Adolescence and the Pings, Not Pong
Adolescents have been offered a license to post without any accompanying ethical framework. Is it fair to blame teens for misusing tools that didn’t exist in our childhood? If I had been given a phone with an ability to take and post pictures when I was thirteen, I would not have photographed many things to be proud of. What kinds of public mistakes would I have made if emboldened by this new possibility?
We are now all engaged in what sociologist Erving Goffman calls “the arts of impression management.” Thanks to social media, adolescents are often forced to grow up in public at earlier ages and stages. They are embarking upon an ancient challenge, to know thyself, while broadcasting each awkward step along the way. Is it fair to criticize the young for not acting more maturely? Today’s pings are just a more sophisticated version of Pong. As one of the original video games, Pong was slow, methodical, even predictable. And yet we loved it. Pong didn’t require much sophistication.
The speed could be shifted, but the rules remained the same. Hit it back. The game could be locked in place, stuck in an endless loop. One could walk away for a while and nothing would change.
Take an eye off the screen, a hand off the controller, and one may not even lose a point. Today’s teens are playing ping, not Pong. Pings are those beeps and blurps that tell us we have a new message, a new update, a new headline to consider. Pings are the notifications that float across our screen all day long. They are rooted in instant messaging and constant connection.
In this excerpt from Jay Y. Kim’s book, Analog Church, the author shares about an experience at a local restaurant after being convicted of his own smart phone use at home, keeping him from being present with his family:
… I was having lunch alone. The restaurant was near a local high school which has an open campus policy, so shortly after I sat down to eat, several students began to file in together for a quick bite before heading back to class. Once again, I’d been on my phone—this time actually checking email. But when I saw the students walk in, I decided to people watch for a while, paying special attention to how they would interact while sharing a meal.
What I saw saddened me but did not surprise me. In total, fourteen students ate at that restaurant during the lunch hour, all of them sitting in friend groups, not a single one of them alone. And in total, thirteen of them had a phone in their hands for the vast majority of the time, occasionally looking up to chat with one another, but for the most part, losing themselves to their digital content, all while sitting so tantalizingly close to other actual human beings.
They were, in the words of Sherry Turkle’s aptly titled book, “alone together.” Entranced by the endless sea of digital possibilities, these kids were missing out on the very unique gift of analog presence surrounding them. While they were busy communicating with the digital world (many of them sending texts and Snapchat messages), they were squandering the opportunity to commune with the real people in their midst. This is what community often looks like in the digital age. Lonely individuals falling prey, over and over again, to the great masquerade of digital technology—the ability to lull us into a state of isolation via the illusion of digital connection.
Appearing Happy & The Social Media World
After surveying an incredibly diverse cross section of college students across America, Donna Freitas found “the most pressing social media issues students face: the importance of appearing happy”—and not just happy, students told her, but “blissful, enraptured, even inspiring.” Almost 75 percent of students surveyed agreed that “I try always to appear positive/happy with anything attached to my real name.”
Freitas calls this vexing dilemma “the happiness effect.” Breanna has lost her father, tours a death camp, and yet, due to social expectations, has almost no option other than to smile (and include a happy face emoji).
In grief, teens put on a brave face. In disappointment, adolescents act inspired. In crisis, the next generation appears blissful. Freitas summarizes the dangers of such dissonance: “In our attempts to appear happy, to distract ourselves from our deeper, sometimes darker thoughts, we experience the opposite effect. In trying to always appear happy, we rob ourselves of joy.”
The Danger of Selfies
Selfies have been proven to be far more than a threat to civility and sacred spaces. They can undermine our health and well-being. Selfies can be dangerous. A Spanish man was gored to death when he tried to take a selfie amid the running of the bulls in Pamplona. A fifteen-year-old in India photographing himself holding his father’s gun died when he accidentally pulled the trigger instead of pushing the photo button.
Two Polish parents taking a selfie stepped off ocean cliffs in Portugal and tumbled to their deaths in front of their children. We can get cut off from our surroundings, lose focus, and suspend judgment in pursuit of the perfect picture. It was widely reported that in 2015 more people died from taking selfies than from shark attacks.
How much risk will you assume to get the ultimate selfie on a mountaintop, in front of a train, or with a wild animal? The blind pursuit of the perfect image, ignoring our surroundings and context, can have grave consequences.
A Desire for Fame Rises in Millenials
In a survey given in 1976, participants were asked to list their life goals. Fame ranked fifteenth out of sixteen. In a recent survey, 51 percent of millenials listed being famous as “one of their top personal goals.”
Stuart Strachan Jr. Source information from “A Portrait of ‘Generation Next,’” Pew Research Center, January 9, 2007, www.people-press.org/2007/01/09/a-portrait-of-generation-next.
Every Photo Has a Backstory
Pinterest images display perfectly planned and executed birthday parties, not three-year-old’s crying because their turn with the bat didn’t break the pinata.
Instagram posts feature shots of happy parents holding swaddled newborns, not the agony of hours of labor and delivery. Facebook posts show runners smiling at the finish line of 5Ks and half-marathons, not grimacing as they bandage their blistered feet.
And there’s even more to those photos. Not only does the picture of the triumphant runner at the finish line not show the runner’s blistered feet, it doesn’t hint at what might be behind the running. Maybe the runner really is always as cheerful as he looks in the Facebook photo; perhaps running is simply one element of a happy healthy life. But maybe the runner struggles with eating too much and runs to try to be thin.
Perhaps the runner is unhappy with her job or her relationships and runs to put them out of her mind. Or there could be something much deeper at work: maybe the runner was once abused or threatened by a loved one and now tries to run away from frightening memories. Who knows? While a social media post may not be the place to share those stories, the truth is every photo has a backstory of some kind.
The FaceBook Version of a Family Dinner
In a television commercial for Facebook, a large, gregarious family sits down to a meal. It is a Norman Rockwell moment. In our positive associations to family dinner, myth and science come together. We know that for children the best predictor of success later in life is the number of meals shared with their families. The dinner in the Facebook commercial looks like one of those dinners that everyone knows they are supposed to love.
Just as the viewer locks on to this image of unconditional “good,” the narrative is disrupted. An older woman at the table—let me call her “boring Auntie”—begins a painfully dull story about trying to buy a chicken at the market. A teenage girl at the table does the predictable: She pulls out her phone and goes onto Facebook.
Immediately, the scene is populated with scenes from her newsfeed: A friend plays the drums, another performs ballet, yet others are in a snowball fight. The teenager is no longer at dinner. She is elsewhere. We once taught our children to ignore a ringing phone at dinner. We became annoyed if telemarketers interrupted us. Now, Facebook suggests that it may be a good thing to interrupt dinner ourselves.
The Guise of Connection
As the speed and choices of the digital age send us hurling toward impatience and shallowness, they culminate in its most damaging consequence: isolation. Social media in particular lures us in under the guise of connection, but beneath this mask is the reality that social media, and digital spaces as a whole, are for the most part lonely places.
This is because social media is fueled by voyeurism—that broken inclination within each of us to peek behind the curtain of other people’s lives. Rather than connecting us, the voyeuristic nature of social media actually detaches and distances us from one another, as we find ourselves running aimlessly on the treadmill of comparison and contempt.
We feel like we can see one another’s lives, but none of us ever feel truly seen. Digital connections often act as poor disguises for our real-life isolation. Sherry Turkle says it this way: “Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone.”
More Isolated than Ever
Whether young or old, Americans are feeling more isolated. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, about half of Americans have weekly interactions with their neighbors, which means half of us don’t. A survey by AARP found about one-third of respondents over the age of forty-five are lonely. And according to the American Psychological Association, loneliness and social isolation have similar effects on health as obesity and can lead to premature death.
No surprise, social media doesn’t help the feelings of isolation. We can have serious fear of missing out (FOMO) when it seems we aren’t invited to the places everyone else is (or even have the same number of likes or comments as someone else). The opposite is also true. When we replace a virtual meet-up with a real one, we can decrease our actual isolation.
The Most Confused, Anxious, & Stuck Among Us
In a surprisingly honest confession, the millennial writer Veronica Rae Saron shared this interesting fact in her 2016 article for Medium:
Conversation after conversation, it has become more and more clear: those among us with flashy Instagram accounts, perfectly manufactured LinkedIn profiles, and confident exteriors (yours truly) are probably those who are feeling the most confused, anxious, and stuck when it comes to the future. The millennial 20-something stuck-ness sensation is everywhere, and there is a direct correlation between those who feel it and those who put off a vibe of feeling extremely secure.
Veronica Rae Saron, “Your Unshakable Stuck-ness as a 20-something Millennial,” Medium, December 20, 2016.
The Origin of the Term “Gaslighting”
In His book When Narcissism Comes to Church, Chuck DeGroat describes a common tool employed on social media, gaslighting:
Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that draws its name from a 1938 British play called Gas Light. In the play, a man named Jack Manningham terrorizes his wife, Bella, by making her doubt her perception of reality. Bella is comforted only by the one reality she can trust—the dimming of the gas lights that correspond with Jack’s afterhours antics.
Among his antics, Jack hides household items and blames her for misplacing them, which throws her into perplexion and self-doubt. Her only shred of sanity is in the gaslights flickering flame, and the audience is held in suspense as she vacillates between self-doubt and clarity.
Gaslighting therefore, occurs whenever a manipulative person makes another person question their understanding of what is happening and the underlying reality of that situation.
The Patron Saint of Social Media
An incredible amount of energy goes into curating our online personas. Kim Kardashian, the patron-saint of social media, once said she “needed” about 1,200 selfies per day in order to get the good ones that she could post online.
She’s an extreme example, to be sure, but she shines light on the promise of social media: the chance to carefully edit and display the best version of ourselves to the world. The result is that people increasingly prefer online interaction to face-to-face. We can display a version of ourselves that, if not better looking, may be more witty, smart, generous, or compassionate.
Taken from Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by Mike Cosper. Copyright (c) 2017, p.38. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Social Media and the Crowd
Social media may appear to empower individual voices, but it’s really the crowd’s mass attention or indifference that determines which voices are seen, heard or ignored. The age of spectacles is the age of the crowd. The crowd gets what the crow wants. If the crowd wants Barabbas, the crowd gets Barabbas. Christians can learn from Jesus’ mistrust of the crowds. And Christians can resist the popular spectacle trends.
A Social Media Fast
So in the last three years, in order to reorient myself and head back onto the narrow way, I’ve given up social media and/or the internet for Lent. At first it’s agonizing. I’m like a caffeine or nicotine addict going through withdrawal. I get all panicky and shaky, wondering what to do with myself. My fears assail me with the tales of all the fun, banter, and insider information I am missing.
I’m nearly asphyxiated by the thought that I am left behind or uninvited, that I am an outsider looking in while others are living the good, glamorous life of connectedness. I fight the urge to check in. As Lent carries on, my urge slowly subsides. To some extent, I experience my life as it was before the internet. I read more books. I am more fully present to my family and friends. I hear God better. I am less hurried, more like God, who is never in a hurry.
In Lenten silence and solitude via social-media fasts, I discover the words of Isaiah 30:15 to be true: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, / in quietness and trust is your strength.” It is a soul-soothing time. I realize that I need to flee to this desert more frequently. Probably, weekly. My Lenten practice has become a regular spiritual discipline. It allows me to disentangle myself from the cares of the world and follow Jesus more closely. It allows me to better love others.
A Social Media Sabbath
It’s been eight years since I started using Instagram. May 7, 2011, to be exact. We’d moved to the Upper East Side of New York City the previous summer, and though many of my friends were becoming more active on social networking platforms, I was not a savvy social-media user. I hadn’t embraced Facebook or Twitter, but the idea of keeping a real-time photo journal to share with friends and family? This was something I could get behind. After one weekend of using the photo-sharing app, I was hooked…My first post was of the hot dog cart on our street corner (61st Street and 3rd Avenue) on my morning walk to Central Park, the same cart that would rattle over the same pothole each and every day at five a.m
…I captured silly moments with the kids in our big-city playground, documented our season of awe and wonder with a child’s perspective. I wanted to keep an account for my own memory bank, a record of this life-transforming season….As the number of my followers grew, so did the compulsion to share.
I became more strategic, gave people what I thought they wanted, fearing they’d leave if I didn’t. Anything less seemed self-indulgent, at least that’s what I told myself. In that season, without me realizing it, social media became the master. I became the slave. Instead of taking time to process the moments of my life, instead of reflecting in solitude over weeks, months, even, I processed everything in real time in the company of strangers. Whenever I felt anxiety setting in, I’d grab my phone, the distraction of choice…In the spring of 2018, I felt God whispering that I should fast from social media…
When I jumped off social media, things changed. First, I started dreaming again…I wasn’t copying, comparing, or envying the lives of others. Something shifted deep in my spirit. Unconcerned about what others might think, I logged reflections, took note of new dreams that began to emerge. Second, I was sleeping better than ever…Third, I pursued learning again. Every choice to peruse social media was a choice not to do something productive with my time, and in that extra time garnered by fasting from it, I read more books, listened to more podcasts and talks.
…A month into this experiment, this rest from social media, I was driving home at sunset through the rolling hills of Franklin, Tennessee, where we had moved from New York. I passed around a bend in the road and gasped at the sky, ablaze with pinks and reds. My eyes welled up at the beauty. Normally, I would have pulled over to the side of the road and angle for the perfect shot to share on Instagram. Even before I reached for my phone, I realized I didn’t have it with me—and I didn’t care. I drove on, reflecting on this change of heart, mind, and soul for a few more minutes. That’s when God reminded me of the truth I needed to hear: You are worthy to receive something beautiful, and you don’t have to share it.
Showing People Louis
In his excellent book, Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World, Mike Cosper shares a short vignette about the comedian Louis C.K.*
Louis CK tells fans he meets in public that he won’t take a picture with them, but he will talk to them. Some people are satisfied, but many walk away angry and frustrated. I suspect that it’s because they weren’t after the opportunity to meet Louis—they wanted to be able to show people they met Louis.
*Editor’s Note: The comedian Louis C.K has become a source of controversy during the #MEtoo movement. While his alleged actions were reprehensible, from the editor’s view, the insight created by this illustration made it worth placing on the site.
Taken from Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by Mike Cosper. Copyright (c) 2017, pp.75-76. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Social Media Makes us Feel Lonely and Isolated
It turns out that the people who reported spending the most time on social media—more than two hours a day—had twice the odds of perceived social isolation than those who said they spent a half hour per day or less on those sites. And people who visited social media platforms most frequently, 58 visits per week or more, had more than three times the odds of perceived social isolation than those who visited fewer than nine times per week.
Katherine Hobson, “Feeling Lonely? Too Much Time on Social Media May Be Why,” NPR, March 6, 2017.
A Social Media Ritual Sacrifice
I witnessed a ritual sacrifice in the middle of a cool, third-wave coffee shop the other day. It’s the sort of place that attracts herds of bearded hipsters and where they brew your coffee by hand, one cup at a time. I was sitting at a long row of benches against the wall, watching the crowd as they ordered, mingled, and eventually collected their meticulously crafted drinks from a stern-faced barista wearing an ironic t-shirt and a fedora.
A guy in his twenties, wearing skinny jeans, a plaid shirt, and a beanie (which might as well have been the clientele’s uniform) came in carrying a heavy book. It looked like a nice academic volume—hardcover, black cloth binding, nice paper. He ordered and sat at a table near the middle of the shop, scanning his phone while waiting for his drink to come up at the bar. After collecting it, he returned to the table near the center of the room and began his rather embarrassing and earnest religious display.
He was arranging his book and his latte so that he could take a picture of them with his phone. He spent five minutes doing this, and I assure you that although five minutes might seem like a very long time to spend doing something like this, I’m certain that it was five minutes because I clocked him (which says something about me, I know). He tried capturing the image with the book on its side, next to the latte. Then he tried a few with the spine open to hold the book upright, the latte in front of it.
He wasn’t finished. He then attempted several shots with the coffee cup perched on top of the book…Eventually, he started taking images with the book in his hand, including a few attempts without the latte at all. I began to worry about his latte growing cold and the foam turning dry and ugly…
Finally, he set his phone down and began to drink his latte. Then he opened the book. Now here’s the best part. I swear he looked at the book for at most forty-five seconds. He flipped it open, thumbed a page or two, his eyes blank and disinterested, and then closed it and pulled out his phone again to see what kind of response the image got.
A moment or two later, my wife texted me. I alerted her about the keen observations I was making in the coffee shop. She told me to get back to writing. Then she asked which shop I was in. I told her, and moments later, she texted me the image the guy had posted to Instagram, which blew my mind. “You’re like Batman,” I said. She took this for the high praise it was.
Only when I saw the image, though, did I notice the title of the book. It was John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Word of God. Perhaps it would have been slightly more ironic if the book had been Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death…but this one was nearly perfect: a book about the primacy of God’s Word as a prop in a social media post.
Taken from Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by Mike Cosper. Copyright (c) 2017, pp.33-35. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Smiling Selfie in Auschwitz
Did you see the “Smiling Selfie in Auschwitz”? An American teenager touring Auschwitz stirred up a firestorm of criticism when she posted a picture of herself smiling amid a concentration camp (and even included a blushing smiley face emoticon). Her Twitter handle, “Princess [email protected],” played into so many stereotypes of the millennial generation as entitled, spoiled, and insensitive. The iPhone earbud dangling in her photo only enhanced the notion that she was drifting cluelessly through a Nazi death camp to a private soundtrack, trampling the memory of those snuffed out in such a horrific genocide.
To many, her selfie communicated ahistorical insensitivity, her smile seemingly mocking the six million lives lost under the Nazis’ horrific genocide. Breanna was lambasted across social media (and traditional media outlets). As her infamy grew, the Alabama teen tweeted, “I’m famous, ya’ll.” The outrage was swift and unsparing. My family was in Europe when this online debate exploded. We were teaching at a summer program in London.
Thanks to my book iGods, I was invited by CNN to comment on the controversy for their Belief Blog. It was obvious that the student’s reaction (and even her efforts to explain her reasons for smiling) were not easily defended. She talked about connecting with her deceased father through the experience.
They had studied the Holocaust together just before he passed away. While most wondered, “What kind of monster could walk through gas chambers and come away smiling?” I saw a teen, perhaps still in personal grief, connecting with her father across time. Rather than attack, I chose to offer a defense of this teenager who was being grilled across the Twitterverse.
This Place is Enough
A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.
An Unexpected Friendship
Sometimes moments of forgiveness and friendship come from unexpected places. In 2018, the comedian Pete Davidson appeared on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Davidson made a crude joke about a former Navy Seal turned Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw.
Crenshaw had lost an eye in the line of duty, which became the butt of Davidson’s vulgar joke. The combination of mocking a person’s disability (especially a disability that came from serving his country in war) alongside a clear disaproval of Crenshaw’s political beliefs led to a burst of public outrage. While Davidson was making the joke, it became clear many found it in poor taste, and the vitriol aimed at the young comedian would ultimately lead him down a spiral of depression and self-loathing.
Davidson then took his anguish public, posting on the social media platform Instagram:
“I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore. I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”
When Crenshaw heard about Davidson’s condition, he didn’t do what many do when embroiled in a public tiff: tell the offender the public scorn served him right, or make some other cutting comment at Davidson’s expense.
Instead, Crenshaw decided to extend an olive branch, befriending the comedian, and even offering words of life to a person who clearly felt lost amidst being stuck in the cross-hairs of the American public. Davidson recounts that Crenshaw reached out and comforted him: “God put you here for a reason. It’s your job to find that purpose. And you should live that way.”
Humor, it has often been said, is a coping mechanism to deal with the pain that life throws at us. But in the midst of the deep, unsettling pain of being publicly shamed, what Davidson needed was not a good joke, but forgiveness, and perhaps, even a friend who could share the good news of the gospel with him.
In some ways it is ironic that a man trained to kill and destroy his enemies could be so moved by compassion that he reached out to someone who publicly mocked him and his deeply held political beliefs. But that is the beauty of the gospel, it enables us to look beyond our own reputation, our own pride, to care for others.
Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from Dino-Ray Ramos, “Texas Congressman-Elect Dan Crenshaw Reaches Out to SNL’s Pete Davidson After Troubling Instagram Post,” Deadline, December 18, 2018.
Israeli artist Shahak Shapira crafted a creative and confrontational response to inappropriate selfies posted at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. He photoshopped the most insensitive photos taken at the Berlin memorial onto historical images from the concentration camps. The YOLO (you only live once) spirit of the contemporary selfies was juxtaposed with the haunting reality of piles of Jewish bodies discovered at the conclusion of World War II. Shapira posted his examples of public shaming online at Yolocaust.de. He included an email address where these worst offenders could ask Shapira to remove their embarrassing image. Within one week, 2.5 million people had visited the Yolocaust.
Shapira noted, “The crazy thing is that the project actually reached all 12 people whose selfies were presented. Almost all of them understood the message, apologized and decided to remove their selfies from their personal Facebook and Instagram profiles.” A gentleman who captioned his photo with “Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial” asked for forgiveness: “I have seen what kind of impact those words have and it’s crazy and it’s not what I wanted. . . . And I am sorry. I truly am.” Shapira honored such surprising changes of heart by removing the Yolocaust site altogether. Pain caused by offensive selfies was transformed via repentance.
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