Christians today are surrounded by the trappings of commercial culture and the constant allure of digital living. These can sometimes be terribly distracting, causing us to give more attention to our cultural life than our spiritual life. Yet Jesus tells us: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Mt 6:25). As we ponder these words and consider our lives immersed in technology, we are faced with a great challenge. Digital living brings with it many conveniences that brighten and improve our lives. At the same time, it can foster anxiety and obsessive tendencies that can, if we are not mindful of them, become the center of our thoughts, taking the place of the spiritual mindfulness to which Jesus alluded.
For perspective on the challenges we face, it might be helpful to look back at another cultural villain that threatened (and continues to threaten) our relationship with God: advertising and the acquisition of material possessions. In 1997, St. John Paul II warned us: “It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed toward ‘having’ rather than ‘being,’ and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself” (“Ethics in Advertising”). His message was simple: It is wrong to entertain inordinate desires for material possessions, to surrender ourselves to their single-minded pursuit.
This was nothing new. What St. John Paul II offered was not so much an admonition as a restatement of what Pope Paul VI asserted in 1971. “[The] unremitting pressure to buy articles of luxury” from advertising, Paul VI declared, “can arouse false wants that hurt both individuals and families by making them ignore what they really need” (“Communio et Progressio”). What we really need, Jesus tells us, is to look beyond concerns about our earthly wants and needs, to see that life is about more than food, to discover that there is more to the body than clothes. Yet this is a struggle—one that can be abated only by avoiding the attractions offered by advertising and recognizing that there is more to human progress than acquiring material goods and cultivating lavish lifestyles.
Today advertising remains a powerful force. According to the economist Douglas Galbi, total U.S. advertising spending (as a percentage of gross domestic product) has remained largely unchanged since Paul VI’s time. The media landscape, however, has changed dramatically. In the last 30 years we have seen the creation of cable television, personal computers and smart phones, the dawn of the Internet and the stunning growth of social media. Since YouTube’s launch in 2005, the site has become home to a billion unique monthly visitors. Facebook, which was started in 2004, now hosts more than a billion monthly active users. Since Twitter’s launch in 2006, use of the site has mushroomed to 241 million monthly active users, who send an average of 500 million tweets per day. The influence of advertising looks feeble by comparison. Social media now take center stage when the church addresses the use of media. In his encyclical in honor of the 48th World Communications Day, Pope Francis concluded, “The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors, from those closest to us.”
Looking for Connections
What is distressing is that the “desire for digital connectivity” that Francis speaks of seems to conflict with Jesus’ teaching that we should seek glory not from one another, but from God. As he remarked to followers in Jerusalem, “How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another and do not seek the praise that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44). For better and for worse, we are social animals, so we are wired for connectivity. We want to connect with others, to form friendships, bonds, loving relationships.
But this desire for digital connectivity is fueled by something else: the triggering of reward centers in our brains. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that involved analysis of brain scans, researchers concluded that self-disclosure—the activity behind such things as Facebook status updates and tweets—arouses our central reward center, dispensing dopamine, the neurotransmitter whose effects are amplified by stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine. Consequently, some people turn to social media for this stimulation. “Humans so willingly self-disclose,” the authors write, “because doing so represents an event with intrinsic value, in the same way as with primary rewards such as food and sex.” Another study found that getting Facebook “likes” gives us the same neurological response. In an article in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Daria Kuss and Mark Griffiths found that “extraverts appear to use social networking sites for social enhancement, whereas introverts use [them] for social compensation, each of which appears to be related to greater usage,” and “may be indicative of potential addiction.”
Research points to inordinate amounts of time spent engaged with social media. According to Nielsen, the average user spends 15 hours and 38 minutes per month accessing social media sites. That number grows to an average of 20 hours and 43 minutes per month for the 18- to 34-year-old demographic. But people we might call “super users” spend far greater amounts of time using social media. The market research firm Ipsos suggests that these users spend an average of 3.6 hours per day using social media, with those under the age of 35 spending a reported 4.2 hours per day. Then there is the priority that some place on social media. According to one study, 48 percent of social media users check or update their Facebook pages or Twitter feeds during the night or as soon as they wake up in the morning. If only we gave God such dedicated attention.
Beyond neurological stimulation, such compulsive behaviors are driven by the pursuit of “micro-celebrity.” In her book Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks, Theresa Senft defines micro-celebrity as “a new style of online performance in which people employ webcams, video, audio, blogs and social networking sites to ‘amp up’ their popularity among readers, viewers, and those to whom they are linked online.” It is, as Senft asserts, a way of crafting one’s persona so as to make oneself irresistible to others. In Paul VI’s time, preoccupations with consumerism were thought to do the same. Today, however, this behavior is not limited to traditional conceptions of who is and who is not a celebrity, and virtually anyone can develop an audience online.
Obsessed With Ourselves
This is the most difficult obstacle for followers of Jesus to overcome: the realization that looking to one another for glory involves something akin to drug use, aided in no small way by micro-celebrity behavior and the ubiquitous technology that facilitates it all. As Christians, how do we deal with these temptations? By recognizing abuse of social media for what it is: an obsession with self. When we think of seeking glory from others as reflecting an obsession with ourselves, the practice takes on new meaning, particularly in the context of our relationship with God.
When we ignore God, we serve only ourselves. The fundamental problem is pointed out by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate this one, and love that other one, or he will follow after this one, and despise that other one” (Mt 6:24). Jesus makes clear that the path to righteousness involves serving God and God alone. It is not that we should disregard the self; we can be concerned with our health, with our education and with other things. Rather, we are called to avoid being overly concerned with winning the affections of others. As Jesus tells us, “Anyone who raises himself up will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be raised up” (Mt 23:12).
Unfortunately, it often seems difficult to be “raised up” by God. We cannot see God or touch God, so we cannot get the kind of immediate feedback that we get from one another. If only God could “like” us on Facebook or “favorite” one of our tweets! So we must seek glory from God without the guarantee of outward signs of affirmation. That is, of course, what faith is all about, and that is what Jesus has in mind when he lays out the foundations of Christian morality.
If Jesus Could Tweet
Social media can undermine our relationship with God as we obsess about seeking glory from one another. Yet our task is not to forsake social media or throw away our digital devices. Rather, we must use them according to our faith. Jesus reminds us that such things are not to be targets of anxiety. Our heavenly Father knows we need the accouterments of contemporary life—after all, even the Vatican has taken to Twitter to spread the news of the Gospel—so it would be foolish to think that Jesus would tell us to completely give up our smart phones and tablets. But if we use them, we must recognize that they are tools to help us communicate with one another as we endeavor to live in God’s love. It is the quality of the communication that is most important. We must realize that these tools are but mere possessions, about which Jesus’ instruction is clear: “Watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for life does not consist in possessions” (Lk 12:15).
The social media possess enormous potential for bringing people together—in some cases across long distances—to share in community and to work toward a sense of common good. Facebook provides individuals and families a convenient way to stay in touch, sharing status updates as well as photos and videos. Twitter allows people to quickly communicate with one another and to share stories that ultimately bind us together. The popular website LinkedIn enables individuals to manage their professional careers. After all, these are social media: They empower us as naturally social animals, giving us more opportunities to participate in a shared humanity.
As Christians, however, we should place our love for God above all else, seeking God’s glory instead of seeking glory from each other. St. Augustine wrote, “Among all who are truly pious, it is at all events agreed that no one without true piety—that is, true worship of the true God—can have true virtue; and that it is not true virtue which is the slave of human praise.” That is, true virtue—what Augustine might term as the proper ordering of love—is only possible with true piety, and true piety is only possible by holding God’s love above all else. True virtue is far above human praise—even praise that comes in the form of Facebook likes and retweets on Twitter.
We must remember Jesus’ teaching that we are to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds and with all our strength (Mk. 12:30). No commandment is greater than this. To follow Jesus faithfully we must keep this at the top of our minds and forever in our hearts. We must not allow social media to become an object of obsession, but explore how it can help us to authentically share and participate in God’s love. Pope Benedict XVI said that social media are “nourished by aspirations rooted in the human heart,” aspirations that involve creating for ourselves a shared sense of humanity shaped according to God’s love. True virtue comes with ordering our love. When we visit Facebook, use Twitter or engage other social media, we should focus on sharing God’s love with one another rather than focus on ourselves.