Digital technology makes our lives simpler and puts a lot of power at our fingertips. Social media can be a fun way to catch up with friends and to share life changes. Yet smartphones, iPads, and other forms of digital technology are still incredibly new, and few of us know how they actually work or how they may influence our thinking, alter our behaviors, or affect society as a whole.
We are starting to understand some effects. Studies have shown that our Facebook feeds can influence how we are feeling—making us happier or sadder based on the posts we are shown. The streaming revolution ushered in the dawn of binge-watching. Tinder, Match.com, and other dating sites have changed the way some people date and communicate with one another. Texting and driving has become a new danger on the roads, even if we haven’t attempted it ourselves.
We ought to be a little cautious and humble in the face of all this fast-moving change. Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan put it this way: “We are all robots when uncritically involved with our technologies.”
Don’t Become a Robot.
Many apps and websites make money through ads, so much of our technology is designed to be addictive. Notifications, likes, and posts are designed to pull us in more and more to this or that app, program, or game. As our screen time increases, our real lives can suffer. If we are not careful, we can easily start to look and act like an addict when it comes to checking our phones, commenting, and scrolling.
Psalm 115 describes another kind of object that people made with their hands and became very dependent on—idols. This is not to accuse us of making our phones our deities, but the warning to limit our dependence on something so finite should not be lost on us.
Do be nice.
Unfortunately, the safety and anonymity of a screen can also lead people to share hateful messages that they would never say to someone’s face. Cyber-bullying and Twitter tirades are just some of the perils of digital technology. Facebook Live has even been used to broadcast hate-driven torture.
Where does all this darkness come from? While some blame the new technologies themselves, there is a much simpler answer. The things we create simply reflect the brokenness that already exists inside each of us as human beings.
Jesus said it this way: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within” (Mark 7:21-23). The darkest parts of the web are simply reflections of the darkness that already lurks within us.
Ultimately it is up to us how this technology will shape and change us. We ought to be honest about our own brokenness and human tendency to mock from a distance. We should recognize the danger in the anonymity that digital technology brings. If we are upfront about this, we will be in a much better position to use digital technology wisely.
When the car was first invented, there were no seatbelts, speed limits, or stop signs—let alone airbags, automatic braking, or parking assists. We created all those things to make cars safer. In a similar manner, we need to develop new social norms and tools to help us use digital technology to enhance, rather than detract from, our humanity.
See the heart behind the screen
Behind every profile, every online account, and every comment, is a person—another human being just like us. Christians believe that all people are created in the image of God. Jesus told his followers to “love your enemies.” We should remember that idea of respect and love when we’re operating in digital spaces.
Instead of venting scorn and shame, what if we could start expressing and extending forgiveness to one another in the digital world? We all make mistakes, and it could just as easily be you who is on the receiving end of negative criticism. Jesus put it this way: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7).
The Apostle Paul’s words seem especially pressing today: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32-33). Even those who don’t follow Christ can probably see that our digital world would benefit from a little more forgiveness, compassion, and kindness.
Diversity at our fingertips
Although it’s tempting to surround ourselves with people who think, look, and act just like us, what if we used our digital technologies to seek out people who are different from us and learn from them? It is now easier than ever to access and hear about different political movements, people groups, and organizations. This can teach us to open our hearts and minds to others.
That doesn’t mean we must agree with everything we come across or learn about, but listening is the path toward greater understanding and knowledge. As book of Proverbs says, “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (18:15).
Be biased toward the genuine connections
Our screens can isolate us when we misuse them, but they can also bring us together. How wonderful is it to Facetime or Skype with a friend or loved one who lives on the other side of the world? Many relationships that begin online transform into face-to-face friendships… and some into marriages!
Through crowdfunding, we can back exciting new creations on sites like Kickstarter and help bring new and exciting ideas and projects into the world. When disasters strike, even in remote corners of the world, we can generate millions of dollars in donations in the space of a few hours. Technology can bring us together and deepen our humanity and connection to one another.
All of these advancements, in the Christian view, are an outworking of the great responsibility God has given to humanity—to work and cultivate the earth. Of course, we don’t always get this right, but as with any other new technology, the more intentional we are with it, the better.
Here are some things that all of us can do to be more intentional and thoughtful in our engagement and use of digital technologies:
- Take the Digital Conversation Pledge.
- Keep track of your screen time. Many phones have a setting for this. Is it too much? Are you addicted? How can you rearrange your digital habits toward healthier patterns?
- Use technology intentionally. Set boundaries (e.g. no screens at dinner).
- Keep it human. Create questions that help you make good decisions. (Would I say this in person to someone?) Behind every profile is a real human being who is just as broken and beautiful in God’s eyes as you are.
- Use digital technologies to understand people different from you instead of as a platform for attacking and de-humanizing them.
Digital media can be a great tool for communicating, sharing the gospel, learning, and helping. It can also be manipulative, addictive, and a tool for hurting others. By seeking God’s wisdom, we can find a healthy balance for embracing the good in digital media without harming ourselves or anyone else.
Other voices in this conversation: