Last weekend I was riding home from a bridge tournament with my friend Megan when her twenty-something daughter called, in the throes of an anxiety attack and needing to talk with her mom. After Megan hung up, another mom who was with us said her daughter struggled with anxiety, too. That got us to talking and Megan asked an intriguing question. “Do you remember so many kids having anxiety attacks when we were young?” We had to admit we didn’t.
Maybe we just hadn’t been paying attention back then, but is it possible that young people ARE more anxious than we were? We remembered stressing about school and work and relationships, too, but our stresses, as well as any foolish or embarrassing steps on the way to creating an adult identity could be blissfully forgotten and didn’t play out online. We wondered—could social media be creating some of our kids’ angst?
I’m not against social media by any means. (After all, I’ll share this piece on Facebook and Twitter!) Used mindfully and with moderation, it can enhance our lives—much like Chardonnay. I’ve reconnected with old friends through social media, I’ve found helpful and uplifting information much more easily than I would have before and I’m blessed to be a part of some private Facebook groups that truly enrich my life and grow my faith.
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.
But there is a darker side to it all as well. Researchers are now seeing a real connection between social media use and feelings of anxiety and loneliness in young people. Navigating the teen years and young adulthood in a social media age means doing the work of creating identity in a virtual world, being more connected than ever but less engaged on a personal level. Young minds are developing in an instant gratification culture with a magnified emphasis on one’s online image. I recently read about the app that allows young people to make (often highly sexualized) music videos and have them “critiqued” by total strangers around the world. No, there cant be anything damaging to a developing psyche about that.
For all ages, carefully-curated, my-life-is-perfect Instagram and Facebook feeds highlight the damaging illusion that everyone else is doing life so much better than we are. I’m acutely aware that behind every picture of an adorable toddler or of a smiling kid going to prom, are the ones my friends didn’t post—of the grocery store meltdown or of the angry teen slamming her bedroom door against the injustice that is her parents. But young people often lack the perspective a lifetime of experience can give, and can more easily believe the lie of internet perfection. Likes and follows can be seen as a way of validating popularity, and even for the most well-adjusted, there is an allure to those pings and notifications that make us Just. Have. To. Look.
Such is the addictive nature of our ubiquitous screens. A former Facebook executive has ruefully admitted that the site is a “dopamine-driven feedback loop”. I know I struggle with internet distraction, its myriad of time-wasting inanities pulling my procrastination-inclined self deeper into the virtual morass and away from what I know brings true satisfaction and a real happiness. Open my devotional? Finish writing this piece? Sure, but after I check my email and see what’s new on #dogsofInstagram and play just one more round of Words with Friends.
Elizabeth Foss has written of the pitfalls of being mindlessly enculturated—that is, being overly involved in the things of our culture and accepting them without discernment. We need to use these social media tools of connectivity wisely, strengthening real human bonds. We need to realize that our value lies in our nature as children of God, not in what we look like to others online. With our hearts firmly rooted in the true and the truly good, we can enjoy the harmless side of social media. Like baby goat videos. I have it on great authority that God approves of baby goat videos.
As we head into Holy Week, I have one last Lenten shot at staying focused on the things that matter and clearing out those things that come between me and my relationship with God. My iPad is going to be stashed away and my phone will be kept out of reach a little more than usual this week. And as for Megan, she reported that after a day of shopping and lunching and mani/pedis with mom, her daughter was relaxed and happy. Because in this life, likes and follows are no match for real human connection.