The Christian and Social Media
by Michael J. Penfold
It only takes a couple of minutes to download Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. You gain some connectivity, some fame and maybe even make some money. But there’s a downside. You lose your privacy, liberty, tranquillity and sanctity, and may never get them back. All in 2 minutes.
Have you ever wondered why social media is free? It’s because Instagram and Co. make almost all their money from marketing your data to advertisers. Hence they make it as easy and as ‘cool’ as possible for you to give them all your personal information, something you wouldn’t dream of doing to a stranger on the street. Join today! Sign up for free! From then on your social media ‘likes’, activities, interests, check-ins, location, photos, and relationship details are all monitored, stored and monetised. Within a few dozen ‘likes’ Facebook knows if you are heterosexual or homosexual, socialist or capitalist, religious or secular. They quickly learn what food you like, where you holiday and what your friends’ phone numbers are (WhatsApp is owned by Facebook). The level of intrusion is staggering. For years Facebook has collected detailed phone records of millions of users, including who they spoke with or sent messages to and when. Perhaps the nearest equivalent to opening a social media app on your phone would be allowing the government to install a listening device in your home.
Evidence of all of this exists in readily available journalistic investigations, as well as in the strangely familiar adverts and tailored news in your Instagram and Facebook feeds. Social media users are pawns in a global game of data mining – each one simply a data point for a surveillance system that makes George Orwell’s 1984 seem positively benign. Think you own your pictures and comments? Think again. The internet is forever. Once you upload a picture you have effectively ceded control of it. Uploaded data is open to harvesting, hacking, theft and blackmail. Remember Cambridge Analytica?
Privacy settings may stop your nosey neighbours from viewing your wedding photos, but the real intrusions take place elsewhere. Jonathan Albright, the research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, says that social media’s privacy settings are a “grand illusion”. Chamath Palihapitiya, once the head of AOL’s instant messaging division, and later Facebook’s vice-president of user growth for 4 years says, “Facebook and Google effectively are surveillance states. They have so much personal, private information about so many citizens of so many countries.” Palihapitiya no longer uses Facebook. He doesn’t allow his children on it either.
Anonymity is almost impossible on the internet, but if you value your privacy you can and should take steps to protect yourself. Remember what Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, said in 2010? “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” This is not a tech blog, so I recommend you search elsewhere for articles about online privacy, but for now, just remember this: if you use social media you will be profiled. Period. If you have to be on it for business, or University or whatever, upload as little as possible and never ‘like’ anything.
From senior citizens to young kids, billions of people are helplessly hooked on social media. For the first time in history, most young girls are engaged in the same activity, at the same time, 24 hours a day. It’s been described by social media researcher and author Nancy Jo Sales as “the end of childhood as we know it”.
An insightful Washington Post article describes a young girl’s ride home from school. “She opens Instagram. She opens the NBA app. She shuts the screen off. She turns it back on. She opens Spotify. Opens Fitbit. She has 7,427 steps. Opens Instagram again. Opens Snapchat. She watches a sparkly rainbow flow from her friend’s mouth. She watches a YouTube star make pouty faces at the camera. She watches a tutorial on nail art. She feels the bump of the driveway and looks up. They’re home. Twelve minutes have passed… ” Another girl featured in the article says, “I don’t feel like a child anymore. I’m not doing anything childish. At the end of sixth grade” — when all her friends got phones and downloaded Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter — “I just stopped doing everything I normally did. Playing games at recess, playing with toys, all of it, done.”
Why is social media so immersive and addictive? Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, explains: “Facebook exploits a vulnerability in human psychology.” How so? It rewards users with a rush of satisfaction when their posts get liked. Justin Rosenstein calls likes “the bright dings of pseudo-pleasure”. He should know. He invented the like button.
None of this is accidental. Sean Parker has admitted that Facebook’s guiding principle from the start was “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Why would they want to do that? You need to know that there’s an epic online global struggle taking place daily for the time and money of the world’s internet users and internet advertisers. In one corner of the ring is Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp. In another, Google who owns YouTube. In another, Netflix. In yet another, Snapchat. They are sitting in the ring in Silicon Valley desperately trying to dream up ways to hook you, keep you on ‘their platform’ and keep their share price up with ever increasing numbers of users and advertising revenue. Their tools? Instagram employs likes and bottomless scrolling. YouTube and TikTok auto-play the next carefully planned video. Netflix ends every episode with a cliff-hanger and auto-plays the next one. Snapchat uses snap streaks to keep you coming back day after day. Tristan Harris, a former Facebook engineer calls this war “The race to the bottom of the brain stem…it’s how the system works.”
It turns out that Instagram and Snapchat are just as addictive as cigarettes, drugs and alcohol; and the mobile nature of the technology has exponentially ramped up that addictiveness. Logging onto social media on your PC when you got home from work (prior to 2013) was one thing. Today’s 24/7 ball-and-chain mobile social media addiction is quite another. The venture capitalist and early Facebook investor Roger McNamee insightfully remarks, “In order to maintain your attention they have taken all the techniques of Edward Bernays [the inventor of PR] and Joseph Goebbels [Hitler’s propaganda mastermind] and all of the other people from the world of persuasion, and all the big ad agencies, and they’ve mapped it onto an all-day product [your smartphone] with highly personalised information in order to addict you…Many of these methods are the same as they use in casinos…These guys knew what they were doing was wrong.”
If Christianity is anything, it is freedom from addiction. Addiction to sin yes, but also addiction to seemingly ‘harmless things’. Paul said, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient…I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor 6:12). Paul’s principle was not to be the slave of anything that might destroy his usefulness for God.
Privacy gone. Freedom gone. Your peace of mind is next.
Considering how many people use social media, and how often, you would be forgiven for thinking it must make them happy; but it doesn’t. Why? According to a 2014 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, most people aren’t actually using social media to be social. Only about 9 percent of Facebook users’ activities involve communicating with others. Most of it is…scrolling, and studies have repeatedly shown that passive scrolling makes you feel down.
A number of reasons have been suggested. First, after spending half an hour on social media, many people feel they have wasted their time. That regret causes them to feel cheated. Second, spending time looking at endless pictures of other gorgeous people enjoying beautiful moments and fabulous holidays, many of whom have more ‘friends’ and garner more likes than you, naturally leads to unhealthy comparisons, to envy and ultimately ‘depression’. Thirdly, there’s the pressure of it all. You need to keep up. You need to like other people’s pictures in case you offend them. You wait to see if you get enough likes before deciding to leave a photo up or delete it. Fourthly, immersion in social media tends to make you become self-obsessed. Focussing on yourself – your looks, your possessions, your popularity – is a sure way to get yourself down. The whole thing breeds discontentment, jealousy, and ‘anxiety’.
Teen depression and suicide has sky-rocketed since 2011. One in four young UK girls is now affected by a ‘mental health problem’. Social media, combined with mobile technology, is seen as a major contributor to this new malaise. Former insider Chamath Palihapitiya said in 2017: “Facebook is ripping apart the fabric of society…we curate our lives around this perceived sense of perception because we get rewarded in these short-term signals – hearts, likes, thumbs up – and we conflate that with value and we conflate it with truth. Instead, what it really is is fake brittle popularity that’s short term and leaves you even more – and admit it – vacant and empty before you did it.”
The Bible’s warnings against envy and jealousy are frequent and plain. James 3:14 condemns “bitter jealousy”. 1 Peter 2:1 tells us to be rid of envy. ‘The love chapter’, 1 Corinthians 13, reminds us that “love is…not jealous; love does not brag” (NASB). That verse is worth memorising and meditating on in any area of life, but it has a very specific power in relation to Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, don’t you think? Love is…not jealous; love does not brag.
Privacy gone. Freedom gone. Tranquillity gone. As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, it’s time to face the fact that social media ultimately robs the believer of personal holiness and godliness.
You take a selfie (make that a dozen, to be sure to get one perfect one). Duck face? Attention seeking pose? Flesh and figure utilised to harvest more likes? Then run it through an app to lighten you skin, smooth your complexion, remove your freckles, whiten your teeth, enlarge your eyes, apply make up and hair colour, and contour your nose and face. Filter to the perfect tint. Post. Check back 2 minutes later. Any likes? 2 more minutes. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. The comments start flowing. “Stunning”! “Amazing”! “Love your shoes!” “You’re so beautiful”! “I want your eye-brows”! And then the cringe-worthy finalé – “Aww, thank you guys, you’re so nice.”
Essena O’Neill, a former Australian model and social media celebrity, made national and international headlines in 2015 by quitting social media. Despite having 612,000 Instagram followers, 18 year old Essena deleted over 2,000 ‘perfect’ photos and renamed the account “Social Media Is Not Real Life”. Composing fresh, honest and revealing captions for her old posts she declared: “Social media serves no real purpose other than self-promotion…it’s contrived perfection made to get attention.” Have you seen through it yet?
Perhaps an illustration might help. Imagine the 1980’s. You’re at College. Each morning before you go to lectures you pick up half a dozen 6″ by 4″ glossy photographs of yourself (remember them?). You show them to the first person you meet. “Do you like how I look in these? Would you mind signing the back and writing a nice comment?” Next week, another 6 photos. The same rigmarole. And so it goes on…endlessly. Back then you would have been considered totally vain and stuck on yourself. What happened?
Psychologists and sociologists employ big words for the selfie phenomenon. Narcissism. Solipsism. Egoism. But the Bible keeps it plain and simple – most social media activity is just plain old vanity, flattery and pride. In a past day, parents and peers mocked mirror-gazing teenagers. “Oh honestly Sarah, you’re so vain!” “You’ve got a hair out out of place Johnny!” So how did we go from correctly discerning and discouraging the sins of vanity, flattery and pride, to glorifying and institutionalising them 24 hours a day? Have we gone completely mad? Mad or not, one thing is clear – the selfie culture represents a loss of sanctity and holiness. It is vain, empty self-promotion, not worthy of a Christian.
The apostle Paul said, “In the last days…men shall be lovers of their own selves” (2 Tim 3:1-2). What a statement! Furthermore the Bible condemns self-expression (Eph 4:2), self-conceit (Gal 6:3), self-assertion (Phil 2:5, 4:5), self-indulgence (Col 3:5-10), self-realisation (Phil 1:21), self-approval (Rom 7:18), self-confidence (Phil 3:4), self-love (2 Cor 12:5), and self–esteem (Phil 2:3). It teaches self-criticism (1 Cor 11:31), self-denial (Phil 4:11-12), self-discipline (1 Cor 9:27), self-examination (Gal 6:1), self-control (2 Pet 1:6), self-effacement (2 Cor 12:7), self-reproach (Luke 5:8), and self-sacrifice (2 Cor 11:9). God finished with our former selves at the cross (Rom 6:6). The Bible-reading Christian knows he has been crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20) and his only glory is in cross (Gal 6:14), not in self. He knows that the very essence of Christianity is an end of self. “If any man will come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Social media is the polar opposite of self denial. It is self promotion. Immersion in it therefore represents an undeniable loss of sanctity.
Not convinced? How about testing Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat by any of the Bible’s timeless “behaviour principles”?:
1. Is there any glory for God in social media? “Whatsoever you do, do all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). Can you post selfies all over social media for the glory of God or, if you are honest, is it really all about your own personal glory?
2. Does posting selfies grieve the Holy Spirit? “Grieve not the holy Spirit of God” says Paul in Eph 4:30. Is it not a grief to the Spirit when God’s people are self-absorbed and wrapped up in an endless but pointless cycle of posting, liking and scrolling?
3. Is social media a good use of my time? We are to “redeem the time because the days are evil” (Eph 5:16). Is not spending 1,000 hours a year scrolling through social media one of the most tragic wastes of time ever known to man.
4. Does selfie posting please the Lord? “Enoch pleased God” states Hebrews 11:5. The standard for the Christian is not “There’s no harm in it”, or “Everybody else does it”. The higher biblical principle is “Does it please the Lord?”
5. Would the Lord have posted selfies to social media? Christians are to be imitators of Christ (1 Cor 11:1). Christ did not “please Himself” (Rom 15:30) but humbled Himself (Phil 2:8). We are to exhibit His humble self-effacing attitude (Phil 2:5). Can you honestly imagine any of the Bible’s men or women of God posting selfies onto Instagram? Paul? Peter? Moses? Esther? Hannah?
6. Is the selfie culture worldly? The Bible commands us to “love not the world” (1 John 2:15-16) and describes that world as marked by “the lust of flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”. What a perfect description of social media! It appeals to my flesh, my eyes and my pride. Take a look at my latest new designer handbag, my fabulous cruise, my to-die-for-hair-extensions, my amazing car. And so it goes on. The publicising of my material possessions and acquisitions is worldliness, plain and simple.
7. Is posting selfies a good example to other Christians? “Be thou an example” said Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 4:12). What am I stirring up in others by chronicling a perfect image of my beautiful life on social media? Worldliness? Jealousy? Envy? Rivalry? Discouragement? Think of the poor, the persecuted, the disfigured, the millions of ‘plain’ and ‘ordinary’ Christians who feel inadequate and can’t keep up. Am I stumbling and hurting Christ’s own disciples by my social media profile?
A 2-minute visit to the app store will transform your life beyond all recognition – but not for the good. It’s not worth it. Time is short. Go in for what is lasting and real. Live for God’s glory, not for self.
Michael J. Penfold (firstname.lastname@example.org)