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Healthy Boundaries for Our Online Lives

Is it creating connections or turning me inward?
by Ryan Panzer | June 30, 2022

What do you imagine to be the perfect start to your morning? 

A hot cup of coffee? A warm good morning greeting from a beloved pet? Perhaps AM talk shows on your radio alarm clock? What about checking Snapchat to ensure you extend your streaks for another day? 

Increasingly, our days start and end not with face-to-face human interaction but with digital connection. 93% of us sleep with our smartphones turned on and within arm’s reach. 10% of us sleep with our phones under our pillows.1 And according to a recent study funded by Facebook, four out of five smartphone users check their phones within fifteen minutes of waking up, often before completing any of the other tasks in our morning routine.2 We comb through our news feeds before we comb our hair, we check in on TikTok before we turn off the alarm clock. 

This constant connection to the digital world provides some benefits: we can stay in touch with friends and family we otherwise may have lost contact with. We can become more informed about contemporary issues. And we can find light-hearted fun in moments that may otherwise feel dull and tedious. Yet this constant attraction to the digital world has some drawbacks, particularly when it removes us from the often ordinary face-to-face connections that serve as the foundation of trust and relationality: idle banter between co-workers prior to a meeting, conversations in an elevator about the day’s weather, light chatter while waiting at the grocery store. Just as church-goers can find themselves accessing resources and practices that are central to their faith life, they can similarly find themselves drawn away from church community by content that offers instant gratification.

Choosing connection or consumption

When reflecting on wise boundaries in a world so influenced by social media, we may do well to reflect on whether our digital activity opens us to connections with the neighbor or draws us inward and away from engagement in community. Social media can actively connect us or isolate us in a pattern of passive consumption. The question is which of these experiences we will actively cultivate. 

Social media giants are often incentivized to draw us inward into patterns of passive consumption. At times, community and conversation are at odds with a business model that monetizes active time on site. Engineers designed some aspects of social media apps to mimic the slot machine, triggering a rewarding release of dopamine at each snap, tweet, or post.3 And as Catherine Price suggests in her book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, if today’s social media user attempts to disconnect, they face a considerable competitive disadvantage. Social media companies all have scores of engineers working on boosting “engagement,” or the time users spend on site. With so many brilliant minds working to keep us glued to social media, it is unsurprising so many of us are unable to consistently step away from the perpetual gloss, glamour, and novelty of the digital world. As we become more tethered to our phones, we may find conversation more difficult. Some of us may notice ourselves drifting further away from engagement with our neighbors. 

Social media offers the promise of constant captivation, making the slow and often tedious work of community building even more cumbersome. A symptom of this trend, our culture is increasingly stepping away from the institutional church, often citing discomfort with the perceived inflexibility of communal religious life.4 But as members leave the church in purusit of authenticity, flexibility, or freedom, some find that increased immersion in digital worlds offers far less autonomy than initially imagined. 

The hours that we spend extending Snapchat streaks, boosting Peloton stats, or creating viral videos on TikTok create a series of unsustainable demands. The longer our streaks become, the harder we must work to keep them alive. The higher our follower count becomes, the more we must strive to boost it even further. There is no finish line in today’s social media landscape, no point of arrival at which we can rest from these engineered demands. More time spent online by ourselves tends to beget even more time spent online, by ourselves. This is how digital platforms first created for the purpose of networked connection can gradually erode what we have long thought of as community. 

A call to digital discernment

This situation calls us to consider whether there are some boundaries that we might seek to establish, or habits that we might choose to adopt. Of course, boundaries and habits can become their own source of entrapment, with the potential to add even more to our to-do lists. Constantly seeking to drive down smartphone or social media usage can become just as time-intensive as scrolling through our news feeds. At last glance, Google returned over 3.2 billion results for the search query “how to use social media less frequently,” each result undoubtedly offering it’s own detailed prescriptions to lighten the demands of the digital world. These prescriptions will tell you that if you install a screen time tracker, turn off notifications, leave your phone on your kitchen counter, you too can optimize your way to a more digitally-wise life. Many will tell you that if you quit social media altogether you can achieve greater day-to-day contentment, ignoring the reality that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat can be a source of blessing in our world. 

So what does it look like to be a wise, even a faithful user of social media? It likely doesn’t involve forsaking these tools altogether. As many church communities experience during Covid-19, the online world can provide an actual respite from our frenetic world. Nor does it involve burdening oneselves with dozens of rules for wiser social media usage.

Perhaps we don’t need boundaries for social media so much as we need the wisdom to discern. Remembering that God creates us for community, we might specifically seek to discern whether our experiences online lead us more towards active participation with a community or passive and individualized consumption. 

Cultivating community, offline and online

Created for community, we participate in God’s work in the world by participating in the lives of one another. Digital technology is at its best where it does just that, when it makes us more collaborative, conversational, and communal. It is at its worst where it drives us away from communal life to scroll through personalized feeds from which we seldom look up. 

Each time we log in is an opportunity to consider whether we find ourselves in a setting that is right for social media usage. And each time we sign on presents an opportunity to ask ourselves how our participation in social networks can uplift and sustain communities.

Faithful social media usage involves asking how one might reflect the grace of God in digital and analog spaces, both full of people who are just as much saint and sinner as anyone. It involves seeking to listen to the longings, losses, and joys of the very real individuals we encounter online and offline. It requires us to look up from our screens when our presence is required in the analog world, and to be prayerful and relational on screen as well. Just as the future of church is likely a “both/and” of offline and online, the future of discipleship is a hybrid experience. Those who navigate this journey with wisdom will be discerning and prayerful, a source of connection in an accelerating culture.

Your turn: Continuing the conversation

Now that you’ve read this post, reflect on your own social media usage. Find someone in your family or church community and discuss the following questions:

  • What specific actions can you take on social media to uplift and sustain communities?
  • How do you know when it is time to step away from your phone to focus on the people around you?
  • What might you do if you find yourself drawn into too much consumption and too little conversation?

Check out Ryan Panzer’s Faith+Lead course “Hybrid Ministry” available on demand. 

References

  1. https://www.asurion.com/press-releases/americans-check-their-phones-96-times-a-day/
  2. https://www.nu.nl/files/IDC-Facebook%20Always%20Connected%20(1).pdf
  3. https://ihpi.umich.edu/news/social-media-copies-gambling-methods-create-psychological-cravings
  4. https://www.barna.com/research/six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church/
About the Author

Ryan Panzer

Ryan Panzer (MA, Luther Seminary) is an author, instructional designer, and consultant who started his career working in digital marketing at Google. At Google, Ryan helped small businesses to craft a digital strategy using tools like Google Analytics, YouTube, and Google Ads. He is the author of "The Holy and The Hybrid: Navigating the Church's Digital Reformation" and "Grace and Gigabytes: Being Church in a Tech-Shaped Culture." For more writings and resources, visit www.ryanpanzer.com.

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