TRENDING | The internet is not a morally neutral tool
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Tech analysts spend a great deal of time talking about the hypothetical dangers of sentient artificial intelligence. Soon, many have warned, technology will become like us. In Digital Liturgies (Crossway 2023), author (and WORLD Opinions columnist) Samuel James makes the opposite case: We are in danger of becoming like technology.
The internet, he argues, is not a morally neutral tool. While Christians typically emphasize the dangers of content available online, such as pornography, James believes that the very form of the internet shapes the user’s worldview and makes for a platform ideally designed for the pornography industry to thrive.
By removing people from what James calls the “givenness” of the natural world, technology communicates that humans can transcend the natural limitations of their bodies and circumstances. This can create a kind of cognitive dissonance, making many people feel discontent with their own lives when they have a far “better” vision only inches away from their eyes.
With social media, people can create profiles based solely on their self-perception, even if that perception has little to do with reality. This reimagining of ourselves has not stayed behind the screens. Enter the trans movement, the teenage mental health crisis, and ever-widening political divides.
The internet also retrains how we think: “As our attention span thins and our capacity for quality reflection diminishes, we begin to depend more and more on the web’s tools for efficiency and attention-grabbing.”
Though his diagnosis of the internet seems drastic, the author does not come across as a doomsayer. Nor does he sound like Thoreau writing from Walden Pond, chuckling at his readers for owning a smartphone. James makes it personal by admitting that he has long felt technology’s impact on his concentration and his enjoyment of the analog world.
The author doesn’t recommend taking a sledgehammer to every iPhone in sight. As John Calvin said, “Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols,” and people without cell phones would find new idols. James argues that believers don’t need a new word from the Lord for the digital age. Now, as in every era, Christians need wisdom.
A pocket-sized resource called Taming the Fingers (Reformation Heritage Books 2023) by Jeff Johnson offers some practical tips for what that wisdom could look like. Some of the author’s counsel sounds fairly obvious, like when he advises Christians not to respond to every inflammatory article or social media post.
Professing Christians can find themselves easily caught up in online fisticuffs. But, Johnson writes, we should remember that living before the face of God is a constant reality, even when scrolling through Instagram or retweeting an article. In a world where winners get multimillion-dollar brand deals and losers get canceled, Christians need “heavenly wisdom” that pursues truth and peace. “When Christians lack this wisdom and quarrel on social media,” says Johnson, “it is a bad testimony for the Gospel.”
Johnson asks readers to think about the following questions before interacting with social media: Am I controlled, calm, careful, compassionate, and conscientious? While Christians are called to proclaim the truth, social media might not be the most effective platform, and as Johnson points out, few hearts have ever been changed because of something posted to TikTok.
Most of the time, chastising another person online (very often a stranger) only increases the poster’s status. Conservatives, for example, are quick to rant on social media about leftist “virtue signaling,” but can step into the same trap by announcing how much they hate virtue signaling.
Professing Christians can feel a surge of self-righteousness when, after posting something vengeful, people respond with mean comments. Some Christians, instead of admitting they are the problem, would rather assume that they “will be featured in a future edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.”
Johnson’s book is brief, and anyone with a social media account would do well to read it.
So, what about children? How are they handling a social-media-saturated culture? Devorah Heitner writes in Growing Up in Public (TarcherPerigee 2023) that it’s a tricky time to be a young person. For many kids, it can feel like their every move is being live-streamed whether via social media, classroom apps, or GPS tracking.
Heitner encourages parents to have open conversations with their children about social media to help them develop a sense of online responsibility. Highlighting the pitfalls of “sharenting,” Heitner argues that some parents share a bit too much about their children on social media.
But the author’s remaining advice seems misguided, at best. She suggests that children need social media in order to thrive, and that parents have no right to revoke that privilege. Further, monitoring your children’s grades, texts, and posts should not be done without a spirit of “consent” from all parties. She compares this “snooping” to “Big Brother” behavior, which is ironic since she advocates for outsourcing the traditional roles of parenting to “professionals” like teachers, many of whom work for the government.
Children, Heitner argues, belong to themselves and should demarcate their own boundaries. She includes a quote from a student named Kai who felt his parents shouldn’t be checking ClassDojo, a classroom behavior app. Kai was in second grade.
Heitner rightly emphasizes that character is not about one’s image or personal brand. But she defines character as not being racist or homophobic, or “harmful,” mushy though the term is.
Author Samuel James warns that social media has become a means of shaping ourselves according to our own sense of identity, and that seems to be what Heitner celebrates. In a passage that sounds like it was ripped out of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Heitner explains that “kids are sexual” and that “sexting” is just a way of expressing that.
It’s sad, especially since children are ever more in need of guidance. Some can’t even remember a time without the iPhone. If parents follow Heitner’s counsel, their children will walk unaided ever deeper into the shifting wilds of the internet age.