I hadn’t “given up” anything for Lent in years, but when my pastor asked on Ash Wednesday, “What’s keeping you from growing in your relationship with God?” I knew social media was my answer.
Now that Lent is over and Easter has come and gone, I’m back on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, this time, I hope, a wiser, more discerning user. I can tell you straight up: the fast made a difference. I spend a lot less time on social media than I used to, and I’m much less inclined to pick up my phone when I have a few minutes of downtime.
Here are five things I learned from my fast.
Social media can be addicting.
I’d read the scientific research about the connection between social media and the release of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine, but I’d always assumed I was somehow immune…until, that is, I gave up social media and found myself picking up my phone two dozen times a day. It was almost like I’d trained my brain and my body to need to have my phone in my hand.
I was surprised by how long it took to break the addiction; more than two weeks passed before the urge to reach for my phone finally began to diminish.
Social media is distracting.
Turns out, there was a pattern to my social media habits. I typically scrolled Facebook or Twitter and then, when I glimpsed a headline that piqued my interest, I clicked over to the site. I rarely read an article from start to finish, but instead quickly skimmed the content before clicking over to something else, repeating this process a half-dozen times before finally clicking off the Internet altogether.
The cycle left me feeling fragmented, rushed, distracted, and vaguely anxious. Stepping away from social media allowed me to identify this pattern and see the harm it was causing my mental and spiritual well-being.
Social media impacts our ability to think critically.
My social media fast helped me see that my critical thinking skills had grown rusty. Instead of forming an educated opinion of my own, more often I simply regurgitated the opinions and arguments of others. Away from Facebook and Twitter, I was better able to ask myself, “What do YOU think about that?” and figure out my own answer.
Social media blunts our sensory perception.
Two days after Ash Wednesday I sat in my front yard, eyes closed, faced tipped toward the early spring sun, and listened to the birds. The longer I listened, the better I was able to identify distinct calls from the cacophony of chirps and cackles. I realized then that it had been a long time since I’d heard the birds. Without my nose in an app, I was more present to the nuanced beauty of God’s creation.
Social media is not the spawn of Satan.
I missed my long-distance friends during my six-week fast, the people with whom I’ve formed real relationships across the cyber waves. I missed the random pictures of sunsets and beach vacations and birthday celebrations. I missed the conversations, the curious musings, the bits of goodness scattered here and there.
My fast helped me see where my social media habits cross the line into unhealthy behavior, but it also reminded me that I needn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Although it was challenging for the first few weeks, my Lenten social media fast turned out to be an enlightening and fruitful experience. And while I’m mostly glad to be back in the world of hashtags and emoji, I have a clearer understanding of why it’s better for my spiritual and mental health if social media is enjoyed in moderation.
An edited version of this post was first published in the April 29 edition of the Lincoln Journal Star.