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.