So the whole world’s gone crazy. The only question is, what are we going to do about it? The first step is to find out what caused the problems. In the third section of The Coddling of the American Mind, the authors point to six trends that explain the meteoric rise of the three untruths.
The first two causes Lukianoff and Haidt include directly correlate to social media usage; the polarization cycle and increasing rates of anxiety and depression.
The polarization cycle is something we’re all familiar with. It’s the reason nobody changes their mind on an issue after you ride into your friends Facebook comments on a white horse to set everyone straight. When it comes to social media - and most social dialogue for that matter - most people do not change their minds. In fact, being exposed to opposing viewpoints on social media actually pushes people further into the views they already held.
The rates of anxiety and depression, especially among middle school kids are gut-wrenching. When the college campuses cough, the middle schools catch pneumonia. For girls, the rate of suicide has doubled in the last ten years and the rate of female college students who say they have a psychological disorder of some kind has risen 300% since 2010. These numbers are heartbreaking.
I’ve never been a fan of Rawls’ theory of justice when it comes to justice, but when it comes to culture, he might be right. He says, society has an obligation to give the greatest advantage to its least privileged members. These least privileged members aren’t just vulnerable and disenfranchized, left to themselves, they’re also at their most formative. Middle school is hard enough on its own. It’s the time when you grapple with what it really means to be human, and how you might go about stepping into your own identity. The swirl of hormones makes it one of the meanest places on earth. But you grow out of it. Unless you don’t.
The problem with social media excess at such a young age is that it stunts your growth. What’s been so eye-opening reading this book is the assertion that a whole group of young people are growing up and instead of learning to cope with hardships, setbacks, disagreements, difficult people and the rest of the things you experience in the world of other people, they’re creating solipsistic cocoons where they don’t ever have to develop defense mechanisms. Instead of learning healthy ways to deal with stress, pressure, and opposition, people are taking on the coping mechanisms you often see in people with chronic depression and anxiety.
What’s interesting in these two cases is they both stem from the same problem, but in the opposite extremes. The major problems with social media stem from the fact that it allows us to live in a world that is just detached enough from reality to toy with our perceptions about what’s going on. When it comes to the polarization cycle, people are not real enough. The people commenting or posting on your timeline become less than human, and you begin to treat them like a piece of data, at best, and as an impersonal abyss for all of your pent-up fury, at worst. People say things on social media they would never ever say to someone in person, in large part because they’ve been seduced into acting like the profile they’re interacting with isn’t a person at all.
On the other hand, Instagram lures you into believing things are more real than they actually are. The authors present several reasons why the rates of anxiety have skyrocketed among girls particularly. First, the rates of anxiety among women are higher to begin with, and what they found is that those rates are tied with a higher propensity for visual comparison. Given the number of digitally enhanced pictures floating around Instagram, it’s no wonder everybody feels insecure. Almost every picture app has filters now that augment the way you look - and even if that seems innocent, it blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s augmented. Even when it comes to pictures that haven’t been augmented, who posts unflattering pictures? Social media is everybody else’s highlight reel.
One of the strongest contributing factors to our current situation is the inability, especially among young people, to appropriate the distance created through social media. It/s the same way with reality tv. Nearly every other show on television is closer to reality. Instead of learning to experience reality through relationships and genuine experiences, we’re putting ourselves in situations where we only experience mediated reality, sometimes by us and sometimes by someone else.
The ramifications for society are bad enough, but there’s an even deeper tectonic shift taking place. I think all of this is rooted in our understanding of what it means to be truly human. Social media can be an amazing thing, but its very nature is corrosive. It subtly teaches us that to be human is to cultivate an image. In an age of authenticity, it’s one of the least authentic practices we could adopt. To be human is not to curate our own stand-in based on what we think other people will like and approve of.
This becomes really clear in the moments we spend alone with God. Out of habit, we do what we’ve learned to do, present the version of ourselves that we want him to see, even though we know intellectually that he knows and sees everything. It’s hard to believe this emotionally and spiritually.
Are you able to go to God without cultivating an augmented image of yourself? Have you put in the work to really offer yourself in his presence? One of the most important verses in the Bible is one we hardly ever finish. Most of us know the first half of Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” But that’s only the first part of the sentence. In fact, that’s just the setup for what the author really wants to say. Here’s the rest of 4:12-13: “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” This is our God, and this is how we go before him every day.
Part of what it means to be a Christian is to recognize and embrace that this is true personhood, to be naked and unashamed before God. In Christ, we regain the intimacy and purity of this relationship with God and with others.
The deepest part of the social media crisis is that it trains the ability to be this unmediated right out of us. It starts with the way we see other people’s avatars online, but it affects the way we see ourselves and the way we see God. We can’t lose the ability to be our ourselves, undoctored.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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