BBC Sunday Morning Live, Facebook and the Church
This Sunday was surreal for us – it’s hard to imagine a more exciting and unusual day than heading into London with whole family to appear on the BBC and talk about social media and taking a break from the tech. We were up at 5am, excited to meet Sean and Emma, then drove into the city in the sunshine passing Gru’s car from Despicable Me on the way (I told you we had a surreal day).
Despite our shared family nerves, the BBC team were incredibly kind to us, making us comfortable before, during and after we were on. As you may imagine it is an incredible team effort from research, production, technical, make-up and presenting teams making it all look effortless – and (as you can see from some of the pictures) having a lot of fun along the way. We also got to spend time with Vicki Psarias (Parenting blog guru and HonestMum), Amina Lone (Writer and Director of Social Action and Research Foundation SARF) and Donna Dawson (Agony aunt and psychologist).
On the sofa Sean Fletcher asked me about Mark Zuckerberg comparing Facebook to the Church last week – with over 2 billion users, it’s fast approaching the same amount of users as there are Christians. While it’s hard to find the time to answer questions in depth on a panel – my Wife and I were talking about this afterwards and she reminded me of a great sermon we’d once attended at St. George’s Chapel in the Windsor Castle grounds, where the priest highlighted the difference between focussing our persona to the outside world vs our inner selves.
I’m keen to stress in the book that in order to avoid addiction, everything needs be be consumed in moderation. Social media is just a part of our internet connected world, but it is a big one – and it carries with it some very specific challenges from a mental health and a faith perspective.
In terms of mental health our brains love the mild dopamine rush we get from ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ – regardless of platform. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat – all have their version, and that instant feedback provides positive feelings in our minds that build over time until we’re dependent on them for our own happiness.
Some of our friends criticise Facebook for presenting a ‘hyper positive’ version of life to the outside world, and indeed if you’re feeling low then seeing that all your friends are having amazing holidays and experiences can exaggerate any depression – but the reverse of this can also be true. As you brain becomes accustomed to particular dopamine levels, it becomes resilient and demands ever bigger ‘hits’.
Whether it’s young girls posting pictures of themselves in underwear, or ‘extreme’ photos from within Grenfell Tower showing bodies, there comes a point in our social media addictions that the need to be ‘liked’ or gain attention overrides our moral and common sense boundaries.
Posting something inappropriate or gruesome is likely to get a more extreme reaction that a photo of your morning coffee, and reward you with a dopamine rush. But it’s clearly not ‘right’.
And here lies the fundamental difference between Christianity and Facebook.
Facebook is focussed on the presentation of self to the outside world, the control of what others see of your life in order to gain pleasure. Sure, it provides a connectivity platform that is wonderful for staying in touch – but never forget that it was developed to allow students to remain in contact wherever they went, and it now makes $26bn per year from advertising. That remains the beating heart of the platform.
I have hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook from all over the globe, and I’ll post this there. But too much focus on ‘what others think’ rather than ‘who I am’ is not healthy – everything in moderation.
By contrast Christians should focus on their internal relationship with God, and expressing that in thought, word and deed. Prayer, contemplation, reading and mindfulness underwrite an attitude to others which should be in line with the positive messages of our Faith. That’s not to say any of us get it right – as a good friend of mine once said at Lent, what Christians should give up instead of chocolate, alcohol or crisps is judging others. Ouch.
And extreme overuse of Christianity (just like Facebook), can be addictive and cause mental problems. There are many examples of extremism in Christianity, and cults causing harm to self and others. Everything in moderation.
Seeking fellowship on Facebook is only part of the picture, as is seeking fellowship within the Church. Not all of our friends are Christians, not all our Christian friends go to the same Church, not all of my Facebook friends go to Church.
But social media is very much about projecting a controlled version of yourself to many other people – and faith is all about being humble and vulnerable with people while seeking to understand your true self better. Just as Facebook allows us to present a cosmetic version of ourselves, we believe that God sees us (and loves us) for who we are despite our innermost thoughts and feelings. As the priest in Windsor said, perhaps we should focus more on our spiritual health than our social media health.
Oh – and in case you’re wondering if we stuck to our “Tech Free Sunday”, we did – we used the in car sat nav to get us there, printed the email with our instructions on, and very much ‘lived in the moment’ with each other for the whole day. The only thing that the smartphones were used for was photographs, and to take calls from proud parents and grandparents!