23 Mar Is a Steady Stream of Social Media Diet Good for us?
“You are what you eat from your head down to your feet”.
Cal Newport, in his seminal book Deep Work, cites the writing of Winifred Gallagher to show that “our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to… Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.”
For Christians, this is nothing new of course. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal 6:7-8)
What do we become by feeding ourselves a steady dose of algorithm-curated social media content? What do we reap when we constantly sow content from social media? The old argument in favour of social media was that it gave us more agency and autonomy over what we consumed as opposed to traditional media, which had gatekeepers of content.
Given where we are, we must ask: is this true?
Shelly Banjo and Sarah Frier wrote an article back in March in which they showed that TikTok actively chooses which content goes viral.
“Company executives help determine which videos go viral, which clips appear on the pages of personalized recommendations, and which trends spill out from the app to flood the rest of the world,” they write.
The journey from seeing “recommended content” on social media a few years back to TikTok or Instagram Reels today where users don’t even actively select what content to consume may be indicative of the increasing role that Algorithms are playing in our lives.
Is this increasing role positive or negative? Below are a couple of angles to consider.
Social Media and Outrage
because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:20)
Science Advances recently published the findings of a study that monitored the social media experiences of various people.
Their conclusion? Social media tends to make people increasingly outraged over time.
Though their data set was largely American-based, it might not be too much of a stretch to generalize their findings to an Indian context too. What is surprising is not that negative content draws more engagement on social media. As Brady, one of the researchers says, “There’s a lot of data now that suggest that negative content does tend to draw in more engagement on the average than positive content.” What has now been confirmed is that the way social media platforms are built helps amplify outrage. To put it more bluntly, social media platforms positively favour outrage.
Social Media and Self-Image
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)
On March 21, 2021, Jesselyn Cook published an article on HuffPost which spoke about the Facetune epidemic. She details how young people across the USA are facing the never-ending pressure of having to reach the unrealistic beauty standards that Instagram influencers actively promote. It’s damaging to one’s mental health, resulting in “body dysmorphic disorders,” where individuals obsess over minor or imagined defects in their appearance. Cook writes, “The extraordinary lengths that an untold number of young women are going in a desperate effort to look flawless on the platform are indicative of a mental health crisis – one fueled in no small part by Facetune and other apps like it.”
What is the Solution?
Governments around the world are trying to answer these same questions and regulate online platforms. Although I fear a lot of these regulations are aimed at suppressing dissent, we do need some kind of regulation (although I’m not sure what kind). When cars were first invented I assume there weren’t too many codified traffic rules. However, as more and more people started using them, we had to codify such rules for the safety of all. I assume a similar set of rules needs to exist for social media.
Beyond what the governments do, as disciples of Jesus, what solution do we have?
In my earliest EU Bible studies, one of the ideas that were constantly emphasised was how Paul in his epistles very rarely gives a don’t command without also giving a do command. In the text from Galatians quoted above, Paul writes “whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Gal 6:8b).
But how do we sow to please the Spirit? We know that we gain God’s favour, not by our works, but by the grace of God. So what do we do then?
We sow to please the Spirit by placing ourselves in the channels of God’s grace. And the channels most readily available to us are the Word of God, prayer and fellowship. Or as David Matthis, in Habits of Grace, puts it: God’s voice, His ear, and His body.
Let’s go back to the quote we started from.
You are what you eat from your head down to your feet.
When we “feed ourselves” on Christ (through listening to His voice, having His ear in prayer, and partaking of His body in fellowship), we become Christ-like.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Cor 3:18 ESV)
Do we behold the glory of the Lord much more than we behold the content of social media?
Jeyapaul Caleb is a middle school teacher from Bangalore, India, who writes on culture and education through the lens of the Christian faith.