The great apostle has some wise words for how we should conduct ourselves today on the internet.
As I sat at Mass last weekend, fresh from a viewing of the much-buzzed-about documentary The Social Dilemma, I heard the familiar second reading from St. Paul to the Philippians:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.
I suddenly realized that this ancient text was actually some timely advice from St. Paul about how we use social media—especially in an election cycle.
For those who have not yet seen the documentary on Netflix, The Social Dilemma is a compelling cautionary tale about the dangers of social media use from several of the very developers and executives who earned their keep working on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networks. Most of them have deep regrets about the effects on society wrought by the ways in which social media have permeated our daily lives and psyches.
I had already begun to reexamine my own personal (ab)use of these platforms after watching the film, and then St. Paul’s advice invited me to go one step further.
“Think about these things.”
What do I spend most of my time thinking about? Honestly, a lot of my juiciest talking points with family and friends tend to come straight from perusing my social media feeds. How much of that content is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent or worthy of praise? Aside from friends’ photos of their cute babies, I’m not sure I even want to attempt to answer that question.
So relying on both the advice of Saint Paul and the unsettling information I learned from the documentary, I set about to improve my social media experience so that I have better things to think about. Check out my tips, and hopefully we will all find ourselves on the road to a peace that surpasses all understanding. God knows we could use more of that right now.
1Remove the near occasion of sin.
Even before seeing the documentary, I had labeled the folder on my phone containing my social media apps with the apt title “Drugs.” The film (and plenty of other sources) talks at length about how social media notifications, likes, comments and messages trigger dopamine and other brain chemicals that affect our mood, change our behavior and develop dependencies. The most drastic step I took was to look long and hard at that folder and simply remove some apps that weren’t serving me well. I ended up completely removing Facebook and Twitter from my phone.
2Opt-out of personalized ads.
Another big thesis of the documentary is how these networks use your activity on their sites to serve you content that will make you spend even more time on the site and that allow the network’s advertisers to send you more tailored messages and predict your habits, behaviors and potential purchases. If you don’t like the idea of such a Big Brother looking over your shoulder, consult your security and ad settings to turn off as much of that tracking as you can. If you’re not sure exactly what to look for, do a Google search.
3Purge your networks and your content.
In the more than 15 years that I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve accepted a lot of friend requests. While I’ve been pretty good about only connecting with people that I have actually met in real life, there are plenty of folks on there who are no longer a part of my life and don’t need to be seeing all my updates. As soon as the documentary was over, I went through my friend list and deleted more than 300 people. I also went through my newsfeed and muted or unfollowed any people or pages who were not bringing true/lovely/gracious/honorable content to my feed. I’ve kept my Facebook account relatively private, but I also started deleting old profile pictures and cover photos that are perpetually public. I also deleted more than 6,000 old tweets. There is no good reason to keep all of this content on these platforms, and we’ve all seen the ways an old tweet or photo can come back to haunt someone. When you joined a social network in college more than 10 years ago, you don’t need to have that content still representing you as a 30-something husband, father and professional.
4Audit your daily use of social media.
This is the most important tip of all. If you’re going to use social media, you have to be more intentional about when, how and why you’re using them. Do they make you a slave to your phone even when you’re supposed to be hanging out with your kids or eating a meal with your spouse? Why are you posting what you post? Is the content positive, helpful, inspiring, or even—dare I ask—necessary? What about the content you’re consuming? When I looked at my feeds with fresh eyes, I realized that most of the updates I’m constantly skimming throughout the day aren’t even from people who are a part of my life—amounting mostly to trivia, political viewpoints and family updates from people I barely know. Once I began removing these things from my newsfeed, I saw how little of value was actually left, and vowed to make my time spent on these sites reflect that.
I know that this is going to be very difficult for me. I have been using these networks daily for far too long and know myself too well to think that I can transform my habits overnight. But awareness is the first step, and I feel like I have finally fallen off the horse and am ready take the next steps in my conversion. St. Paul, pray for us!