My daughter keeps me honest. She sees past all my excuses and justifications. “Get off your phone, get off the computer, and pay attention,” she demands. As a writer focused on sociopolitical, cultural, and ecclesiastical issues, I wrestle daily with the dilemma of how to stay informed of important developments without letting the endless stream of information and feedback loops rule my heart, my thought life, my attention span, and my dopamine levels.
Breaking news, hot takes, likes, and comments come at us 24/7 like water from a fire hydrant. What’s the best way to manage it all? The answer is different for everyone, but here are some practical guidelines I’ve developed. I consider this list a work in progress for my particular set of circumstances, so feel free to reject any of these ideas or to adapt them to match your needs.
1) Decide which social media platforms you want to use and identify your goals with each one.
For example, I’m a writer who shares ideas publicly on a regular basis, so I have both a private Facebook account and a public page. The private one is where I choose to keep up with people I know in real life, not to network or engage in activism. My goal there is to maintain connection at a basic level with people I care about. It’s where I share major updates, pictures of my family, and more light-hearted stuff. I generally refrain from responding to non-personal content to keep my newsfeed heavy on personal content. I don’t participate in debates or share controversial posts in that space. I save those things for my public page or, ideally, for face-to-face interactions.
Twitter is my platform of choice for bringing up controversial subjects—politics, religion, racism, sexism, immigration, theology, etc.—but even there, I do so with pretty strict parameters. My goal on Twitter is to offer personal opinions and perspectives that help people have important conversations in embodied spaces. Therefore, I’m not interested in winning arguments, winning converts, or even having conversations on Twitter. That’s why although I might engage in the occasional back-and-forth with someone who offers rebuttal in good faith, I ignore hostile comments and avoid (like the plague) lengthy, multi-person discussion threads. I respect that some people are energized by intense arguments with total strangers and exhilarated by the challenge of having impossibly complex discussions with 20 random people jumping in and out of a spider-web-like conversation thread without a moderator; but those things wear me out, provoke all the unsanctified parts of me, tempt me to self-medicate, and make it hard for me to be present and pleasant to my family and friends. So, I just don’t do it.
2) Establish online boundaries and stick to them.
Although I’ve done it in the past, I now try to avoid creating too much of a sense of connection in virtual spaces with people I’m not in physical community with. Physical communities have checks and balances that online communities do not. While it’s fun and almost effortless to bond with followers or favorite follows over TV shows, jokes, and shared opinions, making a habit of it can create a false sense of intimacy and familiarity with people who are otherwise strangers but can come to occupy fantastical, one-dimensional levels of awesomeness in our imaginations. This practice can become an escape when real-life relationships go through difficult seasons (which they inevitably do), leaving us vulnerable to unchecked discontent and all kinds of subsequent mischief. These days, it takes real commitment to stay tethered to the earth and to the people God has given us to love.
3) Don’t be afraid to make radical changes to get where you want to be.
I mentioned above that I now use my private Facebook account as a tool for staying connected to folks in my real life. But I used to use it as a tool for activism and advocacy. So last year at this time, I had a ton of connections with people I had met only once at a conference or whom I had “met” virtually through Facebook discussion groups. Somehow, they became a more regular part of my online interactions than people I knew in real life. I realized that I had allowed complete blurring of the vital distinction between embodied relationships and disembodied virtual connections. I could tell you the opinions my online-only friends held on race, religion, and politics; but in most cases, I didn’t have their phone numbers, didn’t know the names of their children, didn’t know what their daily lives looked like, and didn’t even know where they lived. It’s stunning, though, how real those relationships felt that were built almost exclusively on shared opinions and online comments. As part of my account makeover, I posted a status update explaining what I was about to do and why, provided assurance that it was nothing personal, and then “unfriended” over 250 people—people that I liked and admired.
4) Unless your job requires you to be on social media, turn off push notifications and schedule specific times for social media engagement.
5) Incorporate regular tech fasts into your life.
Fasting is the most effective way for us to get in touch with ways we’ve gotten out of balance. There are different ways to fast. You don’t necessarily have to avoid all technology to do a tech fast. It could be as simple as not posting or commenting on anything for a week. Even a minor restriction like that can reveal that sharing your latest irritation or mindlessly commenting on random posts have become bad habits. I’ve discovered through tech fasting that when I spontaneously vent or lament about something online, it displaces the kind of prayer in which I process anger, grief, hatred, and pride in the presence of God. Instead of making myself available to the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, I settle for the digitized comfort of commenters that may or may not have a vested interested in my spiritual formation.
Several friends of mine regularly deactivate social media accounts to focus more on prayer, solitude, and silence—even work—for a season. Following their example, I recently deactivated my Twitter account to create more margin for a heavy situation I’m dealing with. Twitter is the platform that to me most resembles a wildfire.
We humans are not designed to carry the weight of a newsfeed that floods our consciousness with news about harmful new government policies, ecosystem-destroying open-net fish farms, the latest Richard Spencer interview, the atrocities being inflicted on the Rohingya people, 5 different takes on gun violence, the ravages of plastic pollution, chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players, the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster, the epidemic of sexual abuse in both Hollywood and religious institutions, the condescending comments of people who disagree with a point we made, and a deadly earthquake on the other side of the world that killed hundreds… in less than 15 minutes. Sometimes, we just have to hit the brakes.
Bottom line: the faster the world pushes us to win, to fight, and to approximate omniscience, the more we need to figure out how to…
…and pursue wisdom and love.