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The Spiritual Effects of Virtual Relationships

Series: Technology and the Christian

“ ‘I feel tremendous guilt,’ admitted Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook… ‘The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,’ he explained. In Palihapitiya’s talk, he highlighted something most of us know but few really appreciate: smartphones and the social media platforms they support are turning us into bona fide addicts. While its easy to dismiss this claim as hyperbole, platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible,” (“Dopamine, Smartphones, and You: A battle for your time,” by Trevor Haynes - department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School).


Paul says that while all things might theoretically be lawful, all things are not helpful and we must not allow ourselves to be brought under the control of anything. Being mastered by our screens damages our ability to meditate on God’s word and can cause us to carry mindlessness in our hearts, not the glory of Christ. But, in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24, Paul takes this wisdom a step further. ““All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”


What fruitfulness do our screens and social media facilitate? The most popular response to the survey was “communication and connection with others.” My experience is the same. I love my phone when I use it to listen to helpful podcasts and to facilitate communication with people I care about. Our screens make infinite connections possible. But are we connected, really? Are we really built up by maintaining relationships through screens?


Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation

Two years ago the American Journal of Preventative Medicine released some ironic findings from a study on social media use. Katherine Hobson of NPR summarizes the findings well.


“For young adults, social media may not be so social after all. Among people in that age group, heavy use of platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram was associated with feelings of social isolation, a study finds. The results surprised study co-author Brian Primack. ‘It’s social media, so aren’t people going to be socially connected?’ he says. … And while his team’s previous research connecting social media use and depression in young adults wasn’t terribly surprising, these new results seemed counterintuitive.”

“It turns out that the people who reported spending the most time on social media - more than two hours a day - had twice the odds of perceived social isolation than those who said they spent a half hour per day or less on those sites. And people who visited social media platforms most frequently, 58 visits per week or more, had more than three times the odds of perceived social isolation than those who visited fewer than nine times per week.” (“Feeling Lonely? Too Much Time On Social Media May Be Why”)


The study cannot prove causation. Social media may make people feel socially isolated, or it may be that socially isolated people use social media to feel less lonely. Both are probably true. We feel lonely or bored. We get online to connect, but we see everyone else connecting, so we start to feel even more disconnected. If we use screens in the right way, they can help us build real-world connections with real positive impacts. But numerous studies clearly show that screen misuse actually harms our well-being and our relationships.


Four Ways Virtual Relationships Can Harm Us

Why is so much connection leading to so much unhappiness, depression, and isolation? Let’s consider four ways the over-connection to our virtual relationships can actually harm us.


1. Social Media lends to self-absorption. 

  • Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook to help us find and connect with the ones we love, but how valuable are these connections? Consider the nature of any social media platform: we share things with what hope? Often (not always), to be affirmed or liked. Is that how real-world relationships work? “Here’s what I think, here’s what I did — DO YOU LIKE ME?” The moment we post, there’s fear isn’t there? What if people don’t like it, or me?
  • Last summer, my brother and sister-in-law were relaxing on a beach in the Bahamas when they saw this middle-aged woman walking to the water with her daughter. Standing in the water, this woman started posing while her daughter took pictures of her. Eventually, the daughter quit and they walked back up the beach. A few minutes later, this woman was back in the water with her husband snapping shots of her. Eventually, the dad quit. A few minutes passed… and the woman returned to the water with a selfie stick — posing and smiling. This went on for *at least* an hour and a half. 
  • Why does this happen? In a study by Donna Freita on the effects of social media, a college student said something that was quite revealing. “People used to do things and post them… now the anticipated approval is what’s driving the behavior or activity.” Did you catch that? In the past, we used to do things because we found enjoyment in them. Later, we might share it with others. But for some, that’s changed. The fun is not in the activity, the fun is in the approval we get for posting our activity. Here’s what’s sad. This woman went through so much trouble to travel the Bahamas, but she didn’t take any of it in. She was so self-absorbed and consumed by capturing the moment that, if you think about it, she really didn’t take a vacation to the Bahamas. Just an actress on a stage.
  • Are our social media habits causing us be self-absorbed? Philippians 2:3–7 (ESV), “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” It’s not inherently wrong or unwise to share things on social media. But why are we doing it? Whether we use social media or not, our aim is to be like Jesus. He was in the form of God, but he didn’t flaunt that before the world. He came to serve. He came to heal. He came to point people to the Father. If we use social media, let’s focus on building up others, not on gaining approval.


2. Our phones help us build low effort communities.

  • I have nearly 1400 Facebook friends. Relationships require no effort to start - just click a button. Another click silences annoying people, and they aren’t even notified. It’s easy to craft a unique online community with people who understand, appreciate, and value us.
  • Let’s be honest, of those 1400 friends, with how many of them have I have had to fumble through the slow, awkward process of building a real friendship? How many awkward pauses have I endured? Faults, quirks, or bad hair days have I overlooked? Probably none. 
  • Do you think that is confusing at all when we come to real-world, face to face relationships? As one author put it, it can feel so natural to communicate with others online… but communicating with others on Sunday mornings can be awkward (12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinke, pg. 69). That’s because virtual communities are easy. We have similar values and life situations. Flesh and blood communities confront us with the real world - slow, awkward, imperfect, impatient, diverse.
  • Furthermore, real friendships and communities always ask for our faithfulness and our flesh and blood presence. How many of my virtual friends do I have to be reliable for? Sit with in difficult times? Be patient with?
  • But this isn’t how real communities work. Acts 4:32–35 (ESV), “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common… There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Acts 2:46 (ESV), “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.”
  • In real relationships and communities, we can’t check in whenever we feel like it. We can’t not show without consequences. Flesh and blood relationships and communities cost. We do things that are inconvenient. To help our communities, sometimes we give up Saturday mornings and spare bedrooms. Sometimes, we sell our family’s land.
  • I think John’s reminder in 1 John 3:18 is helpful (ESV), “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” We have to take care that our virtual communities are not redefining what real love is. Let us not love in likes and shares, but in deed.
  • The good news is that when we invest in real communities, they are there for us in ways our virtual friends will never be. Likes and sad-faced emojis can never replace lunch or coffee with a friend. I am so thankful for you who have been that for me.


3. Our phones can make us over-connected and exhausted.

  • Studies show we thrive in communities of about 150 people. Even though virtual communities cost little, they can be terribly exhausting, can’t they? There is always some new huge revelation - good or bad - in someone’s life. I can’t rejoice or weep with every virtual friend (cf. Romans 12:15). I can’t pray about every tragedy. I get numb to it all, don’t you? It leaves us with nothing for the people who are truly around us.
  • It seems easy to write a letter, communicate through a screen, or read an update, but we exhaust ourselves when we constantly transport our minds to other places because we aren’t God. It is of God that David said, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7 ESV) We are not God. We cannot become digital gnostics. We are confined to bodies and we can only be in one place at a time. Multi-tasking is a facade. 
  • This doesn’t mean we stop communicating with people elsewhere. The apostles wrote letters and prayed for Christians in different places. And yet when you think about it, we have relatively few letters from their hands. Why is that? 2 John 1:12 (ESV), “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” We can communicate with people in different places, but wisdom knows when to put the pens and the phones down to live where our bodies are.



4. Screens can distract us from flesh and blood relationships around us.

  • Based on the survey I sent out, we are most frustrated that our screens keep us from (1) being more productive and (2) from being with the people around us.
  • Last summer I sat across from a new acquaintance (whom you do not know) at a dinner with friends. Her daughter and I were both trying to interact with her for a solid hour and a half, but she was on her phone the whole time. I decided to be persistent. I asked questions. I shared stuff. I’ll never forget the moment when, in the middle of a story, I stopped to see if she would notice that I had stopped talking. She had no clue.
  • I have made this mistake too many mornings and evenings at home. I’ve missed conversations. I’ve missed people. I’ve even let Willa fall off the couch and hit her head.
  • This is the bad part about porn - we miss a real relationship for a 2D fantasy.
  • In fact, don’t we sometimes intentionally keep people away with screens and books? If I sense an exhausting conversation coming, I have been known to quickly pull out the book, phone, or remote.
  • I wonder how many valuable connections we will miss as a church over time - here and in the world - if we don’t decide to be present with the people around us. One of the most earth-shattering verses in the Bible is John 1:14 (ESV). “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The God didn’t text us. He didn’t send us a video of himself. He became flesh and lived among us. He looked people in the eyes. He sat and ate with them. He took time to be alone with the Father, but when it was time to be with people, he was there.


Concluding Thoughts

Based on the survey I sent out, you believe we should use screens to be productive and connected. If we’ll do it right, I think that’s wise. The goal isn’t to simply disconnect. Dr. Kimberly Young’s advice is helpful: disconnect to reconnect. For me, simple things like limiting notifications and leaving my phone plugged into an out of sight station in the kitchen have gone a long way in changing my relationships with my phone. What works for you may be different. But there’s a danger: if we send this evil spirit away and leave our lives empty, that spirit may come back with seven other digital distractions to make us worse than we were before. The goal in taking off the old man is not to be naked — it is to let God renew our minds and help us put on the new man. We must focus on being free of virtual burdens so we can love the real people around us.


Jesus said in John 13:35 (ESV), “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John the Baptist lived in the desert, ate locust and wild honey, and wore camel’s hair. He was weird. But he did it to show people that he wasn’t part of the way of Jerusalem. He did it to show his hope that God would pour out his Spirit in the desert. Many thought he was crazy, but people eventually left the cities to see what was up with this disconnected prophet. Our virtual communities may dissolve and people may think we are weird. But if we will disconnect with faith that God can use our real connections with real neighbors to show people real love, disciples of Christ may become distinct again after all.


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