How Should the Believer Relate to Smart Phones and Social Media? (Part 3)

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The attached is the concluding article of the 3 part series of the believer’s relationship to social media and smart phones.  If you missed parts 1 and 2, click on the authors section within this website and click on Scott Bangert.  It will take you to Part 1 and Part 2.  At the end of this Part 3 are some questions for your thinking as you consider the ramifications of Scott’s challenge.

Part 3 of 3:  The Mind and Heart Conquered

Comparison

2 Corinthians 4:17

“For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.”

According to the Declaration of Independence, one of the most basic rights of human beings is “the pursuit of happiness.” It is therefore not surprising that the desire to be happy is highly valued in the United States. What is surprising, however, is that psychologists believe that the more likely a person is to value being happy, the less likely he is to attain it. When the desire to be happy becomes extreme and inflexible, it leads to disordered emotional regulation and depression. I believe that I ought to be happy all the time, but I find that reality does not meet my expectations. As I compare my desired emotional state to reality, the gap between the two produces emotional strain. Hence, an extreme pursuit of happiness has the tendency to produce the opposite effect.

Much attention has been focused on the link between smartphone use and depression, particularly among adolescents. This is probably multifactorial, and factors like sleep deprivation and addiction likely play a role. Cyber bullying and the glorification of self-mutilation on social media (teenage girls who post pictures of self-cutting behavior receive a lot of likes) are also probable factors.

Perhaps one of the most powerful factors behind the link between smartphone use and depression is social comparison. We all tend to derive self-worth based on how we compare to others. We have a strong tendency to make downward comparisons with people who are worse off or less skilled than we are, and that may lead to increased self-esteem.

Upward social comparison, on the other hand, tends to decrease self-esteem, and it is encouraged by social media. Each user posts an idealized version of themselves, where all content is carefully screened, edited, photo-shopped, and manipulated, essentially creating a highlight reel of the day. The highs are airbrushed and staged, while the lows are never posted, in order to present the best possible version of oneself (a concept termed self-presentation theory).

When other users engage in social comparison, everyday life simply cannot measure up to this unrealistic standard. The problem is amplified because social media allows us to connect to so many people. Instead of comparing the self with a few others, social media offers a limitless array of options for users to compare with (and not measure up to).

This gap between actual self and social media driven ideal self can be a huge driver in loneliness, depression, anxiety, body image issues, and suicide. Additionally, obsession with self-presentation (continually posting selfies and all the thoughts and details of your life) may promote narcissism and unhealthy self-centeredness. This may cause real life relationships to be more distant, making needed help more distant as well.

The Bible also warns us about the dangers of comparison. 2 Corinthians 10:12 says, “For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.”

When people “compare themselves with themselves,” man becomes the standard by which they make their upward and downward comparisons. As a result, they are filled with pride based on downward comparisons and envy based on upward comparisons. Comparisons with others are nothing more than vanity because they assume people who compare favorably are therefore more valuable.

But God argues that this is not the case in 1 Samuel 16:7: “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” We lack the ability to make comparisons that have any real value. Not only so, Paul argues that everything we have comes from God anyway in 1 Corinthians 4:7: “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” Instead, we are instructed to compare ourselves with the true standard, Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

This form of upward comparison is meant to produce the humility that mankind sorely lacks and desperately needs. We are also encouraged to compare who we are in Christ to who we were without Him: dead in our sins (Eph 2:1, 4-7). This form of downward comparison is meant to produce the gratitude that I owe God. This healthy blend of humility and gratitude produces contentment with the way God made me. It frees me from self-centeredness and competition with others, in which we “bite and devour one another” (Galatians 5:15). It is the true path to achieving the ideal self, which Ephesians 2:10 describes: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”

Predators

1 Peter 5:8

“Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

According to Stephen Hawking, “We are all now connected by the internet, like neurons in a giant brain.” This seems like a pretty accurate description of life in the 21st century, and it raises two important questions. What is that giant brain thinking about, and who exactly are those other neurons to whom we are now joined?

Judging by internet traffic and downloads, one of the foremost things on that giant brain’s mind is sex. Psychologists are becoming increasingly concerned about sex related problems arising from smartphones and social media. The portability of smartphones makes access to cybersex, pornography, sexting, and adult messaging and dating apps ubiquitous, convenient, and anonymous. Like other forms of addiction previously discussed, cybersex addiction has the potential to negatively affect real-life intimate relationships and overall emotional health.

Users can easily spend hours engrossed in fantasies impossible in real life. Cybersex may also promote casual sex, making healthy, long-term relationships difficult to form or maintain. While adults frequently suffer these ill effects, psychologists are particularly concerned about the consequences of engaging in cybersex for teenagers.

They fear that continual exposure of the adolescent brain to pornography may prevent the development of mature and healthy sexual relationships in adulthood. Researchers believe that it may promote aggressive sexual behavior and other risky behaviors such as substance abuse.

Similarly, high social media use seems to increase the likelihood of poor body image, early sexual activity, and high-risk sexual behavior (this seems to be especially true for young women). Sexting seems to increase the risk of early sexual activity, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Sexting also creates exploitative situations where individuals may be bullied or threatened with the release of sexually suggestive pictures of themselves which they intended to keep private. In essence, cybersex trains the young minds to view themselves and others as sex objects, and they treat themselves and others accordingly.

That connection between each user in Hawking’s giant brain of the internet is not necessarily a good thing, as Penn Jillette describes. “My favorite thing about the internet is that you get to go into the private world of real creeps without having to smell them.” While Jillette would likely laugh off the moral implications of those interactions, it is certainly true that we rub shoulders with those creeps online, and because we cannot smell them, we may not be aware that they are standing next to us.

If this is true for adults, how much more so for our children, a fact which is becoming increasingly alarming to psychologists, law enforcement, and parents alike. In cyberspace, children are often less protected by their parents than in real world situations.

In fact, children often turn to the internet to escape their parents’ control. Children and adolescents are more curious and less discerning, leaving them susceptible to online grooming, a practice in which an adult builds a relationship with a minor through social media in order to sexually exploit that minor. In the earliest stages of grooming, the predator approaches a minor through seemingly innocent platforms such as online gaming chats and gains trust by sharing interests and personal information. From there, gift giving, deception, and secret keeping escalate to something more sinister. While online grooming is a danger to any child or adolescent, minors with problematic internet use are the most vulnerable.

Risk factors for sexual solicitation include spending longer time on the internet (particularly on weekdays), being involved in sexting, having strangers in social networks friends lists, playing online games, and being involved in online chats. In essence, internet addiction and cybersex render minors more vulnerable to predators.

Human predators are not the only online danger. The artificial intelligence behind social media can push sexual material on users. AI is designed to keep users engaged, and it does its job extremely well, without considering the moral implications. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has come under fire for claims that its AI engine pushes any content it believes will interest individual users. This ranges from pornography to even more morally problematic content such as pedophilia. For better or for worse, users are given what they want. All that matters is that they keep using the platform.

The Bible places a great deal of emphasis on what we think about and who we open ourselves to. The mind thinks about what the eyes look at, and we are repeatedly warned about this danger in regard to sex (1 Cor 6:18, Job 31:1, Matt 5:27-30, Prov 6:27, 1 Pet 2:11). We are also warned about the dangers of who we associate with and allow to influence us (1 Cor 15:33, Prov 13:20). For better or for worse, you become like those with whom you associate (Jesus was a friend of publicans and sinners, but the majority of His time was spent with the disciples). It seems that the two dangers go hand in hand. To the degree that I fail to guard my mind, I make myself vulnerable to evil influences. And to the degree that I put myself in dangerous situations, the greater the risk of corrupting my mind.

In the Garden of Eden, the serpent deceived Eve about the dangers of eating the fruit. Ultimately, Eve decided to eat, with catastrophic consequences. We may well ask, while this conversation between Eve and the serpent was going on, where was Adam? It seems to me that most of us are on guard against allowing our families (or ourselves) to talk to snakes in “the real world.” We do well to be just as on guard, if not more, against conversations our families may be having with snakes online.

An invisible enemy is more dangerous than one that is seen, and Ephesians 6:12 reminds us, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Conclusion

As we have seen, smartphones and social media pose dangers on multiple fronts. Because we are the sum total of our thoughts, smartphones have the ability to shape not only our minds but also our souls. They are designed to be addictive, making us a slave to our appetites and idolaters. They stunt the ability to delay gratification, tempting us to pick the temporal over the eternal. They impair our ability to concentrate, distracting us from fixing our attention on Jesus Christ. They keep us from sleep, depriving us from the rest that comes from fellowship with God and His Word. They encourage man centered comparisons, training us to love self rather than others. They inflame our desires, making us prey to all manner of evil influences.

In the medical community, physicians prescribe many medications to their patients, some of which are dangerous. As the physician talks through the new drug with the patient, they will discuss potential benefits, what may be gained, and potential risks as well. Together, they will then decide whether that particular drug is worth the risk.

My goal in writing about this topic is that we may all discuss the risks and benefits of smartphone use with our families. I have not mentioned much about the benefits because they are readily apparent (our kids are all too eager to tell us what they are). I fear that the risks are often not as apparent, and they are worth carefully considering as well.

This is important to do on an individual basis, because the “smartphone problem” is not a single entity. Rather, there are as many pitfalls as there are personalities, and each person is wise to think through where he may be vulnerable. As husbands and fathers, it is our responsibility to lead our families in these crucial discussions and decisions.

After weighing both the risks and the benefits, each of us can make an informed decision. 1 Corinthians 6:12 says, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.”

I still love my phone, and my teenage children have recently gotten phones as well. Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ don’t allow their children to have phones, while others are more liberal with their children’s smartphone use than I am. Each of us will answer to God for how we handle this issue, and our kids will eventually have to form their own convictions too. My prayer is that we may accept one another in whatever stance we take, for it is lawful, but that God will prevent us from being mastered by that which is not profitable. May He alone be our Master.

Questions for thought 

These questions are worth reflecting on in your own life first, and then in the lives of your family and those you seek to influence. Remember, you will have to defend your answers before God.

What are the negative things about phones in my life?

In what ways am I vulnerable to sin with my phone? What problems do I see? What problems do those close to me see with my phone use? What warning signs should I look for to detect problems that aren’t obvious? How can I offset the negative effects of phones in my life?

What are the positive things about phones in my life?

What are legitimate uses for my phone? How much of my phone use is spent on legitimate vs illegitimate things? How much of my phone use is spent on necessary vs unnecessary things? In what way should this change? How do I develop a healthy relationship with my phone?

How can I use my phone like I know I should?

What are my goals, and how will my phone use help or hurt me in reaching those goals? How do I develop personal convictions about my phone use? Once I have decided what I would like my phone use to look like, how do I enact that plan in my life? How do I develop the willpower to follow through? What guardrails do I need? Do I need outside help? Will this plan change over time?

As I work through these questions with another person (such as my kids or another person I seek to influence), what role should I play in the process? How do I direct/influence them? How should that role change over time?

What other questions about phones do I need to think and pray on?

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