By Mark R. Sanders LPC, CACIII
Catholic Charities of Denver’s St. Raphael Counseling
I have a love and hate relationship with the internet. I must admit that my hobbies — watching English Premier League football and collecting Star Wars vintage memorabilia — couldn’t exist in the same way without it.
However, there is also a dark side to our constant connectivity and the way that the internet and social media has come to dominate many of our lives.
“Attention is the currency of the 21st century” has become a much more understood concept over the past few years. Paying attention has become much more challenging and we are constantly inundated by content. The average United States citizen is exposed to 5,000 advertisements a day, and is the most marketed to population in human history.
In addition to its marketing potential, social media has become a means for communication for many — if not most — of us. In addition to setting up parties, wishing people happy birthday and looking at baby pictures, it has also become an area where individuals are free to say things that they normally would never say to a person. Studies confirm that this increases anxiety, depression and (ironically) social isolation among both adults and children.
As a result of these technology changes, social media management has become a key to maintaining some degree of control over our technology usage. Two statistics will suffice:
The number of high school students who are “always online” is 46%, according to a Pew Research Center survey and 97% of teens use the internet daily.
The amount of online time by the average adult is now seven hours a day, which, when accounting for eight hours of sleep, means people are online for 41% of their waking lives.
In my work at Catholic Charities’ St. Raphael Counseling, I frequently work with individuals struggling to control their technology and social media usage. In fact, in talking with a variety of priests, deacons and other Denver leaders about parish challenges, technology is the number one issue associated with addictions, more than alcohol, marijuana or any other addiction-related issue.
Keep in mind that there is a spiritual component to these issues. In Cardinal Robert Sarah’s seminal book, The Power of Silence, he argues the need for us to not just be “quiet” but to be actively seeking the word of God in that silence. Distraction in our lives makes it challenging to hear much of anything and it certainly interferes with our depth of connection with God.
In order to handle these challenges, and to keep our spiritual life on track, we need to determine a game plan to deal with this strange world. Here are some ideas regarding how to better control social media usage:
1. Remove apps from your phone. If you want to use services like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, log in on your desktop, iPad or laptop to make it a more intentional action. It has become too easy to pull out your phone when standing in line or sitting at a traffic light. This interferes with our ability to be bored and to handle, even briefly, a lack of stimulation. The average adult looks at his or her phone 96 times per day. I have clients who have had success in this area — one decided to do a full “technology fast” for a month. Even though he didn’t think he could do it forever, he felt that swinging the pendulum far in one direction helped him to learn how to moderate.
2. Recognize that we can’t control social media sites. They are created in order to keep us online for as long as possible, typically in order to sell products. Remember the old adage — if something is free, it’s likely that you are the commodity being “sold.” One St. Raphael’s client tried to change his time on Facebook by keeping only the most important friends and interests. He quickly realized that it was just as hard to have 70 friends as 200, which led him to give up using socials altogether.
For children and teenagers, it’s not a surprise that social media is major challenge. Like most of us over 40, we didn’t experience the internet or even cell phones when we were young. The cord was tethered to the wall, there were only one or two televisions in our homes and when we walked out of school, we didn’t see anyone outside of our household until the next day. Today’s children and teenagers are facing a radically different experience, making them always available on social media. That means that peer influence impacts them long after school is over. So, what to do? Here are some ideas:
1. Have your child start using social media as late as possible and teach him or her how to be responsible long before he or she gets a phone. Monitor their usage. Help your child understand the ramifications of social media — is that person on the other end really who they think it is? Is your child being asked to keep secrets, provide personal details or do anything that could put the child or the family at risk?
2. Recognize the link between depression/anxiety and ongoing social media usage. Bullying, intimidation and feelings of being left out are so much more prevalent than they’ve ever been. This has become a big issue at St. Raphael’s — the rates of depression and anxiety have been skyrocketing in recent years, and we are learning that isolation in conjunction with frequent social media usage is a very bad combination for the adolescent brain.
3. Social media can be beneficial to keep in touch with family and friends, participate more fully in organizations or pursue hobbies. However, it can also be very easy to use it negatively and not stay true to oneself. Encourage your children to keep a focus on real friends and activities, and push back on the urge to quantify their life by comparing themselves to others.
For further guidance, I highly recommend Cal Newport’s great book Digital Minimalism, which is geared to helping us all better understand how to use the internet and social media in ways that are effective and not destructive. We must learn this balance for ourselves because it has become a necessary part of living in our world.
None of this is meant to scare anyone away from social media or the internet in general. Obviously, the internet is here to stay and no matter what jobs our children have in the future, they will need to have online skills to be successful. However, by being intentional with internet usage and finding ways to use technology to our advantage, we can all learn better about how to benefit from the wonders of our age.