Pop quiz: Have you recently posted something on Facebook and then checked within minutes to see how many people have ‘liked’ your post? It would be shocking if only a minority of people admitted that they had given into this behavior. Too often we see people focusing more on taking the perfect picture or the perfect ‘selfie,’ posting the picture to Facebook, and then being glued to their phone waiting for their friends to hit the coveted like button. What does this say about us as a society? But more to the point, what are such actions doing to our psyches’?
The Need for Affirmation
The incessant need for affirmation (albeit artificial affirmation) is a driving force behind the Like Button Syndrome. We believe that without this affirmation that we will be ostracized, or we would be crazy if we left a post up on Facebook which had not received enough likes. You hear of teenagers asking their friends’ opinions as to whether or not they should post a picture; posting an unflattering photo would mean imminent social banishment. Such behavior can be expected from adolescents. But what does it say when this behavior occurs with people in their 20s, 30s, or even their 40s? Clearly something is amiss if these adults need the artificial affirmation of Facebook likes.
Now let’s be clear: we all have the need for affirmation. It’s part of being human and a relational being. In fact, we see that the human person (both male and female) are made for relationship from the very beginning of creation. Further, God seeks out his people Israel throughout the Old Testament to be in relationship with him, and Christ seeks to have a genuine human encounter with humankind. Thus, it’s normal in some ways for people to seek affirmation from others when they are sharing parts of their lives (e.g. pictures from their family vacation). However, when technology becomes involved, a distance is created between people that often hinders rather than encourages true intimacy.
Losing the Present Moment
One of the consequences of the Like Button Syndrome is the loss of the present moment. How often do we see people sitting at a restaurant or on the subway or at the bar looking at their phones instead of talking with each other? If they simply wished not to speak, that would be one thing, but why are they not enjoying the current scene in which they find themselves? Losing the ability to engage and enjoy the present moment may be the lasting impact that modern technology leaves on human history. Never before have people had the ability to simply disengage in such a significant manner when interacting with others. Sure, people have always had the ability to pick up a book or the newspaper, but a phone is much more accessible and thus can be taken anywhere. Further, it is often much more immersive.
Looking Instead of Being
Losing the present moment turns us into a society which is always looking for the next exciting thing. First, we are always looking instead of being. There is an old story within the Benedictine Order which recounts that a monk in charge of the monastery’s garden was asked by a visitor what he would do if he was told that he would die in the next few moments. The monk reflected, and stated that he would simply continue tending the garden as the Abbot (who acts in the person of Christ) asked him. Tending the garden is how God wishes for him to spend those moments. The story shows us the virtue of remaining in the present moment and seeing it as what God wills for us. Always looking for the next thing only takes us away from what God is calling for us to do right now.
Further, we are always looking for the next exciting thing. When we become preoccupied with seeking things that are more and more exciting we train ourselves to believe that monotony and the mundane should be despised. However, monotony is often exactly what one needs in one’s life in order to foster contemplation and form the virtues necessary to lead a flourishing life. More so, monotony helps each person to focus on the people in their lives (e.g. spouses and children) rather than external things and events. People (both temporal and divine) fulfill our deepest longings, not things or events. When we focus on breaking our personal likes record by taking that perfect picture instead of just taking the picture and enjoying the scene around us, we lose part of what makes us human: the ability to take in beauty and stillness.
Reclaiming Person-to-Person Relationships
The Like Button Syndrome is unfortunately not going away any time soon. However, we have the ability to combat it. We can commit to simple actions, such as not looking at our phones during meal times with family; or silencing our phones during certain times each day; or taking a “digital fast” on certain days of the week. By doing these actions we can reclaim person-to-person communication. This is what we truly desire when we check whether or not our friends have liked that latest picture.