Social Media – Positive and Negative Impacts. Thoughts and discoveries on how to live well in a social media world.

Technology is everywhere. There’s no escaping it. It appears to be advancing exponentially and with that being the case we can’t deny that it is shaping the way we do life and changing our day to day workings. Social media is a big part of that; 1.23 billion people are now on facebook[1] and I know that I couldn’t do all I do without it. So when something is such a big part of your life, I think it pays to step back and look at it. How is it changing how I go about my day, my work and my friendships? What do I need to be wary of and what do I need to embrace? Do I know the negatives as well as the positives? These are some of the things I’ve been thinking about and looking into and will try and summarise some of my thoughts and other people’s thoughts on the effects of social media within our lives.

Now I love social media, especially twitter and blogging, I enjoy being connected and being linked to many other articles and blogs and thoughts. I enjoy knowing what’s going on with other CU’s, with friends in different countries or simply what my friends in the same town have been up to at the weekend. I like feeling part of people’s lives and being able to join in with what they’re doing even when I’m not there. Yet I’ve found with social media, especially Facebook, that it’s not really a case of wanting it anymore, or even needing it. It just is. It comes with life. Just like the fact that I can turn a tv on and watch news from all over the world, I don’t ever really think back to what life was like without it. It has just become a part of life, the way that things are done. I know so many people that absolutely refused to be ‘sucked into the fb world’, yet a few years later, all those people I knew that said that, are now indeed with a fb profile.

Neil Postman, a cultural critic and media theorist, says that technology has become ‘mythic’.[2] That’s not in a fictional or legendary sense but in the sense that it has become an assumed part of life and we forget that it hasn’t always been that way. The technology and social media world is how it is for anyone growing up now and there’s no denying or escaping that; however that doesn’t mean that we need to embrace it without consideration, or separate ourselves from it completely, but surely we need to think about how and why we using it? What place does it have in our lives?

The fact that God created the world with all these elements that have created the technology we have today, is amazing. It also suggests to me that there is no inherent bad in technology itself. God created the world ‘ex nihilo’; yet we can’t create out of nothing. Technology in all it’s vastness and advancement has come from what God has created for us and he has given the skill and the creativeness to the people he has created to do something with it. So thinking about this, technology in itself is neither good nor evil, yet how it is used in the hands of fallen human beings gives it a status and shapes whether it is used to glorify God or to use for our sinful selves.

I read an article in the news on the increase of cyber bulling with children as an effect of social media. Childline ‘saw 4,507 cases of cyberbullying in 2012-13, up from 2,410 in 2011-12.’[3] This is heart breaking and is just the amount of reported cases; this certainly shows effects of social media used in the wrong way. There is discussion of the need to bring in new laws of enforcement to be able to persecute cyber bullies and ‘Children will soon be taught how to stay safe online, including cyberbullying, from the age of five.’[4] This might seem like an extreme example of a negative effect of social media, yet there are more discrete examples of changes in how we relate to each other as a result of being able to continually be connected online. I can often feel that I know everything that has been going on in someone’s life as I have seen it posted all over facebook, how often are we in conversations where something has come up and we say ‘oh yeah I saw it on fb/twitter’ and then that’s it. It can actually take away from day to day conversation and ‘catching up’ with each other. But are we being completely honest online? Or are we guilty of just presenting the parts of us that we want other people to see?

Katie Rolphe has observed that ‘Facebook is the novel we are all writing.’[5] She says that ‘Somewhere in the gap between status posting and the person in their room at night is life itself.’ How much of what we post or what we see is true to how we are really feeling? Do we try to make our lives seem more exciting? And only post all the good bits? I know I wouldn’t just have any old photo for a profile picture, it’s chosen because I like how I look on it, or I look like I’m having fun or it’s with people that mean something to me or has got some sort of story behind it. We choose what we post and how we present ourselves to people around and in that way we can often be creating this person that is actually different to the person that is truly us right now.

Dr. Jean Twenge and Dr. Keith Campbell, have described this self expression on social media as ‘the narcissism epidemic’. ‘A self-promotional madness driven, these two psychologists say, by our need to continually manufacture our own fame to the world.’[6] Andrew Keen puts it this way (borrowing words from Jeremy Bentham) by observing that ‘as a society, we are, becoming our own collective image.’[7] And Jonathan Franzen goes to the extremes of saying ‘To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of mirrors.’[8] So in this world where the social side of the internet has become an integral part of life and people are constantly ‘recreating’ themselves online, how can we live honestly and openly on social media and have real life relationships not shallow ones where people only see the parts of you that you want them to see?

There’s something to be said about the amount of time that social media consumes. 76% of Facebook users log in every day.[9] Facebook can often be seen as the new ‘hanging out’, spending time with people online has become the new norm of catching up with people. Yet, I know I value face to face time, there’s something special in having a few hours out to really talk to a person. Face to face seems to me more real, you can’t hide how you feel about something, you can’t edit and delete what you’ve said. I know I reveal so much of myself in facial expressions and body language. In fact it is thought that body language is to account to 50-70% of all communication.[10] I also reveal a lot about myself in the things I don’t say, in the silences and times when it is clear I need to think about the answer. It is often in those times that people can see that I am challenged and get to a deeper level of what is going on underneath. This is important on an accountability and supervisory level and also in true friendships. Communication online cannot replace face to face relationships, yet I believe it can be used to add to them. You can easily ask someone how something went, encourage them even when you don’t see them and arrange to meet up with them to truly see how they are doing. It’s also great for keeping in contact with friends and family far away, sending them messages, sharing pictures and stories and helping them to feel more involved in your life.

I think through doing relationships well online, we can actually be presenting the gospel. Through encouraging someone, showing you’re thinking about them, or saying you’re praying for them; church family can actually show a way of interaction throughout the week that others might not be used to. It can also be used to share thought provoking quotes or articles or bible verses. I know that can often be a personal preference, I personally wouldn’t want to bombard people with bible verses or things out of context, but yet I will post links to my blog that will use bible verses in more context of my life and what is happening. That way you don’t end up with big debates on your wall or people commenting unhelpful things. I am wary of joining in conversations like that and would much rather message someone to ask if they wanted to discuss it more, than have an open conversation for anyone to see and join in on, that way you can see if they just want to say their point or if they are actually interested and want to know more.

Praying for people has seemingly had a big impact on social media. Take the hashtag #PrayForMuamba for example. Within 24 hours of Fabrice Muamba collapsing on the pitch, #PrayForMuamba was trending. This brought people from all over, into one community of being behind Muamba. Whether they were praying or not, this hashtag was influencing people who had no faith and may not have even thought to pray before now. Tottenham defender Kyle Walker showed some of the impact of this in a tweet, ‘Doesn’t matter who you support. Doesn’t matter if you aren’t a football fan. Doesn’t matter if you aren’t religious. Pray for Fabrice Muamba.’[11] It’s undeniable that this will have had some form of impact on many people, Muamba’s story of recovery is nothing but miraculous and everyone following it will have seen people coming together in prayer and the hope of recovery with an incredible outcome.

Social media can be used for so much good, we have indeed never had a platform like it before where we have the opportunity to be different to such a wide audience. Through this we can proclaim the gospel in so many ways and we need to think about how we can go about that in the most effective way.

I’ve definitely started thinking more about why I post something, resulting in what I post. In the spur of the moment we can post something that doesn’t represent Christ and how we are to be living differently and glorifying him. This came to my attention when I posted a status complaining about replacement buses the other week, I realised through being spoken to about it that not even just the issue behind the complaint was the problem, but there was a problem in that I am a leader and people look to me as an example. If this is the case then I need to be aware of not just how I go about things physically in life but how I go about living online too. It is a representation to so many people and I am becoming more aware of intentions behind postings and comments and I’m trying to use it well, to share things with people I think they will enjoy or find helpful, to post encouragements or positive comments and to actually be true and honest to myself and who I am. I’m also trying my hardest for it to not be the first thing or last thing I look at in the day, but that my bible is, or talking to God is. That way I can keep my priorities right, I can focus myself on God before anything else and pray that things will then flow out of that.

[2] Neil Postman cited in ‘The Next Story’. 2011. Tim Challies.

[6] Jean Twenger and W. Keith Campbell cited in ‘Digital Vertigo’. 2012. Andrew Keen.

[7] Jeremy Bentham cited in ‘Digital Vertigo’. 2012. Andrew Keen.


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