With Dr. Bruce Hartung
Q: Again and again I see the young people in our youth group at church on their cell phones. I think they are texting because they are not doing much talking into their phones. Even when they are talking with each other they are playing with their phones. This is not just our kids. When I drive on our highways [I see] a lot of drivers [on their phones] chatting away.
And then there is Facebook. I opened a Facebook account and got a lot of friends. It is sort of good to keep in touch. But some people post everything about their day, so much so that I think I am either going to ‘defriend’ them or just shut down my account.
… I am glad we are able to be, as the younger people say, ‘connected,’ [but] does this really help with our interpersonal behavior and relationships? Should we in the church and in our youth groups encourage this behavior, or is it something that we should be discouraging? Or maybe we are — or should be — just neutral bystanders?
A: Neutral bystanders? That is not an option I will suggest. But I think we do need to clarify the core concerns involved and look to see what is really happening.
While you point to a number of different examples of the use of electronic or social media, the fundamental question would seem to be: Is this a helpful development especially in terms of interpersonal relationships and, perhaps, the deepening capacity of people to engage in closer and more empathic relationships? And further, is this a trend that our churches should support, encourage and perhaps even use?
There is little question that social media is here and here to stay. What is its effect on us? What are the challenges to our churches?
Thinking I might use the very technology under discussion to research this topic, I did a “Yahoo” search of “Facebook Christian etiquette” and it generated almost 7 million results. With so much capacity for information, so many sources almost instantaneously at one’s fingertips, and so many social media relationships available these days, how we sort through this information and high level of connectivity is important.
The actual data concerning the effect of all this is mixed. And I think before we get into sharing our opinions about its effect, we need good data to help us.
Most of the data come from behavioral science sources. For starters, I suggest a slow read of “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?,” by Stephen Marche, in The Atlantic (May 2012). Bottom line (from the article, Page 60): “Yet for all this connectivity, new research suggests that we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic) — and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill.”
An online response to Marche’s article in technosociology.org (http://technosociology.org/?p=1035) offers a different view: “Like many articles on this topic, it ignores an enormous amount of data which — at a minimum — says, nope. … Research by many people (most importantly, Keith Hampton) show again and again that Internet/Facebook users are less isolated than people who don’t use social media.”
Most everyone agrees, however, that over the past two decades people have become more socially isolated and that we seem to be more isolated in relationship to strong, secure and deep ties with others, even though our capacity for strong relationships has increased.
But perhaps we need to look at the bigger picture rather than just blame social media for our sense of increased emotional distance from each other. Facebook and social media may not be “making” us lonely. Rather, by using them we may be attempting to counter a sense of loneliness and isolation from one another.
Perhaps our next step as people who have been gifted with membership in the body of Christ is to use that gift to deepen our relationships with others in the body. For example, our reader and others could help the young people in their congregations establish and cherish deeper personal relationships.
Readers, what are your thoughts? What do you see as the effects of increased social media? I’ll share more about this topic in next month’s column.
The Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is professor of Practical Theology and director of the M.Div. and Alternate Route programs at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted July 26, 2012