This past Lent, I refrained from logging on to Twitter, allowing myself to do so only on Sundays and only then for limited reasons. I plan to continue this in the future. For a long time, Twitter had become a favorite pastime of mine. Twitter is full of mental sewage, but I have also connected to like-minded people on that platform, and I generally find the kind of inane discourse that characterizes it entertaining. But it is very compulsive; the word “doomscrolling” is a perfect encapsulation of a terrible habit.
I have, in the past, suffered from anxiety and depression, and so I know about mental compulsions very well. Above all, my Twitter “addiction,” if that’s what it was, interfered with my prayer life. There is perhaps no more abused word in the modern religious lexicon than “spirituality” (except, perhaps, the word “prophetic”), but, as I understand it, spirituality is the focus of the mind and heart upon God, primarily in prayer. The danger of Twitter and other forms of social media, it seems to me, is precisely that it can so easily take one’s thoughts away from God.
During Lent, I attempted to find out what guidance the Church gives on this issue. Since at least the reign of Pius XI, who issued an encyclical on film, the Vatican has published a fairly continuous stream of documents on all modern forms of communication. The Second Vatican Council accelerated this trend with its document on modern communications, Inter Mirifica, a text that expounded both the possibilities and dangers of those media in a way that holds up fairly well.
In the early 2000s, the Vatican issued two documents on the internet—The Church and Internet, and Ethics in Internet. These largely repeat many of the same strictures about the uses of modern technology for reaching “the modern world” and also for evangelizing, with the requisite caveats about their dangers.
What surprised me about these documents is that they deal exclusively with the social consequences of media and never on the personal impact they may have. Aside from a few warnings about the internet not being a replacement for the sacraments, the Vatican’s instructions on the internet almost never treat social media as a personal, spiritual problem in the sense I defined it above. And I was unable to find anything on the use of social media as such, either on the Vatican website or that of the USCCB.
In a sense this is understandable, since modern communications were created for the mass audiences of the modern world. People naturally worried, and still do, about how these technologies can reshape social relationships. The poet T.S. Eliot warned of what he called “the television habit” in 1950, and he told the New York Post in 1963 that television “is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.”
Media critics such as Neil Postman have criticized the overwhelming power that television and the internet give to the controllers of such technology. In the intervening years, critics have repeated these otherwise salutary warnings. However, though Catholic critics make many salient points, they don’t really address the issue I was concerned with—namely, our personal relationship with God. Frankly, I have found more helpful advice in secular reflections on the media than from Church authorities.
In graduate school, my dissertation work dealt with news media in early modern England, and many of the same criticisms made of social media today were voiced about print media in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. People complained then of being overwhelmed by early printed pamphlets and newspapers, and scholars today write about “information overload” in the early modern period.
The complaints of early modern writers sometimes echo the sentiments of their modern counterparts. The commentator Andrew Sullivan took a break from internet writing a few years ago, citing how the nonstop conflict it involved made him feel and act like a different person. The pamphleteer on whom I wrote my dissertation wrote that he nearly forgot who he was, such were the effects of his pamphlet wars with other writers. For anyone who has engaged in social media for any length of time, this should sound quite familiar.
More helpful in this regard is a book by one of my mentors, John Sommerville, called How the News Makes Us Dumb. One of his insights was the effect of “periodicity” on readers, the idea that as news first became produced for consumption on regular time schedules in the seventeenth century, readers became dependent upon it—“addicted” to it, in today’s terms. John’s warning about addiction to news sounds very similar to secular warnings about the addictiveness of social media.
But he also made a further point that news addiction tended to be detrimental to religion. He reasoned that the news media breaks down larger patterns of knowledge into tiny bits of information in order to sell them, detaching them from any larger context. Religion, on the other hand, is about the largest perspective there is, that of eternity. It is not a surprise that as our media-driven modern world has become more hectic, belief in an unchanging eternity has waned.
I believe it is on this point where the Church can be more helpful. Within its very long tradition of spirituality, it has resources that can help people combat the personal dangers of social media. After my adult conversion to Catholicism, a spiritual director who recommended the practice of daily meditation gave me a book, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, by Father Jacques Philippe, to which I have often returned in my life. It emphasizes the importance of guarding one’s thoughts, a problem that I, as an introverted person often enamored of my own thoughts, have long struggled with.
In the intervening years, I have found that the practice of Lectio Divina and the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and other spiritual masters have much to offer in the struggle to maintain control of one’s thoughts. Social media is unique and unprecedented in its power, but what it ultimately does is amplify a problem inherent in our fallen nature. Any familiarity with the vast spiritual literature of the Church will confirm this. In his Confessions, St. Augustine laments his own inability to let his mind rest in God, exclaiming
If only their minds could be seized and held steady, they would glimpse the splendor of eternity which is forever still. They would contrast it with time, which is never still, and see that it is not comparable…if only men’s minds could be seized, and held still!
It is some comfort to know that even the greatest of saints have struggled to keep their hearts and minds focused upon the Almighty.
Of course, one way of escaping one’s own thoughts is to seek the company of others, and one of the most important gifts the Church has to offer are its public rituals. The Mass is the grandest of these rituals, but I am thinking of the full range of Catholic devotions, from Eucharistic adoration to processions, in which we can practice a healthy forgetfulness of self that can be a balm for the never-ending distractions social media offers up. Ritual gives us the chance to step out of our daily life into ritual time, and it gives us that sense of the unchanging that writers like St. Augustine tell us to seek. In our manic, media-driven world, it is easy to forget that human beings need “static” pursuits to balance their minds every bit as much as they need dynamic, compulsive ones.
I make no claim to have mastered any of these practices, and I struggle daily with prayer like anyone else. But I can say that, aside from restricting or simply abandoning social media, these types of practices have been the most effective in trying to keep my mind focused on the eternal God and not on my often-lugubrious thoughts. The Church is rightly concerned about the social effects of social media such as Tik Tok and Instagram. But we should also recognize that social media can be a danger to us as individuals, and we should seek in the treasures of our Faith for ways to combat its ill effects upon us. Given the magnitude of the challenges that such technologies present, we need all the help we can get.