with another person through social media, it can strengthen healthy relationships. If, on the other hand, our hearts are seeking a connection through social media to avoid a deepening of the relationship or to foster an unauthentic connection, social media holds us back from living authentically.
Social Media: All Things In Moderation
The question then becomes, how can we embrace the good that social media and other forms of technology offer? How can we harness it to help us form authentic, in-person relationships? It seems that one possible way to guide our use of social media so that it fosters authentic connections is to use the words of Pope Francis to discern where are hearts are. When we open our favorite social media app on our phone, is our intention to deepen authentic connections and foster what it means to be fully human? Or do we find ourselves susceptible to envy and jealousy at what is happening in the world around us? Think about how many times you’ve pulled out your phone and opened Facebook or Instagram to mindlessly scroll through your feed out of boredom. That’s definitely not an authentic and intentional use of social media.
Other ways to encourage an authentic use of social media could include limiting either the total amount of time or times of the day spent on it (once in the morning and once at night, for example). Another helpful strategy might be asking yourself why you are opening the app. Is it because you want to find out what’s going on or, are you bored and looking to pass time? Talking to your children about how to use social media can also be a great way for them to foster awareness of authentically approaching social media. You can be an invaluable example for them when it comes to social media use. Your example can help them learn to interact with social media in a more mindful and intentional way than their peers might be.
Like many things in life, social media and the constant connectivity it offers is a relatively neutral tool that can be used to either help or hinder our relationships. The key to using social media intentionally and authentically is to examine your own heart, needs, and motivations and tailor your approach to social media based on that assessment. By establishing guidelines and parameters for your social media use, you’ll likely find that any fear or frustration surrounding your use of it is significantly decreased. Then, you’ll experience the beneficial difference social media can make when it comes to cultivating and maintaining connections.