Why I’m not giving up social media for Lent

So today is Ash Wednesday in the liturgical calendar, the time of year when many Christians decide to give something up for Lent. (And when we wish we could eat more of the pancakes we had yesterday on Shrove Tuesday).

I’ve already read more blog posts, Tweets and Facebook statuses than I can count all saying ‘I’m giving up social networking for Lent’. Some are quitting Facebook, others are coming off Twitter. Some are stopping blogging for 40 days.

The ethos surrounding these sort of statements are ‘I’m fed up with being so distracted’ or, ‘this is all a waste of precious time I could be giving to other things’. Some are also saying ‘social media is SO much less genuine than face to face relationships’ and hoping that giving up social media for 40 days will ‘re-establish their deep friendships’ again.

I can see why on the surface this resonates with people. Yes, staring at our smartphones and laptops all day ‘can’ feel like we are distracted and less genuinely engaged in relationships. It can feel like a monster that is taking over our spare moments, our attention and our society.

But I don’t think ‘giving it up’ for 40 days is the way to fix it.

We are speeding toward an ever more digitised society. Our dependence as a populous on all things ‘computer’ is growing and growing. Whether we like it or not, the reality is that human and machine are growing closer and closer. Someday I don’t think it will be possible for us to ‘give up the internet’ for 40 days. From the material I’m studying here in my PhD, I believe that we will reach a point of such dependence on computers and the ‘net that we can’t even imagine it now. Not in a scary Sci-fi way. Just in the same way that people from 1912 would be stunned to see what technologies we have here in 2012.

In the light of that, I feel we need to be equipping ourselves to learn to use these technologies well.

So I believe what’s really needed at the moment is for us to learn the adult skill of self control when it comes to social media.  And I point the finger at myself first in the need to learn this!

Rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water, by going cold turkey for 40 days, why don’t we actually invest in learning how to control our use of the internet rather than letting it control us? To say ‘I’m coming off it or 40 days’ isn’t to learn to control it. It’s simply saying it’s too hard to control so we need an ‘all or nothing’ approach.

Recently I had a great conversation with a friend of mine who is a Nun and is prolific on social media. When I asked her how she prevents it from distracting her life of contemplation, she said she has learned to only access it at specific times, and she’s learned to refuse the pressure of giving instant answers to people, and she makes sure she is never online between 5pm and bedtime (which, from my research, means she is less likely than all of us to have trouble sleeping, as screen use before bed prevents the brain from falling asleep).

So for Lent, I’d encourage anyone who wants to ‘give up social media’ to actually try staying on it and using it with discipline. To create sustainable boundaries that will work when Lent is over. After all, there’s little point doing something that creates no healthy change. It’s like crash dieting – you lose weigh by drinking milkshakes for 40 days, then when you resume normality you put all the weight back on!

Our world is only going to get more digital, not less. So we desperately need to learn the art of self-control and balance when it comes to social media – not just 40 days of throwing it out the window and then returning to it as we did before, having not tested and tried any new ways to keep it under control.

So for Lent I’m wanting to try and create a balanced approach to social media – something that will equip me for after the Lent period.

I feel that the internet is a crucial place to be – a genuine space for community, relationship and mission. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let’s learn discipline and boundaries and become people who can occupy the online space well and healthily. That way we can retain our important, valuable and genuine online communities, impact Cyberspace for good AND create a sustainable approach to using the ‘net and social media for the years to come. Anyone with me?