Social Media, Facebook Friends, and Why They Matter

You are probably on Facebook. If you are a Christian, you have probably felt guilty about the time you spend there. Perhaps because other Christians have said that Facebook is a waste of time or perhaps because you so often intend to sign in for a few minutes only to find yourself mindlessly flipping through photo albums of people you barely know. Social media has changed the way that people communicate, socialize, and build relationships. Thus groups like the International Center for Media and Public Affairs (ICMPA) have begun studying what sort of effects social media is having, particularly on the generation that seems to be most invested in it — college students. Social media is a still a relatively new phenomenon and consequently many approach it with fear. Like anything in pop culture, social networking can be counterproductive. However, I will assuage some of your fears with one simple truth about Facebook: there are people on Facebook — lots of people.

Of all people, Christians ought to have the highest view of people and relationships (Mark 12:30-31). Facebook is important because people are important. There are over 500 million active users on Facebook, of which 50% log on to the site in any given day. These users spend 700 billion minutes per month on the site and the average user creates 90 pieces of content each month (status updates, links, notes, wall posts, etc.).

These stats have many wondering about the long term effects of social networking. Does all this time spent socializing online make us inept at communication in the “real” world? Are our interpersonal relationships suffering because of social media? Are our Facebook friendships worth the time and effort they require?

These questions motivated the ICMPA to ask 1,000 students in ten countries on five contents to abstain from all media for a full day and report on the results. Here are some of their responses to a day without media:

  • “Sometimes I felt ‘dead’.”
  • “I felt sad, lonely and depressed.”
  • “I felt so lonely as if I were in a small cage on an island.”
  • “We call our friends or chat with them when we need them — that is the way we have gotten used to relationships.”

ICMPA and others have drawn some strange conclusions from these comments. In response to the students’ comments, the ICMPA claimed that “for many students, going without media for 24 hours ripped back the curtain on their hidden loneliness.” This conclusion simply cannot be drawn from these student’s responses. The students reported feeling lonely after refraining from using social media and text messaging. In other words the lack of social media resulted in feelings of loneliness. If anything, these student’s statements reveal how integral social media is to their socialization. And yet, the ICMPA’s study has led some to make imbalanced conclusions about the effects of social media.

Tim Challies, writing for Boundless, recently reflected on this study:

This study’s results are striking and consistent with a growing list of similar studies. They offer a penetrating glimpse into the painful emptiness of the digital soul. In an age of constant amusement we are sad; in a world of constant communication, we are afraid and lonely . . . .

The students who participated in this study learned that in the midst of all of their e-mailing and Facebooking and text messaging they are actually sad and lonely. All this time they had thought they were forming deep and meaningful friendships. But as their phones and computers were taken away, as they unplugged, they quickly saw that most of their friendships, and even the friendships they thought most significant, were trite, ethereal.

Is it really surprising that when a central means of communication is taken out of the hands of students that they feel sad and lonely? They didn’t “learn” that they were “sad and lonely,” they felt sad and lonely because they couldn’t talk to their friends without their phones and computers. It could be that most of these student’s relationships are “trite” and “ethereal” but that value judgment cannot be made from this study. It would take a lot more than 24 hours to verify any such claim. Furthermore, given how upset these college students were by being cut off from their friends on social media, it’s disingenuous to describe the many relationships that are formed therein as trite.

This last week, my wife and I were blessed to welcome our first child into the world. I posted updates and pictures on Facebook and Twitter and we were overwhelmed by the responses of our friends and family on Facebook. Every single retweet, comment, and “like” mattered to us — it was a way for friends of all types to join us in celebrating the birth of our daughter. CaPC writers regularly post their articles on Facebook and the exchange of ideas that takes place there is valuable. People make plans, share birthdays, and discuss faith and ideology on Facebook. It’s these sort of interactions on Facebook that have allowed me to make some great friends and maintain some relationships that I probably would not have otherwise maintained. Social media has changed the way a generation communicates and relates but that doesn’t make those relationships ethereal.

Life will certainly present us with interpersonal demands that will require us to carefully consider our relationship to social media. That said, we must always remember that the people on Facebook are no less real than we are. They have similar needs, longings, and problems. Put your family and your church first but the people on Facebook are indeed your neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). They need you too.

Social media isn’t going anywhere any time soon. It remains unclear whether the Facebook generation suffers greater loneliness than any previous generation. However, there is one thing we can draw from the ICMPA’s study: there is a generation that cares deeply about Facebook because it’s their means of social communication. You don’t have to be invested in Facebook to the extent that the average college student is. However, Facebook hosts 500 million active users with children, birthdays, thoughts, hopes, and dreams that they will inevitably share with their friends. If you are remotely interested in reaching people for Christ all those things should matter.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    I found the Challies article baffling. It’s as if he pulled all of the exactly wrong conclusions from the study. Instead of recognizing the obvious lesson that people tend to feel alone when you take away their ability to communicate he approached the information with his own conclusion already in mind. One wonders how he wouldn’t come to the identical conclusion if the study stipulated the removal of mouths.

    What? People got depressed when they couldn’t talk to their friends? That just goes to show how lonely they really are when they can talk to their friends. It’s like that even in communicating so much, they haven’t been communicating at all. What’s worse is that in all their talking, they clearly haven’t been taking the time to listen to the quietness in their own soul. Here are some diagnostic questions for us to consider weekly (if not hourly): 1) Have you ever tried to quantify how often you interact with others? How many hours do you think you engage in “social interaction” in a day? 2) Think of the friends you feel closest to. Do they exist in your mind or do you merely deal with them on a face-to-face basis?

    With his demand for face-to-face interaction in order to validate communication, one is forced to reevaluate all the letter-writing and phone calls to distant family in the days before digital access. That woman who called herself my aunt, should I really consider her family? After all, we rarely saw each other in person. That pen pal I had who I ended up meeting and becoming lifelong friends with? Was our friendship based on a lie?

    If face-to-face time is required for a relationship to be “real,” I wonder how Challies would approach the believer’s relationship with God. After all, if prayer were forbidden for a time, I’m sure plenty of Xians would feel alienated. I mean, how much of their time is really spent face-to-face with God. Their relationship with him must be fake.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Drew,

    Great article, thank you! I think you tear down and build up in all the right places on this one. And Seth, definitely agree with your assessment as well.

    However, I do want to draw out two points that I think are significant (both of which I think Challies misses).

    First, there can be great health in being comfortable with solitude. See the great William Deresiewicz article, “Solitude and Leadership.” Comfort with solitude allows the mind time to prepare for some of life’s most difficult moral issues and situations, and helps develop reliance upon one’s strength of character and ability to resist peer pressure.

    So in that sense, I do have a problem with the incredible availability of social media, because it facilitates a constant stream of information and communication that can have detrimental effects. This doesn’t make social media bad, I’m just saying the church hasn’t done a good job of helping people prioratize and recognize value in times of solitude in the way it should.

    Second, Challies wrongly suggests that facebook relationships are not deep. False. However, I would suggest that G.K. Chesterton IS on to something in his essay, “On Certain Modern Writers And The Institution Of The Family.” Here, he points out that the largeness of community is not found in volume or even Challies definition of “depth,” but in the forced interaction of differing personalities, and in the natural friction of souls that cannot escape each other.

    In other words, one good thing about “forced” community is that people are, in fact, burdens upon each other. And those burdens and frictions, forced upon our selfish souls, have a helpful effect of deepening us, teaching us patience, and helping us see value where we might not have before. Facebook, though it has some small annoyances, can’t teach that lesson nearly so effectively as, say, a family under the same roof or two church members at the same small church for long periods of time.

    I think your article is dead on, because I do not see Facebook as an enemy or the cause of our problems or an issue that needs to be fixed. But I DO see it as naturally eroding the healthy aspects of both solitude and forced community, and that might be something the church could do a better job thinking about for the purpose of wisdom and maturity.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Pretty much agree with everything there Ben (with the exception of the fact that I still see no challenge from you in Frozen Synapse). I would add though that many of my Facebook friends tend to view my presence on their wall and in their posts as “forced community.” Apparently, I am hard to swallow for any number of people who made the mistake of friending me without really knowing me.

  • Ben

    Seth, I think G.K. Chesterton might make a special exception for you if he met you. There aren’t many who revel in the friction quite the way you do.

    Good call on Frozen Synapse… I’m trying! Lots going on at the moment. It’ll happen, though.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    I think me and Gilbert would have a great time arguing with each other and playing board games together. Our friction would keep us warm during the lean seasons.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Ben, excellent points and I agree with you on all counts–especially with regard to the church encouraging and fostering “forced community” as you put it. I think our churches do need to think carefully about how to foster that sort of community in light of the fact that we do indeed have a constant stream of community-oriented information at our finger tips.

    Anyway your comment hit on some of the downsides of facebook that I think believers certainly need to be aware of. I guess I read the Challies article and the ICMPA “study” and felt that a more nuanced picture of Facebook needed to be shared.

    I would love to see you expand more on these ideas in a CaPC article!

    @Seth,

    I would add though that many of my Facebook friends tend to view my presence on their wall and in their posts as “forced community.” Apparently, I am hard to swallow for any number of people who made the mistake of friending me without really knowing me.

    I literally laughed out loud!

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Drew, there’s a new acronym for that: LVML = literally vocalized my laughter. Cause LOL is meaningless these days.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    I don’t keep up with the internet acronyms–are you for real?

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    yes.

  • Erin Balmer

    Great article Drew! I am an Advertising major and I remember 5 years ago, Facebook not being used as daily as it is now. If you look at companies and different corporations, everyone (mostly everyone) is on Facebook. It is one of the biggest tools for communication. People can communicate with their neighbor or people in different countries. It is a beautiful tool that often can become an obsession.

    I appreciate your knowledge of the amount of users. 500 million! That’s mind blowing but at the same time, not surprising. I loved your question “are our interpersonal relationships suffering because of social media?” I absolutely agree that interpersonal relationships are failing. People connect more and more on Facebook each day. Businesses are branding themselves on free pages and marketing to more and more people on Facebook.

    One fact you wrote that is heartbreaking to see that people resorted back to loneness when they took 24 hours off of Facebook. I wanted to tie this into another statement you presented. You mentioned how our Facebook users are our neighbors as said in Luke. So how are we, those who are on mission for Christ, reaching out to those that are allowing Facebook to identify them. Of course, it is more than just Facenook. It is acceptance, worship and pride. We need to be on mission for those neighbors who are allowing Facebook to determine their happiness. Our identity should be 100% in Christ. We should be able to go weeks without media and know that we are still loved by the Father!! We should only crave Him, not them, not the “likes”, “comments” and wall posts.

    Thank you so much for a great blog!!!

    Erin Balmer
    Volunteer at Innovate 4 Jesus
    http://i4j.org

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    I don’t know Erin. Social interaction is good and necessary to the human person. After God created Adam, he said that it was not good that he should be alone and brought Eve into the picture. He characterized Adam as alone even though Adam presumably had a pretty robust relationship with God himself. And moreover, Adam’s need for companionship outside of God was not characterized as sin but simply as the nature of his being.

    Obviously the Christian should desire God. But this is, according to God’s own words, not at odds with the Christian’s need for social interaction with other human persons.


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