Ad Clerum on Anti-Social Media

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:29–30)

They were having one of those painful marital arguments that erupt from time to time. She was determined that this time he would understand just how serious it was for her, so she sent him an email outlining all of his offenses in excruciating detail. Just to be sure that he couldn’t ignore the accusations, she sent a copy of the email to her best friend. The best friend was stunned to receive this missive especially since the couple seemed to be coping fairly well with the normal challenges of life in Northern Virginia. She was also concerned that the husband was a member of the Vestry at Truro Church and that “someone” needed to know – so she forward the email to me – the Rector. I was now the unintended recipient of this very personal marital information and began to pray about an appropriate response. Some days later I was chatting with the husband after Sunday morning worship. “How’s things at home these days?” I asked. “Everything is just fine!” he replied with a big smile. “Great!” I answered. “But do feel free to talk with me if you ever need to ...and try to avoid emails!” His face went white. Now he knew that I knew. He nodded and walked away. It didn’t end well, and the email chain made it worse.

Today we are living with instant messaging in which many people document their every thought – almost in real time – on various social media platforms. There is no time to reflect on the impact of their words on the unsuspecting world. When they are feeling angry or hurt, social media is ready 24 hours a day to pass along the pain-filled sentiments to everyone. This is already generating unprecedented levels of depression and self-harming behavior among teenagers – both boys and girls. I have witnessed the potential for serious damage with our own grandchildren.

When I was a child – light years ago – we had a childhood chant: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me!” It was intended to increase resiliency and avoid physical retaliation, but, sadly, it is simply not true. Hurtful words – uttered in person or via social media – can leave deep wounds long after physical scars might have healed. By way of response to this reality, our son and his wife have not only restricted the hours that social media is available in their home but also denied their 15-year-old son his own mobile phone – over considerable protestations!

I readily admit that the social media explosion has produced remarkable benefits. We are able to communicate with friends and family in ways that we never imagined. Angela serves as our family social media queen and stays in regular contact with our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and our rapidly growing global extended family. She passes along photographs, family news, and prayer needs, and because of her good efforts, we have stayed well connected throughout the pandemic lock down. We have even located high school friends with whom we had lost contact. I am also able to learn a great deal about the various clergy and churches that I now serve as interim bishop, because I can read through their websites and social media posts. But there is a dark side to all of this.

The Social Dilemma is the name of a Netflix movie released last year, and the title describes our current situation. This documentary-drama hybrid explores the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm about their own creations and the many ways in which social media controls and manipulates us. The program is provocative and well worth watching, and some of the lessons to be learned are these:

  1. Our attention is their product – social media companies succeed by capturing as much of our attention as they can, then selling that attention to the highest bidders. As the saying goes, if you are not paying for the product, you are the product!
  2. Addiction is built into the design of social networking sites – they exploit human weakness by designing with something called “positive intermittent reinforcement” that is affecting our health as well as our relationships.
  3. Social media platforms are not a tool patiently waiting to be used – they nag us by sending a steady stream of notifications and emails. The engagement seduces us, manipulates us, and pursues its own goals by using our psychology against us.

During his address to the ACNA Provincial Council held last month, Archbishop Foley Beach covered a number of important topics, including social media usage, about which he said this:

Several years ago I put together a series of questions to ask ourselves before we make a post. It was entitled A Christian Code of Ethics for Using Social Media. You can find it on the provincial website. In summary, there are five questions to ask oneself before you post what you wrote. Is it the Truth? Have I talked to the person before I talk about the person? Will it benefit all concerned? Do my words reflect well on Jesus Christ? Will I have to confess what I wrote as a sin?

One final word about my words and your words: they are far more powerful than we can possibly imagine, especially when we are speaking, texting, or posting carelessly, or – even worse – angrily. James, the writer of that ever-practical epistle, reminds us:

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue [and the keyboard] is a fire... with it we bless our Lord and Father and with it we curse people made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth [keyboard] come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things out not to be so. (James 3:5-10)

Your Brother in Christ,