The Destructiveness of Social Media

Two people sitting at a table in a restaurant or coffee shop, both looking at their smartphone screens

I believe social media can be dangerous. That’s why I’m not a social media user and all you’ll see on my various accounts is links to these articles. I think I’ve posted family photos or personal life reports less than five times. Many, perhaps you, think I’m nuts for this, but I have felt a little vindicated with recent reports from tech industry leaders who feel the same way. Tony Reinke of DesiringGod.org recently posted an excellent article on this subject: Why We Should Escape Social Media (And Why We Don’t). I’m going to share some insights from Reinke and a few of my own.

Multiple media outlets have reported recent comments from former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya that social media has a detrimental effect on social discourse. (I think back to the bizarre 2016 election cycle in the United States and see that we have “Exhibit A” for that argument.) Addressing students at the Stanford School of Business, Palihapitiya said, “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops … are destroying how society works.” He said that social media is a “fake brittle popularity … that leaves you even more vacant and empty before you did it.”

That sounds to me like any other empty strategy to find acceptance, love, and meaning. All of us are searching for those things, but too often we use unhealthy, even destructive ways to satisfy them. It reminds me of Peter’s words to first-century Christians, warning them about “sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). Times haven’t changed much except that our tools for satisfying the needs for acceptance, love, and meaning have evolved with culture and technology.

It’s clear to me that social media has become this generation’s drug of choice. I don’t think it’s too strong to call it a “drug.” If you’re skeptical of that, click here and read articles from various reputable sources about how your brain changes with social media use.

What’s worse is that it is a drug that is condoned, even celebrated by leaders from every segment of society—even many leaders in the church.

Palihapitiya’s solution is telling, especially as a former Facebook executive: “I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years.” However, Reinke pointed out that just flipping the social media switch to off, going “cold turkey,” isn’t how it really works.

I agree. Anyone who is or was chemically addicted will tell you that extremely powerful forces are at play when an addiction has community support. Addicts often build networks of support, a community, to enable their habit. And what part of our society does not support social media? Indeed if Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, and others were all shut down, entire businesses and industries would buckle under the loss of a key part of their economic, marketing, and communication infrastructure. It would be catastrophic.

As I chatted about this issue with my wife, she reminded me of the objection we hear: “But this is how I get to see pictures of my grandkids!” or “This is how my softball team organizes and communicates.” Surely, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Correct. There’s nothing wrong with that.

I know this will be a controversial statement, but bear with me. In this respect, social media has similarities to alcohol. (Note that I didn’t say, “…is just like…”.) In moderation, alcohol can be acceptable. In moderation, social media can be acceptable. However, I challenge you to test yourself on this: If you had one drink of an “adult beverage” every time you check your social media accounts, wouldn’t you have a serious problem?

Is that comparison far-fetched? I don’t think so. Social media creates a dopamine charge in your brain the same way other addictions do. You can be addicted to social media the same way you can be addicted to alcohol, drugs, pornography, or gambling.

Reinke called social media a “brew of emotionally stimulating drugs we mix ourselves. And it means to leave social media, even for a few days or a just a couple weeks, is to encounter the harsh reality that we will be un-missed on our absence, un-noticed in our silence, and even un-anticipated upon our return back.”

Abstinence from social media brings us face-to-face with the deepest questions of all: Does anyone love me? Do I belong?

Next week, I’ll continue with this line of thinking, once again borrowing from Reinke’s observations and adding my own to challenge leaders in their use and leadership with social media.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Credits
Photo by Jacob Ufkes. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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