About Me,  Evangelization,  relativism,  social media

Antisocial media: the isolation of over-connectedness

I spend a lot of time online. Too much time, truth be told. I’m considering taking a serious social media hiatus this summer, with a house full of children and a backyard filled with wading pools.

And maybe this time I won’t come back.

I don’t mean I’d stop blogging. Just that I’d stop with the other stuff. The posting and cultivating an online presence. The consuming of news culled from anonymous “relationships” on Twitter, the ingestion of a never-ending stream of content and beauty, captivating though it may be, from a thousand different sources on Instagram. And the everything on Facebook, that deepest-seated enemy of human productivity. (At least for this early adapter.)

I don’t think the human mind was much designed for endless scrolling. And it’s making me stupid.

Stupid, and discontented.

I know that’s a crazy thing to say given that I am, in fact, a writer who depends upon the internet to promulgate her work. The irony is not lost on me.

But the internet, increasing, is becoming less of a tool for me and more of a master. I’m stuck in Q1 with inboxes from multiple platforms overflowing, demanding daily attention, and then, tired from so much reacting, I sit and I scroll, mindlessly consuming and consuming and consuming until suddenly, it’s 10 pm and I’ve read some fascinating things about artisanal cheese-making and travel tips for the summer season but I’ve also seen a lot of pictures of weird celebrity awards show couture and pictures of Scandinavian living room furniture groupings. And bohemian paint colors.

So poor me, I work online and the online world is working me over. Boo hoo, right?

Here’s the thing; I believe that God has called me to the work I’m doing now in this little space, telling truths and distilling teachings and connecting cultural dots…and I also believe He is calling me to something bigger and, for me, much, much more challenging.

And it’s my neighborhood.

It’s the real world.

It’s my friend across the street who has given me bags and bags of adorable girl’s clothing and sippy cups over the years, and has never heard a word from me about Jesus.

It’s the guy at Costco who compliments me on my kids’ behavior, despite the number of them, and who gets a vague half smile and a half answer when he presses, wanting to know if we’re “done” now.

It’s the girl in my mom’s group at church who is really hurting, who doesn’t have a dozen girlfriends and sisters at her beck and call and is hungry for real fellowship with a living, breathing human person.

Those are all areas where I’m so much more comfortable hiding behind a screen.

I frequently field comments along the lines of “I’d never be brave enough to say/write that…” but the truth is, it’s easy to be brave online. Just like, I imagine, it’s easy to be truly horrible online.

The cost is modest. The stakes are low. And while it takes a certain thickness of skin to speak truth to darkness, it takes a far thicker skin to say it in person, in love, to someone in real relationship with you.

I love the online community I’ve found in the Catholic blogosphere and through connecting with other women. And some of those relationships are undeniably real, though limited in their depth and scope. But the ones that have grown and developed have involved taking further steps: phone calls, voxes, in-person meet ups while traveling. Participating in a deeper way in each other’s lives. So while they may have been planted in social media, they’ve bloomed in reality.

Social media has an ability to bring people together. But it also has a chilling segregating effect, enabling little intellectual ghettos, little echo chambers, to coexist almost entirely unbeknownst to one another, helping to foster the illusion that everyone else is like me, everyone else understands this.

And we who live under the dictatorship of relativism are hard pressed to find common ground, with all truths being subjective and all options being equally valid, to converse in a truly productive fashion with those who hold differing opinions.

If we disagree mildly, it’s inconvenient. If we disagree strenuously, we turn away from one another in disgust, branding the Other a bigot, a hater, a whatever-phobic.

There is no room for relationship. We’re all so utterly detached from one another, thanks to our screens and our self-imposed lines of segregation drawn across our newsfeeds and curated, click by click, by our own preferences and points of view.

When I encounter my neighbor, smiling awkwardly from behind her own garbage can as we drag our blue beasts to the curb, we exchange bland small talk about the weather, the downed tree limbs from the recent storm, the impending end of the school year. I don’t know what she thinks about Planned Parenthood selling baby parts, or who she’s going to vote for in November, or whether or not she’s considering taking her kids on a mission trip to Malaysia or if her marriage is in trouble. I don’t even know how old she is, to be honest.

And we scurry back inside, comfortably at ease from the up-closeness that breeds such a particularly American kind of discomfort. It’s the same reason I don’t know a thing about the girl who makes my favorite cappuccino down the street at Peets, but in Italy, at All Brother’s Bar outside St. Peter’s Square, I had Tonio’s email address and knew his children’s names. He would take Joey in his arms and bounce him behind the counter as he pulled shot after shot of sweet black gold, filling orders and calling out greetings to his patrons while bouncing a blonde toddler on his hip.

I want that kind of life again.

(I want that kind of coffee again, while we’re on the subject.)

I want the kind of forced closeness and relationship that seemed to come so effortlessly and so inevitably in Italy, where my language skills were so limited, but my relationship skills were challenged and strengthened just by grocery shopping.

And I don’t want to romanticize things because boy, we had our struggles there, and I would have given a dozen friendly baristas for one close mommy friend or a sister down the block in Rome. But there was something utterly communal, in the deepest sense of the word, about how we lived there.

And I want to live that way again.

And I think I can…or at least, I think I can make a go at it. I’m sure we’ll never find another Tonio, not in suburban Colorado anyhow. But I think I can slam the laptop shut for the bulk of the daytime hours and wander out into my neighborhood with my phone holstered safely in my bag or, better yet, left to charge alone on the counter. Maybe I can walk the 15 endless feet that separate our two driveways and invite Steph over for a glass of wine on the porch. (The introvert in me recoils in terror)

Maybe I can answer in the most powerful way possible the question of what’s wrong with this crazy world we’re living in? with the one thing that’s ever really changed the world: a sincere gift of self.

social media


  • AnneMarie

    Jenny, thank you for this post!!! I love how you wind it all down to the importance of a gift of self, and I agree wholeheartedly. I have found books to be really helpful in combating the isolation of social media-maybe this is just me trying to justify my reading habits?-because at some point, I realized that I was selling myself short with all of the internet scrolling. In leisure time, instead of actually cultivating my mind and thoughts, I would mindlessly click through random articles or pictures that didn’t really help me grow in any way. Before I ever had internet, I would explore, read, and discover new things to bring into conversations and relationships-so I’ve been trying to get back into this. Putting away my computer and pulling out books-some intellectual and thought provoking, others entertaining-to fill my mind with things other than the latest Buzzfeed article.

    Also, props for presenting the challenge to put down the phone when you walk outside! I try to do that most days, and because my face isn’t plastered to a phone continuously, I have had the most amazing conversations with people around my apartment complex, especially within the past month or so-when we actually take time to be present to others, we can really be overwhelmed by the beauty and goodness of ever single human person!

  • Maureen

    Go for it girl! In fact, let’s do it together.
    So no more mindless scrolling? Do what needs to be done and leave the rest? Ah yes!!!
    And when I go to Rome in June I will look for your coffee shop.

  • Ari

    I think we are all starving for community, and we just don’t know how to do it. It’s scary. I commend your efforts. I think the face-to-face and real world is so much more difficult for those we don’t know and those who are closest to us. It’s always what’s *really* happening (not how things appear) that is so much more important.

  • Sarah

    As always you seem to put my thoughts to words! Thank you for writing. I too have been considering signing off social media for the summer!

  • Sashah

    I just wanted to say two things. First, I gave up Facebook last year when I realized how much time the scrolling was stealing from my daughter and husband. Since then I’ve separated from the people in my life who refuse to communicate unless through Facebook, and I feel that was healthy for me. I’m free and I’ve never looked back. If you think that could happen for you, go for it, it’s really worth it.

    Second, thank you for the challenge to reach out more to those around me. I know you didn’t write it that way but I can’t help but relate. I too am kind of terrified at the prospect of socially reaching out, but now I realize I should try my best. Thank you for that.

  • Diana

    I LOVED and so appreciated this!! And went and did a bunch of unfollowing on my social networks. So important to remember all this!!

  • Andrea

    Thank you for sharing this reflection! I have been thinking so many similar thoughts lately. It’s the reason I ditched Instagram last week, which was by far my favorite! But I started to realize that during my son’s naptime I would collapse on the couch and just mindlessly scroll for a good chunk of it. And I started thinking, much like Annemarie above, why? How is this helping me in life? It’s certainly not helping me grow as a person in any way, although some posts are inspiring. But it’s just that constant consuming of content that started to feel so vapid. So Instagram is no more and now I’m trying to limit my phone time during the day. Because like you said, the most meaningful connections are those we make in the real world! So, so true. Social media can be a tool for that; it’s when I start using it for other purposes (namely, entertainment) that I tend to cross the line into time-suck territory.

  • Maria

    Give up your smart phone. Get just a plain old phone for emergencies and useful convenience. Give up Facebook, except for Catholic ones which will enrich your knowledge about Christ. And most of all, spend an hour at Adoration. A week. Noise and distraction is what luke warmness thrives upon.

    • Judith

      that’s my challenge. I suffer with depression, and social media is a kind of escape from my daily duties, my real self care, and my connections with local friends.

  • Elizabeth

    Yes! Great post- I gave up Facebook over a year ago and now I realize it was such a great decision. I don’t miss it. Besides realizing I was wasting alot of time, I also realized that I need to start living the way I want my kids to live and I didn’t want them hooked to their phones or Facebook- so out it went.

  • Colleen Duggan

    As a writer, I feel the pain of this too. A few months ago, I secured a contract with a Catholic publishing company to write a book. The first thing my editor, who I like and respect, told me is “You need to really bump up your platform.” His words were constructive and not at all over the top, but I know what it takes to “bump up my platform”–time on facebook, twitter, instagram, etc. making my vapid presence known. (and It’s not false humility when I say, “who really CARES anyway?” That’s how I feel when I scroll so much of social media. Ok,so you went to the grocery store. Good for you! So does the rest of America.) I have six kids who I’m responsible for educating, a husband, a house, volunteer responsibilities at church and while I love to write and, like you, believe it’s something to which I’m called right now, it can’t trump the other important things I do. Sorry for the verbal diatribe, but I related to what your wrote.

    PS after years of being at my 10,000 person parish, I’m starting a mom’s group this summer. We already have 30 women signed up. Everybody’s got a hungry heart and I pray we can help satisfy the pangs….

  • Bley

    It is hard for those of us who are introverted, isn’t it? Especially when all of our emotional energy goes towards our (many) children:)

    But you know, I’ve been off of Facebook for almost a year, and it is such a relief. I have so much less mental clutter, about unimportant things, that after 33 years, I have finally been able to distinguish what is important to me in the raising of our family. Obviously faith has always been important, but all the little choices that go into building a family culture: the food, the decorating of our home, the minutae of our daily schedule, have all now fallen into place because I’m not spending my mental energy ruminating on this or that article that a “friend” on Facebook thought was important. It is so freeing; do it!

  • Ashley Anderson

    What a would give to get to sit down with some coffee and chat with you, girl.

    Why aren’t more people saying “this is too much”? Seriously!! Because, for me, it’s way too much. Social media feels very much like walking away from a table at a restaurant where too much food was ordered, everybody overate, and then we turned a blind eye to all the waste on the way out.

    I want to write about it this, but I don’t know that I have the courage.

    Excellent post, as always! So good!

  • Cami

    I’ve been off FB for almost 6 years. I’m totally content without it. But it’s deeply annoying that old friends basically don’t think of me anymore because a social media site isn’t automatically delivering them updates on my life. They’ve become too lazy to inquire themselves. It has proven to me that “out of sight, out of mind” has become more and more true with people’s dependency on social media. It’s hard for me to accept that many of my friends communucate regularly that way and I’m… Well… Not a part of it. Additionally, if people really grasped the way FB uses people and their information to profit through marketing partnerships, they’d probably quit anyway. My husband is a programmer so he really understands this and is glad we don’t participate in that.

  • jeanette

    Your thoughts are a great awakening to the real world that you knew already existed before the internet. Grab it and go with it. Classically, eliminating time wasters was called “prioritizing your day”…and for Catholics it particularly means discerning what is essential to the fulfillment of your vocation. You have to put aside anything that does not lead towards its fulfillment. Some people tend not to be structure or schedule kind of people, even though it really does help you stick to your guns on how you spend your time, but it doesn’t mean you can’t throw some rules on yourself if you don’t in fact schedule your day. But it really does help not just to say to yourself, I only have 1 hour designated for internet, TV or whatever; it is much better to say to yourself, today I need to focus on x, y, and z. Those things don’t just have to be dishes and laundry or that report you are working on at your job; they can be about the social dimension of spending time doing some particular thing with your child, your spouse, or some other relationship. Schedule them in. And don’t forget to schedule God in, too.

    Some people don’t actively take time to make improvements or adjustments to how they live their lives. You are doing something very significant for yourself when you step back and reassess. Especially nowadays when computer time really does suck up a lot of time that could be used in much better ways.

    Your points on relationship are important, too. Face to face is so important. And being a slave to portable electronic devices is robbing people of normal interactions. Plain cell phones are what we use here in our home. No Facebook or any of that stuff either. If someone can’t take the trouble for ordinary phone contact, face contact, or personal letter-style email (which to me is just the electronic version of the old-fashioned hand-written letter), then they don’t really have a relationship with you. Excessive use of media, makes people over-economize in communications. They speak in a couple of words and they are done with you. No long heart-to-heart conversations. Very superficial sometimes.

    Long ago before Facebook and blogs, there were these things called “bulletin boards” that were community internet boards for posts and threads of replies on topics that were usually moderated. They actually were much more like conversations than anything I see nowadays (but maybe they still exist out there somewhere, I don’t know!). Anyhow, I participated in one that was a support group for parents of children with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), which is a common problem for children who had multiple caregiver histories or suffered trauma from abuse and neglect. So, there were lots of adoptive parents, foster parents and other similar situations. These people, mostly women, found connection there that they couldn’t find in their local people contact. So, it was highly beneficial. They shared important information on strategies for dealing with RAD and unstressed about their parenting struggles, giving genuine emotional support to each other. Eventually we had an “East Coast” and “West Coast” get together to meet face to face and share together a real relationship. One member would host a gathering for a weekend at their home, and others would arrange to come. They were very successful events. They usually would arrange for a professional to come give a talk or workshop, too. And we would eat meals together and just visit and go for walks and talk. Very informal like real relationships ought to be.

    I went to the West Coast one. It involved getting on an airplane and flying to meet with a bunch of women I had only known via internet over a long period of time. It was very good to connect on that level. There is only so far you can go in a relationship typing things when you are busy with raising a family. It took real relationship risk taking. Something that is pretty void in this social media environment. Now obviously this is not something that just anyone ought to do, meeting total strangers over the internet etc. There has to be a foundation to the relationship to begin with. And that doesn’t happen without effort, just like in a face-to-face relationship.

    Best wishes to you, Jenny, in your efforts to be more intentional in your use of the internet. You will be happy, for sure.

  • John S.

    Perfect. Yes, the ability to create VIRTUAL relationships, and to choose those over real ones, is a snare and a deception.

  • Terri

    Spot on, Jenny. You reminded me of this from Aleksander Solzhenitsyn: “Far greater in value is the forfeited right of people not to know, not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life has no need for this excessive and burdening flow of information.”

    I certainly struggle to exercise this right.

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