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Some time ago, I wrote an article for a national women’s magazine, and shared this true story: I was in the car with some girlfriends—all of us in our forties– and three cocky teenaged boys decided to stand in the road, monkey around, and not let us by. After a few minutes of this nonsense my very wise friend, who was driving, rolled her window down and shouted, “Say hi to your mom!”
They froze in their tracks, eyes wide, faces blanched. None of them knew which boy she was addressing, and every one of them feared what would happen when they got home. It was brilliant.
What a difference it makes when you no longer have anonymity. When there’s a sense of community, even a bit of fear that your parents will be told of your misbehavior, you watch your step. In smaller towns people complain that everyone knows everyone else’s business, but the upside is that everyone knows if you’re cutting school, smoking behind the drugstore, or driving across people’s lawns. Neighbors, if not your own parents, hold you accountable.
Flash forward to today’s society, to larger cities, to the world of social media, and you find people emboldened to be rude, crass, even abusive, because they do it all under the cloak of anonymity. People say things online that they would never say to someone’s face. Manners are mocked, kindness is cast aside. Even morals are dropped along with clothing as teens post graphic photos of themselves, hoping to impress a classmate. And the scourge of online pornography has addicted millions.
We have lost that feeling of connectedness and of accountability. People operate without a sense of responsibility, as rogue vigilantes– berating, accusing, even threatening the targets of their wrath. Some engage in sexual harassment. We read heartbreaking stories of youths who commit suicide because of intense online bullying. Not only are the perpetrators convinced they act in a lone bubble, but their victims also feel completely alone. That glowing screen may sometimes connect you to friends, but it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face relationships.
President Nelson has invited us to take social media fasts, something sorely needed in a world of constant screen addiction. I’m guessing most who took the challenge were surprised by how hard it was. Like a sugarholic giving up sugar (speaking from experience, here) it’s amazing how tight that grip is on our psyches, and how tough it is to give up something we’ve not only embraced, but overdone.
And, what not everyone realizes is that all these cravings for online validation are intentionally built into social media platforms. Yes, that means they’re designed to be addictive. Their creators have even borrowed tactics from the casino gambling industry which doesn’t give consistent rewards, but intermittent ones that keep you coming back and hoping. Online sites also keep you hooked by the pressure to reciprocate; when someone “likes” your post, you feel you must then “like” theirs. Even the wavy dots we see when texting—which we think means someone else is typing—are just to keep us from navigating away.
Ironically, those mega-companies want to keep us “connected” for as long as possible, to increase what they can charge for ads. Yet we’re not really connected in a healthy, truly life-affirming way. We’re just electronic associates. We aren’t actually serving one another, laughing together, or sharing intimate moments that forge strong bonds. We aren’t hugging, smiling at one another, or enjoying comfortable moments of hanging out together, sharing a walk, or breaking bread. Our sentences get reduced to abbreviations, stripped of nuance or comedic pauses. And we all have stories of when auto-correct mangled our message and created disaster.
You can’t heap all the blame on advertisers and marketing experts. They’re trying to sell products. At the end of the social media article I referenced above, the author gives his Twitter and Instagram links. I do something similar at the end of my articles as well. Our church leaders are social media-savvy, wisely using it to share the gospel (as we can and should do as well).
No, the internet is not evil. The problem arises when we can’t shut off the constant screen time, when we spend hours scrolling through Pinterest or other favorite sites, when we text back and forth with our friends, like teenagers in a crowd yet all alone as they stare at their phones. Soon we’re living for online approval, our mood defined by what people think of us, what they say back to our posts, and how much we compare our lives to theirs. Being unable to pull away is the problem.
We need to recapture the personal, face-to-face moments that enrich our relationships, foster understanding, teach us social etiquette, and hold us accountable. Anonymity emboldens the haters, and we need to ignore such messages. We also need to refrain from hostile online posts, ourselves. Passion is great but restraint and tact are also great. If you can’t express your feelings kindly, do what we do when phone connections are bad—hang up and try again. These are our brothers and sisters we’re addressing, and we should show love and respect.
This doesn’t mean we shy away from standing up for good causes. In the new Church Handbook it states, “Members are encouraged to use the Internet to flood the earth with testimonies of the Savior and His restored gospel. They should view blogs, social networks, and other Internet technologies as tools that allow them to amplify their voice in promoting the messages of peace, hope, and joy that accompany faith in Christ.”
Elder Ballard gave a devotional to youth in San Diego, California, in which he urged them to make the internet a servant, not a master. What a great formula for deciding what we’re reading and saying online. He also urged young people to have real, face-to-face relationships, to “visit and talk with your parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents while they are still with you.” This also encourages us to be authentic, not anonymous.
I’ll tell you what would help: An app that gives you a ten-minute timer for scrolling, playing games, and dawdling online (can we please admit that’s what we often do?). Oh, wait—there is one! It’s a timer you can set on your phone, or with Alexa, or any way you’d like to do it. Put yourself on a Dot-com Diet and choose how much time you realistically need to spend facing a screen. Is your back turned to your children more than you’d like to admit? Do they tug on your arm, hoping to get you to look up from your phone? Then put on your Big Girl or Big Boy Panties and stop allowing the internet to be your master.
Perhaps Elder David A. Bednar summarized it best when he said, “I am raising a warning voice that we should not squander and damage authentic relationships by obsessing over contrived ones.”
So let’s seek out real conversations and more fulfilling recreation. Let’s pursue that which truly uplifts, and is “of good report or praiseworthy.” We can use some of this newly acquired time to actually grow our testimonies. We can spend a bit more time praying, set a temple date, and minister to those we’re assigned and others who come to mind when we pray, “Who needs my help?” Let’s all become servants to the Lord, instead of to social media.
Hilton’s LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.