The first time I truly admitted that something was awry with my use of social media was the day of my daughter’s first-grade Christmas performance in 2019. She’d been anticipating the show for weeks, practicing her song again and again. I’d rearranged my work schedule to be there and was running a little late but could make it in time if I hurried. As I was getting ready to leave, a Twitter conversation was on my mind — a mind that was locked into Twitter often enough that it thought in 280-character bites, composed unbidden tweets constantly and always felt a little twitchy and restless.
So before I started the car I hurriedly pulled Twitter up on my phone, checked my mentions and replied. No big deal. I did this all the time. Yet those few minutes ended up making me a few minutes later than I would have been. I entered the auditorium at my daughter’s school moments after her class finished their song. I’d missed it. When my daughter realized I hadn’t seen her sing, her face fell. She didn’t cry or blame me, but she was clearly — and justly — disappointed. I was, too.
There are only so many kids’ Christmas performances we get in this life, when their little voices are full of innocence and joy, when their tiny fingers wave at you from the stage, when they still desperately want you there. I recall nothing about that conversation on Twitter — not the topic, not the responses, not the tone. But I will never forget that crestfallen look on my daughter’s face.
Over a year later, I still hadn’t quit Twitter, but it had stopped seeming harmless and fun and began to feel like something darker. I told myself I had to stay on social media for my writing career, that I had a civic duty to be in the so-called digital town square, that I could elevate the discourse by trying to always be kind and respectful online and that that was important work. What I wasn’t facing was how much of a habit, even an addiction, online social interaction had become for me. I was either scrolling or tweeting multiple times a day, even when I didn’t want to be, and gave up sleep for it. It was — and still is — embarrassing to admit. I clearly couldn’t avoid social media by willpower alone, so in 2021, friends encouraged me to take more extreme steps.
I now use the same filtering software that my family uses to block pornographic sites to block Twitter. I still maintain an account. A colleague posts links to articles I write for me. I acknowledge good uses of Twitter as a bulletin board to share long-form articles, book recommendations, timely weather information and announcements. I’m still on social media sites like Instagram about once a week or so.
But I don’t ever want to go back to how I used to use social media. I think social media is, for the most part, bad for society. It damages democracy, debate and social discourse. It malforms us, leading to spikes in depression and anxiety, especially among girls and young women. I believed these things even when I was on Twitter every day, but I felt trapped, pulled in like a tractor beam. I used to say that I was staying on Twitter, even though I thought it wasn’t great for me, to try to make a difference there. I thought, perhaps pompously, that I could be the change I wanted to see on the internet. What I’ve realized, though, is that the main change I want to see on the internet is for people to be on it less. This has been the big revelation for me, one so obvious that I’d missed it for years.
I used to think I could have a strong online presence and still have a rich life offline. I thought I could multitask, toggling seamlessly between the online and material worlds. But every hour, minute or second I spend online is an hour, minute or second that I’m not cultivating something — a relationship, a quiet moment, a connection with nature, a chore, a passing conversation, a daydream — in the physical, analog world.
The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt pointed out in The Atlantic last July that nearly two out of three Americans believe that the changes brought by social media are for the worse. Still, he says that in his field there is a “quasi-moral norm of skepticism: We begin by assuming the null hypothesis (in this case, that social media is not harmful).” I’d argue that a similar mind-set is true of Americans more generally. We tend to approach technology as a neutral tool and only later understand how it forms us and changes us. No one wants to be seen as a Luddite.
Technology promises greater ease, convenience, connection and newfound joy, and we often believe its promises from the start, embracing it with excitement and optimism. By the time we see the downsides of a new technology, the damage is done. We feel we can’t undo — at least not without great cost — the ways technology has shaped our homes, cities, worship, work and lives. Our initial naïve embrace gives way to a sort of technological fatalism. So-called progress, even if it harms our children or our health, feels inevitable and unstoppable. This seems to be where we are now with social media. Most Americans are aware that study after study shows that it is harming us, especially young people. Yet we feel trapped.
American society could learn from Anabaptist groups, including the Amish, Mennonites and others. Many of these groups do not, despite popular belief, refuse to use technology. But they are far more discerning than the rest of us about how a given technology will help or hurt their communities. If a technology may distance people from one another, weaken a sense of in-person community, generate conflict or harm vulnerable people, they avoid it. These groups remind us that there are higher goods that can be harmed by technology and that these must be defended, even at a cost.
In a fascinating piece on being part of the Bruderhof community, a Christian movement in the Anabaptist tradition, John Rhodes wrote about some guidelines his community uses when it comes to adopting technology. The Bruderhof, who are a different group than the Amish, run successful businesses, drive cars and do not reject technology outright but discern together, as a community, whether a particular technology should be embraced. He writes, “Any use of technology that undermines the richness of human relationships is presumed suspect,” and adds, “That’s why Bruderhof members minimize their use of social media.” He explains that they do not see things like watching TV or using social media “as a sin; it’s just that we’ve seen how it distracts from more important ways to spend our time, such as reading a book to a child, inviting a lonely neighbor over for tea or painting a picture.”
I will probably never join the Bruderhof community, but I think their way of approaching technology with skepticism and caution, seeking the good of the whole community and the flourishing of human beings, is something we can all learn from. Rhodes encourages mainstream Americans not to be afraid to walk away from new technology. “To be tech-savvy is not a virtue,” he writes. “‘Blessed are the early adopters’ is not a wise rule for living. If a form of technology is proving to be deleterious to relationships with others, we must have the fortitude to drop it.” I wish I’d found the fortitude years earlier.
A New Audio App
I’m excited to tell you that The Times has launched a new app for audio journalism and storytelling called New York Times Audio. It features our podcasts and narrated articles from the worlds of Opinion, politics, tech, pop music, food, sports and much more. You’ll hear from Times reporters, Opinion columnists and cultural critics, and you’ll find the archive of “This American Life” as well as read-aloud stories from a range of magazines.
As a lover of news and opinion and a fellow reader of The Times, I always have far more I’d like to read than time to do so! So I’m thrilled that this app, which is available for New York Times news subscribers, allows me to hear from The Times even when I’m on the go, in the car or doing chores around the house. To start exploring, download the New York Times Audio app for iOS here.
Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”
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