I just finished watching a Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. It highlights the effects of social media on its users. Many of the observations are quite alarming. But what becomes clear throughout is that we are not unaffected consumers of some neutral mediums. As one interviewee puts it, “Social media isn’t a tool that’s just waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and has its own means of pursuing them.” That goal or purpose is to profit from your attention.
Fact: Social Media Shapes Us
The goal or purpose of social media is to profit from your attention.
In order to accomplish this, “you are being programmed at a deeper level.” By programmed, the interviewee means social media actively shapes your view of the world, likes and dislikes, hopes, and fears. How and what we consume on social media platforms – such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook – actually changes us. It alters our perception and even our personality.
This has led me to ask myself, “Does social media affect my study of God’s Word?” Though perhaps a more honest question would be, “How does social media affect my Bible reading?” Since it seems a foregone conclusion that social media impacts us on countless levels.
The social media we consume actually changes us. It alters our perception and even our personality
So, How Am I Affected Spiritually?
As a Christian this is a crucial question. For my maturity and spiritual growth is inextricably linked to time spent meditating on the Bible. We are sanctified by the truth of God’s word (John 17:17). We become what we behold and it is in the Bible that we behold Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Therefore, if we wish to become like Him we must behold Him. Passing glances and mindless scrolling simply will not do. As one biblical author writes, we must fix our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2).
Social Media Steals My Time
The first effect social media has on Bible reading is easily observable. It takes away my time. Scrolling through social media consumes precious minutes the same way an airplane burns fuel. It is hard to be on social media for a few minutes at a time. The novelty that it constantly supplies makes the passage of time almost imperceptible. It is like a deeply engrossing conversation with a friend. Only this friend speaks using words, pictures, videos, memes and GIFs.
Passing glances and mindless scrolling simply will not do. We must fix our eyes on Jesus.
This undeniably takes me away from Scripture reading. Much time that I might previously have invested in prayerful mediation on the Bible is thrown away. Worse still, the time that I do spend reading Scripture is broken into small chunks of five minutes due to the interruptive notifications pouring from my phone.
Social Media Shapes How I Read
However, I have observed a second, less explicit effect social media is having on my Bible reading. It isn’t just what it does to my time but also my mind. Not just my availability to read the Bible but my capacity to understand it. Yes, social media steals my time. But it simultaneously slackens my resolve and focus as I study the Bible. It dulls my ability to meditate meaningfully on truth and dims my eyes from seeing beauty therein. This is possibly an even greater tragedy than wasted hours. Poor readers make for impoverished reflection on God’s inspired truth.
It isn’t just what social media does to my time but also to my mind
God has providentially determined to communicate all that I can know about him through his written, inspired words. The Bible is made up of words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Life, joy, and peace are to be found in reading, pondering, and applying these written truths. Paul tells Timothy, “think over these things and the Lord will give you understanding” (2 Timothy 2:7). Understanding is therefore given to those:
- who can think deeply
- who pour over the arguments and logic of Scripture
- willing to give the words a second, third and fourth looks
- who underline and meditate on apparent tensions, attempting to resolve them
- who delight in the careful details of biblical narratives
Social Media Keeps Things Shallow
Contrast this with my scrolling through social media. In the latter, the exact opposite is encouraged and rewarded. I don’t study a tweet, thinking about its truthfulness and context. Furthermore, we battle to think deeply over this rapidly fired content because our eyes ignore the demarcations between brief posts. I am always interested in the next thing. More awaits. What I looked at 2 minutes ago is already old and irrelevant compared to what waits for me and the next swipe of my thumb.
Lightness delivers delight. Depth and weight require too much work.
So I oblige and scroll only to meet another tweet. There is absolutely no correlation between the two. The first one was the tragic news of a fatal road accident. The next one is a funny video of a toddler tripping over a step. Two situations, at opposite ends of the human experience almost simultaneously processed by my mind. My mind, which was designed to reflect and feel deeply, is little more than a bottomless pit for information that is ultimately meaningless.
Since I can neither mourn the dead and reflect on the frailty of life nor laugh heartily at the clumsiness of a two-year old and delight in the beauty of the mundane I will determine to observe all this from arm’s length. I will commit, often unwittingly, to live in the shallows. No need to think too deeply about words, thoughts or events. Lightness delivers delight. Depth and weight require too much work.
I Now Come to The Bible Ill-Equipped
When I move from this to the Bible, I find myself increasingly ill-equipped to dig deep. I tossed away the tools necessary to personal Bible study along with my time as I lazily scrolled through social media. Slowly I am becoming convinced that careful reflection, wrestling with a text, and slow reading are unnecessary for me to attain understanding.
I am also becoming impatient when my reading doesn’t provide instant pay-off. I have been so exposed to the light, fleeting, and momentary that I simply do not have the proper skill to handle the weighty, permanent, and eternal. But the Bible doesn’t front-load delight. Instead, it delivers the goods through hard work.
I have been so exposed to the light and momentary that I simply do not have the proper skill to handle the weighty and eternal.
Should I Just Quit?
So what am I recommending? Quitting social media? No. Although that might be necessary for some. Intermittent social media fasting? Probably not a bad course of action. What I hope we can all commit to is rethinking how we approach the Bible and social media.
We should ask whether we approach social media primarily as Bible readers or vice versa. It is inevitable that what we do shapes who we become. What is the primary shaping agent in our lives? What forms the lens through which we view the world?
Manage Social Media, Become A Better Bible Reader
In conclusion I want to offer three practical helps for personal Bible reading:
1. Allow Yourself To Be Bored
Part of the explanation for our rampant use of social media is the fear of boredom. We avoid quiet and perceived inactivity that is found offline at all costs. We fill our lives with constant buzzes, beeps, and notifications. Yet, it is at times when we’re not subjecting ourselves to the frequent doses of dopamine that social media provides, that we are able to reflect deeply about what we believe and hold dear.
It is when we let the oft disturbed waters of our hearts settle that we can see what lies at the bottom.
It is when we let the oft disturbed waters of our hearts settle that we can see what lies at the bottom and apply the gospel where most needed. This is when we can begin to retrain ourselves for sustained study, reflection and contemplation. To our surprise and delight we will find that this way of living delivers a peace, richness, and stability that social media never could.
2. Read Great Books
If what I have said above is true, then it does not merely matter that we read but also how what we read is presented. The form of what we set before us forms us. This is why reading great books can be helpful and positively formative. Great books help us to engage deeply with a character and a culture, to make informed moral judgements and rejoice at the triumph of good over evil. This can be good preparation for our hearts to receive from the greatest book. Reading great books will equip you to read the Bible the way that swimming in a lake trains you to swim in an ocean.
Let your timeline push you towards the Scriptures rather than away from it.
3. Curate Your Feed for Spiritual Food
Finally, you may want to consider curating your social media timelines to consist of content that engages with Scripture, or Christian truth and theology. Rather than using social media primarily for entertainment, you could leverage it to grow in areas that you find yourself lacking. Let your timeline push you towards the Scriptures rather than away from it.
Stick To Your God-Given Goals
Our goal on earth is to glorify God. Our time and minds are gifts from God. These must be stewarded towards this goal.
Social media platforms and companies have goals and the means to pursue them. If we are consumers then it is in their best interests to shape us into profitable, easily distracted, and tireless consumers. But Christians have their own God-given goals and the gracious means to achieve them. Our goal on earth is to glorify God. Our time and minds are gifts from God. These must be stewarded towards this goal.
On more occasions than we may be willing to admit, we let social media steal and shape these gifts. I hope that we can sit up and notice this and seek ways to reclaim and realign them to the glory of God.