The Secret to Digital Health

My social media feeds often feel like an extension of me.

Unlike the television screen, which projects things that are apart from me, my Facebook feed projects something from me.

“Being online isn’t just something we do,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. “It has become who we are, transforming the very nature of the self.”

If Brooks is right, and the self is so pliable, we should ask, “How does social media reshape the Christian self?”

Heightening Our Insecurities

The question is especially important because of the ways social media plucks on the strings of our inner insecurities.

Ruby Karp, one brave and honest 15-year-old, stepped out to expose how she thinks her Snapchat app feeds her own teenage insecurities. “I always feel like I need to know what everyone is doing, secretly hoping it isn’t better than what I’m doing,” she writes. “Instead of enjoying what we are doing, all we do is take pictures of what we are doing to make other teens feel bad they aren’t with us.” Lured by the fear of missing out (FOMO), we feed the FOMO beast in others.

“Snapchat is all fun and games until you aren’t featured in the big group photo everyone took while you were in the other room getting chips, or worse, when you weren’t even invited,” she admits. “The app amplifies our fear of missing out, and turns us into whiny braggers. Yep, teenagers are almost all as insecure as you thought they were, and Snapchat isn’t helping.”

This article is not a hit-piece on teens, but a study for us all. The plague of personal insecurity crosses every generational divide.

If Snapchat FOMO is feeding personal insecurity, so also are Snapchat “beautifying” filters for selfies. The filters are the equivalent of digital plastic surgery, revealing what your face could look like — if you were more attractive, or wore more makeup, or had better and brighter skin tone.

How will this virtual magic not breed even further personal insecurities, as we gaze on our potential selves?

In these ways, social media quickly becomes an incubator for our personal insecurities. Fed by the minutiae of our social-media feeds, our insecurities grow and hatch and thrive within the hidden recesses of our hearts.

Insecurity Begets Insecurity

Short of throwing our phones in the trash and going off the grid completely, what choices do we have? What are our alternatives?

The quest for these answers led me to a three-year research project on smartphones and social media. I surveyed 8,000 Christians about their personal habits, conducted 22 interviews with Christian leaders, read more than 1,000 articles on smartphones and social media, and studied more than 50 books on digital technology. My research ended with a read of Donna Freitas’s new book, The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost.

Freitas surveyed close to 800 college students, met and interviewed about 200 of them in person, and then published what she found. Her illuminating book is not written from a Christian perspective, per se, but she features several key interviews with Christian college students. The book stands — in my opinion — as the most thorough, balanced, illustrative, and shrewd diagnostic tool for the social-media habits of college students. It’s nuanced and careful, not reductive.

One summary paragraph from her book sticks with me. In it, she details the three stages of social-media habits. Freitas writes,

The more sensitive a person, the more emotionally vulnerable, the worse he or she fares on social media. The students I interviewed who suffer from insecurity, who have anxiety about their social standing, who fret about how they are seen by others, are the ones who are drowning on social media. These are the young men and women for whom social media is a highly destructive force, and they stand out from the many other students I met who feel ambivalent about social media and the rare few who really thrive on it. (18–19)

She’s intentional here. Social media does not make us insecure; social media cultivates and multiplies the inner insecurities that already plague our hearts.

Three Types of Social-Media Users

Freitas’s three categories for social-media users are important to keep in mind. See whether you can find yourself in the following descriptions.

The insecure — These social-media users struggle with “anxiety about their social standing, and fret about how they are seen by others.” In this state, anxiety festers. Depression rears its head. The insecure perpetually refresh their feeds to seek a new hit of self-validation, but find that when those hits of self-validation do come, they are short lived, and often bring the insecure face-to-face with the harsh reality of being (or feeling) ignored.

The ambivalent — The second group is represented by at least two distinct groups. First, Freitas found that college students in pre-med or pre-law, students with lofty and specific ambitions, tend to avoid social media or minimize it in their lives with ease. They simply have bigger goals to pursue. Second, another ambivalent group includes insecure phone addicts who eventually just burn out and shrug off and dismiss social media.

The thriving — So who are these “rare few” college students who are thriving and who seem to handle social media best? At the end of her book, Freitas says that these students “are the ones who are able to be ambivalent about it — those young women and men who can manage the self-promotive dimensions without too much stress, who can live with the pressures of constant evaluation, and who aren’t made so emotionally vulnerable by social media that its negatives wreak havoc on their self-esteem. Apathy has become a healthy mode of survival” (249).

Digital apathy is a helpful form of digital self-protection, but it’s not the end of social-media health. Those who thrive online are the rarest class of all, and the one common factor among those who thrive online seems to be that they are not merely ambivalent about social media, but that, for them, it fulfills a larger life goal. Rather than simply submitting their lives to the possible techniques and tools of what social media makes available to us, they thrive on social media not by ambivalence, but because they’re driven by life goals and pursuits that exceed the lure of self-validation of a digital audience behind the screen.

The Secret: Be Authentic

In other words, digital health emerges from personal authenticity. We cannot fake it for long. At times, we may want a 12-step digital detox, but most of us simply need to find ways to live online, authentically and with purpose.

“Even if young adults work hard to mask their feelings, the 24/7 stream of social media and the ever-presence of smartphones become a roller coaster of banality, plan-making, fun, disappointment, stress, hope, pride, loneliness, distraction, showing off, pressure, and a million other things,” Freitas writes. “On the surface, this sounds very human. Any social situation can be wonderful and fun or stressful and awful, and everything in between. Life is messy and angst-ridden, full of unexpected potholes, words better left unspoken, and painful disappointments, just as it is full of joy and love and those moments that no one ever wants to forget. Social media reflects this reality. But it doesn’t just reflect this reality. It adds another dimension to it, enhancing this reality by making it public and constant” (249).

Social media is like real life, only intensified and sped up and made public for the world to see. The issues faced by our hearts are sin issues, and the wrestling of our longings have existed for every generation before us. In some way, these issues are nothing new under the sun, which is why the Bible is so relevant and real to all of us in the digital age.

Rules of the Game

So, yes, we must learn to self-regulate, and that’s the problem. As we aspire to self-regulate our social-media habits, 1,000 people are working full-time to convince you to never put your phone down.

And so Freitas concluded her study with this line: “Regardless of which category they fall into, the young women and men I interviewed and surveyed are searching for rules” (246).

And there’s the rub.

There are no social-media rules. You can get yourself blocked and banned and deactivated, but apart from getting muted, there are no clear rules to govern what you do online, or for how long and how often you go online.

Secure in Christ

For Christians, we do have revealed regulations to guard and guide our digital tongues, and we draw from the authenticity of our spiritual lives when we are online. But for those who cannot self-regulate, who cannot distance themselves from the pressures and tensions of social media, the digital world will remain a cruel tyrant feeding on our insecurities.

Winning this battle in the digital world is not found in the right rules; it is found in the security of Christ. Abiding with Christ is essential to thriving online. Our union with Christ, by faith and through the Holy Spirit, feeds us with the life and vibrancy we need to succeed even inside the digital worlds that can so easily feed our personal insecurities.

In Christ’s blood, my everlasting acceptance is secure.

In Christ’s resurrection, I have no FOMO — everything I miss in this life will be fully compensated for in eternity.

In Christ’s self-sacrifice, I am now freed from the bondage of besting everyone else.

In Christ’s love, I can now give myself away in loving others.