Session 8: Dangers of a Digital Age
This is the final installment of an eight-part series on faith in a digital age. The outline of the series is:
Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully
Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age
This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.
As I’ve looked back over the previous weeks there have been numerous challenges that have emerged along with the opportunities presented by the digital technology we use. As a way of completing these reflections I am bringing many of these challenges and dangers together in a way that I hope can help us reflect upon how we utilize this technology in ways that are beneficial. I will start with things that may seem minor and move towards events that can have catastrophic impacts on the people who use this technology. My intention is not to scare or to prevent people from using this technology but instead to help us use it wisely.
One of the challenges is the limitation of our human brain and its ability to handle the massive amounts of information we receive from both digital and non-digital sources. Our brain does not evolve at the same pace that technology evolves, and we can become overwhelmed by too many competing sources of information vying for our limited attention. Sometimes we can simply be distracted by the continual availability of entertainment and connection which can take us away from the work and personal connections we want to spend time on. The internet is great at feeding our desire for that which is interesting in the moment and when given the choice between the instantaneous distraction and the more involved effort of thinking and engaging our brain often chooses the distraction and we can spend hours engaged on the internet, our phones or social media and not feel good about the time we used there.
As I’ve looked at some of the narratives that are a part of our life, I mentioned the narrative of scarcity which tells us we don’t have enough. We believe there is never enough time, information, sleep, money and the list can continue indefinitely. When we add in technologies like social media to the already existing temptations of advertising, we are tempted to believe to compare our lives to the portion of other people’s lives that they choose to share. We can believe that our lives are inadequate because we are comparing them to the lives of others and this often happens because of our existing shame narratives about needing to be, for example, more beautiful, wealthier, more powerful, stronger, more successful or popular, or be better parents. I believe this is where the wisdom of the commandments not to covet come in: if we are going to be content it starts with believing that we have enough and that we don’t need to measure ourselves against some unattainable standard to be satisfied. Comparison can be a deadly to personal satisfaction. Part of my job both as a pastor and when I’m counseling people is helping them learn to see that they do have enough and to be grateful for what they do have.
I do believe there are strong pressures for people to remain engaged online and things that make these platforms more addictive. As people wired for connection we go to social media, for example, seeking that connection and there can be a fear of missing out (or FOMO) on the connections that are being made. In addition to this there are several strategies used by digital media to keep you engaged. One of these strategies is the removal of stopping clues, so YouTube or Netflix will automatically play the next video in a sequence and social media sites will allow you to continue to scroll indefinitely. Another strategy that internet platforms and apps frequently use is rewards for continued engagement, so this can be a stream on a platform like Instagram or a reward on a gaming app.
We as human beings were created for rest, what in a religious context we would refer to as Sabbath. The religious idea of sabbath is primarily about rest and not primarily about worship. We do need a break from the continual engagement with the digital world. Sometimes this is to maintain a healthy work/home balance where we set boundaries about when we will respond to work email or messages. Sometimes we set boundaries on our use of the web and our phones for entertainment so that we can focus on either projects and passions or so that we can intentionally spend time with family, friends and acquaintances. Our technology can help us to connect with people across the world, but it can also limit our connections with people who may be in the same room with us. I do think that within families a healthy discussion around boundaries with digital technology and the expectations for connection and engagement is an important discussion.
When the internet was created it was a place where information could flow freely, but with the loss of any type of editorial control there has been a loss of accountability for who is responsible for misinformation, especially when it is deliberately spread. Just because something is shared on the internet does not mean it is true, but sometimes it becomes difficult to differentiate between factual information and someone’s conjectures or opinions. The other struggle is the rapid diffusion of this information across platforms. The spreading of false information can have consequences for people’s reputations and careers. One of the narratives in my country, the United States, is the impact of deliberately distributed false information and their impact on people’s votes in the 2016 and 2018 elections. Like a rumor in interpersonal communication once it is started it can be very difficult to counteract false information once it is distributed online.
We both knowingly and unknowingly share a lot of information online and that information is mined for multiple purposes. I do think that we, as a society, need to have a robust conversation about the ethics of data-mining by advertisers, governments, employers and insurance agencies and what right we as citizens have to safe guard this information. I do think a place to begin this discussion could be the fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states:
The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
While the authors of the Bill of Rights never imagined a situation where people would be sharing information digitally, they were concerned about the fundamental privacy and protection of that privacy against overzealous entities. I do believe that we should have a right to be secure in not only our persons and houses but also in our digital identity and secure against both governmental and private concerns. These issues will resurface later in our discussion, but I do think we need to be aware of what we have control of in our digital identity and what we do not currently have control of.
Another factor that contributes to some of the issues online is the lowering of social boundaries that people have when communicating through digital technology. Many people feel safer expressing things digitally whether through text or email or on a social platform that they wouldn’t express in direct communication. On one hand this can lead to online bullying or trolling where a person voices some incredibly hurtful and hateful things in a way that may anonymous, things that if said in another’s presence you would have to see their reaction or be vulnerable to their physical and verbal retaliation. One can also experience miscommunication, because we lose all the verbal and non-verbal cues that make up much of communication, where people either read in emotions that are not present or misunderstand attempts at humor. Sometimes with lowered social boundaries people feel free to share too much information (TMI) which can make the person receiving it feel uncomfortable and can present some dangers for the person sharing. Finally, since we are desiring connection, we may be encouraged to do things that are popular and create reaction online. Peer pressure has existed well before the advent of digital technology and has caused people to do things they regret to attempt to fit into a peer group, but with the lowered social boundaries online this can make it easier to make choices that may be popular but have consequences.
Once something is online, we may not have control of that information. Several weeks ago, I listened to Darieth Chisolm’s discussion of how when she left a relationship her ex posted pictures of her online and her struggle to have these images removed. This struggle was enhanced by the involvement of the laws of two sovereign territories and the transnational nature of the internet. I’ve included a link to the TED talk discussion she gave below:
Another situation was with a colleague who had shared information about a superior and a congregation he served in what was supposed to be a closed group on Facebook, but someone in the group commented on it and the information was eventually seen beyond the group and it created a lot of challenges for him in relating to his congregation. Nothing, even when in a closed group, is truly private on a social media site. The other reality is the permanence of this data and that way you share and say can be used against you, even years later. An example of this which ultimately didn’t hurt the individual but should be cautionary was in the lead up to the NFL Draft last year, a social media post from Josh Allen from his early teenage days, quoting the lyrics from a rap song, used an inappropriate word for a minority group and days before the draft this was shared with the media, which didn’t ultimately impact his being drafted early but perhaps could have. I do know people who have not been offered jobs because of pictures and posts on social media that do not represent who they may be now but are still present online.
The internet has made all types of data much more accessible, and this also can present a danger. One of the news stories going on this week is related to a group placing MOMO videos, a suicide game, in with Peppa the Pig, a show for young children, and other shows and finding a way past the controls that parents may try to establish. Even without the malicious intent of something like the group behind these videos there is the easy access to violent, sexual, graphic, and inflammatory and hateful information online. Even without intentionally seeking out some of these temptations we may stumble upon things we didn’t expect while searching for something innocent.
The internet can also impact our relationships. The ease of access of sexual content online is a struggle I’ve seen played out in couples I’ve worked with where one partner in the relationship feels cheapened or unable to live up to the ideal images that the other person is viewing online. For some people this is viewed as equal to having an affair, while for others they view it less critically, but it can impact the way that couples interact and view one another. With the increased connectivity I’ve also seen people in a relationship either seek out additional relationships or reconnect with an ‘old flame’ online and sometimes this has led to breaking the trust in the relationship either through an emotional or physical affair or sharing negative thoughts and views about their partner. As I discussed when discussing online dating there is also the reality that having a bigger pool of people one could connect with may negatively impact the formation of relationships. The paradox of choice is that more choices do not make us happier and may make us less satisfied with a choice we make because we are continually considering the other possible choices.
Most online platforms use algorithms to attempt to show you more of what they anticipate you want to see, so that you continue to stay engaged on the platform. The danger of this is we can become isolated from differing opinions and this has led to an increase in polarization in our communities. Facebook, for example, will categorize you based on what you block and what you like as Extremely Liberal, Moderately Liberal, Moderate, Moderately Conservative, and Extremely Conservative and attempt to show you more things in your feed that fit your political bias. The struggle with this is when we become isolated from people who think differently than ourselves, we can begin to look upon them as our enemy and begin to demonize them. We can also be surrounded by organizations and groups who continue to push us more solidly into their camp and away from opposing views so that we support them, and we can end up with a bunker mentality where we are surrounded by people who think the same way against a common enemy. On the one hand this plays into the natural tendency for humans to form tribes and groups that we feel responsible for and it can feel very comfortable for people to find others who share their views. On the other hand, it can exert a lot of pressure for us to fit into the views of the group and for the sake of fitting in we may silence area where we disagree or feel uncomfortable. I do think that online, like in public speech, we need to be responsible for our language. Both when I was an officer in the military and in my current role as a pastor, I’ve always been aware of the power of words to do great harm and I continue to try to remind others in the public sphere of the impact of their words on others. This has become harder as the society has become more polarized and pushing against political correctness can become used by people as an excuse for painful and hateful speech.
I do think it is helpful to be aware of how we are using these technologies and how they impact our lives in positive and negative ways. The above discussion engages some of the negative aspects of the digital technology and I didn’t discuss the ways criminals use it for everything from scamming to human trafficking but while I think it is important to be aware of the dangers of the technology, I think it is also important to state that there are several positive features. I use digital technology frequently to communicate, to share ideas and information, and to stay updated on what is happening with the people and events that are important to me. I use all these technologies, but I do intentionally set boundaries on my interactions with the internet, my email, my cellphone and social media as I attempt to live a life that is fulfilling.
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