by Pete Phillips, Head of Digital Theology
So, I did think for a few minutes that I would do a piece on the Platinum Jubilee. But I decided that probably this was going to be covered well on other channels.
Then I thought about doing a review of the Science and Religion Forum event (SRF2022) which I attended at the end of last week. And I will...
But in one of the introductions to SRF, someone mentioned the addictive potential of digital engagement. I don't think they meant that digital church was addictive - although I half hoped they did! They seemed to be referring to the way that most of us are not very good at putting our phones down - we reach for them repeatedly, in public, in private, with friends, in church, at work, at play. We know that phones create in us an addictive response - seeing we have a like in Facebook or a Retweet on Twitter or some hearts on Insta all give us a quick mental boost, a dopamine rush, that our brains come to expect. Indeed, even the chance that there won't be any responses is itself a dopamine rush - that sense of doom! Our brains can become addicted to the rush of both lack of interaction and the flurry of interaction because it seems to mean that someone is engaged with us - someone loves us?
Human being are quite prone to addiction and I wanted to write a piece looking at some of those addictions and how we can either avoid them or manage them. Of course, we are not our addictions. We are image bearers of the God of love. But it's always good to have a check up and see where our motivations are coming from.
That sense of addiction we were talking about before is often translated by us not as a chemical shift in our brains, but as a personal feeling about being accepted by others. I've heard people say when there are no likes on Facebook - "Nobody loves me". Of course, that's not going to be true. But we can invest so much in the social importance of online media that it feels like this - I mean look at all those other people in my feed who are getting so many likes! If only...
Nick Mance wrote an article on Online Addiction recently over on PremierChristianity pointing out the impact of those social media algorithms which feed us what we see online. The role of these algorithms is to gather data in order to find out what we like to look at. If we look at lots of facebook posts on sneezing cats, the search algorithms tell the publishing algorithms to send more cats. We actually curate a lot of what we see online. The algorithms want you to like their site. If we look at political arguments, news stories from the war in Ukraine, Brexit propoganda, then these too will proliferate on our feed. Social Media companies want you to spend more time on their site (to increase their ad revenue). So feeding you what they think you want to see is important.
But it also means that social media can often create filter bubbles. We stay in our own little worlds. Twitter does this very well - by following like minded people, we think all the world thinks like us. So Twitter was absolutely sure that the Brexit referendum would be defeated, that Boris was not going to win an election...but that simply reflects Twitter's own filter bubble. It's often a good idea to follow a few people you don't agree with to ensure you have a wider view of the whole of Twitter. But, at the same time, for the sake of your sanity, feel free to mute or block people if their views offend you too much.
By viewing other posts you like, and especially by liking/sharing/commenting/retweeting posts you like, you can actually develop your feed in a meaningful way. Respond to the posts of good friends. Seek them out and send a like or two. Add a comment. Be proactive. This does two things.
First of all it does the social engagement which social media is all about - it's so good for those people to see you liking their comments or pictures or shares.
Secondly, the algorithm learns that these are the kind of people, the interests, the photos that you want to spend time with online. You may find your stream becomes even more filled with people you like and want to spend time with.
So, shape your feed - tend to it like you'd tend to your garden - water the best plants, like the best pictures, comment on the best posts. But, ironically, don't spend too much time on the weeds because FB will just send you loads more weeds to deal with!
And then there is Twitter and all those other social media feeds. Twitter is increasingly a difficult place - one of my colleagues at Durham University always said it was a toxic technology. But some feel they need to be there to leaven the batch as it were - to be a Christian presence in the heart of darkness (that's an exaggeration...). I think the same goes for all social media feeds:
feel free to unfollow people who wind you up or are unhelpful
feel free to follow people who encourage you and build you up.
be careful not to be drawn into controversy.
as Bex Lewis used to say: when you post think what God would think of your post, or your mum or your best friend...or your worst enemy.
Philippians 4:8: "...whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – spend your time focussing on such things." (PMP translation)
So much of social media can be very depressing. Kate Nutt wrote about a prayerful response to doomscrolling during the Pandemic. As she said there, the news is full of horror and depression. We're told almost everyday of the horrors of the war in the Ukraine, of the hurt being caused by the cost of living crisis, by the existential horror of the climate emergency and the extinction of so many species, the latest mass shooting. I'm not going to fill that last sentence with links to all of it. Even watching the news has become too much for some people. Every minute a new horror to fret over.
Doomscrolling is when we get addicted to reading the latest take on any of this - following threads, posts, takes, comments on news across the world. Whether it's about the shootings in Uvalde, the horrors of Mariupol, the temperatures in India, the queues at Dover or airports...we are sometimes both completely overwhelmed by feelings these stories generate within us. We may just feel numb. Some may avoid the News completely because it fills them with such dread. Premier Radio developed a new model of news by adding prayer points at the end of each news item. It has led to lots of prayer for specific situations and offers a positive response to doomscrolling to bring these situations to God in prayer. Sometimes, thought, the feelings are so visceral, our minds scream at us that we should be doing more and so we can become even more engrossed in the doomscrolling as if that's going to help.
In past times, humans would have been content with the news from the local community. We may have heard months later of events in far off places, like the county town or even the capital of the country. But now everything is instant. It hits us hard and often. We need to take measures to relieve ourselves of the burden of all that news - of going for a walk without our devices; of painting or drawing; of crafting something with our hands; of focussing on a mindful practice. Uncoupling ourselves from the raging news agenda and allowing us to focus on where we are and how we are. Search for some of the posts on Mindfulness and creativity by Emma Major and others over on Premier Digital.
Of course, we can also respond by engaging, campaigning, writing letters to our MPs, donating money if we can to a good cause, helping those who have less access to resources than ourselves, especially those God calls us to help - refugees, widows, orphans, the poor and the sick. Often, walking in the shoes of someone else - putting ourselves into their experience - can help us think through some of the issues much more clearly than simply going back to the doomscrolling.
Games can be great fun. Whether it is Candy Crush, Tetris, Fortnite, Robblox, Settlers, Monopoly or Halo, any game can end up with us spending far too much time with the game than with the other necessities of life - or more likely, the other obligations of life.
Games can act as a way of escaping some of the pressures in life that we talked about in the previous section. Games take us to a different place and help us to use strategising skills, both mental and physical, to solve an issue. In that sense, games are a great way to develop our potential at problem solving and teamwork - indeed some companies are now becoming more aware of the potential of game-playing in recruitment strategies for jobs needing those skills.
But games can also use up valuable time and social space and can be seen as addictive.
Some time ago on Premier News, Andy Robertson (geekdadgamer) warned against the use of the language of addiction when it comes to gaming:
"It's helpful to use that language sometimes when you're at the extreme end of someone's video game playing but I think it's worth a word of caution that the broad experience of children playing video games is healthy and it's a positive thing."
The signs of gaming addiction (from an NHS site) include:
Constantly thinking about or wanting to play the game
Feeling irritable and restless (fidgety) when not playing
Underreporting or lying about how much time you’ve spent playing or playing in secret (such as in the middle of the night)
Tiredness, headaches or hand pain from too much screen time and use of controllers
Not wanting to pay attention to things like your personal hygiene (e.g., washing) or eating
Not seeing friends as often or doing other things you used to enjoy doing as all your time is spent gaming
Not wanting to go to school/work so that you can game
Again, we note the social disruption of gaming - despite many games including social interaction with other members of your in-game team, with other players on the platform, or with other players in the room with you. The problem is when it becomes an obsession for us rather than a game, when we begin to close down other areas of our life in order to feed the monster. And that goes not just for gaming but any addiction - even when that addiction is work rather than play!
Eating, Gambling, Drugs, Alcohol and Pornography
So much could be said on the subject areas and I'll link below to lots of Premier (and other) posts on these subject areas from people with a lot more experience and expertise than me. Addiction is a serious business, a serious issue which we need to deal with. Addiction causes harm to our social lives, our spiritual and physical wellbeing. Such addictions can focus on how much or how little we eat, what we think of our body shape or how we look. They take root in what we eat or what we drink or the games we play, the risks we take, the things we watch or buy or get hold of.
If you feel that you need help in any of these areas, please contact your doctor or speak to one of the many charities, Christian and other, who can offer advice about addiction.
If you need to speak to someone for a confidential conversation, please do contact Premier Lifeline.
Addiction is dangerous because it takes hold of our attention and encourages us to negate other aspects of our wellbeing. Addiction can be life-threatening. But at the same time, addiction can be eased, addiction can be addressed.
What is Addiction for a Christian?
The Salvation Army have just released a video highlighting a number of people from the UK and elsewhere who tells us they are, what they are skilled at, what they enjoy doing and how they are currently homeless. The point is that addiction is not your identity. Addiction is a response to the situation you are in or learned behaviour in response to that situation.
As the Salvation Army put it:
We believe that addiction is a maladaptive way of coping: a normal response to an abnormal experience or situation, often based in our early years. We believe addiction is the result of a complex interaction between nature and nurture. Individuals use their addiction as a source of temporary relief from pain. We shouldn’t be asking ‘Why the addiction?’ – instead we should ask ‘Why the pain?’.
That's why we have embraced a ‘harm reduction approach’ to enable everyone using our services stay as safe as possible until such time that they feel they are ready to implement the changes they want to make in their lives.
Our services are tailored to individuals to support their journey to a life of independence. When we build relationships with people, we ensure they are nurturing, strengths based and unconditional.
The Lighthouse Network define addiction in four ways:
Addiction is when we recognize any god other than the true and living God of the Bible. The problem is, God tells us He should be first and foremost in our lives, hearts, and minds, but we constantly put other people, things, and activities in the top spot of our lives. The First Commandment clearly states: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” (Exodus 20:3) Therefore, addiction is misplaced worship. Exodus 20:4,5 “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.”
Addiction is when we treat anything like an idol, meaning we give power to it or go to it for solutions or help. It is the means some people use to try to feel connected, loved, or part of something. God tells us in the Bible not to turn to other things or people to make us happy, but to Him alone. 2nd Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image (idol)—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)
Addiction is when we let something become our master, ruling or having power over us, causing us to be in bondage to or enslaved by it. Our Savior, Jesus, came to free us from the bondage of sins such as addiction. “He sent me (Jesus) to preach good news to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, announce freedom to all captives, pardon all prisoners.” (Isaiah 61:1)
Addiction is anything we worship or glorify, giving it weight or authority and pursuing it above other things. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify (worship) God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
In his discussion of digital addiction, Nick Mance cites Galatians 6:7-8 in which Paul writes: “A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Paul seems to be saying here that focussing on the desires of the flesh means that you will reap the very destruction of that flesh/from that flesh. A lack of healthy diet leads to all manner of problems whether that's what you eat or what you think or what you take in of any kind.
Addiction needs to be taken seriously. We can all be addicted to things in our own way. Things that take God's place, things that wrap us up in their own worlds, things that bring harm to us in the long term. Often, we need help to get out of those addictions.
Cleansing your Feed?
I talked above of how we can teach the algorithms by engaging positively with our social media feed. The more good you put in, the more the algorithm will show you good things - remember the people who wrote those algorithms want to get more of your attention, not put you off. So curate your own feed by spending more time on your friends posts, on pictures which bring you joy and on making comments which encourage others. Try to make Philippians 4:8 your own motto for your social media feed and for your other issues with addiction. Sometimes in social media, we call this cleansing you feed but there are times when we need to cleanse our mind as well - perhaps by focussing on doing something creative, painting a picture, writing a poem. We've started going for a walk in the early evening and watching for wildlife where we live. Just walking together in the calm of the evening is a mindful practice - even if the deer don't make an appearance!
Again Nick Mance: But algorithms work both ways. To take back control of my browsing, I clicked on about thirty videos of sneezing cats and laughing babies, sowing a very different sort of seed, until all the unhelpful content had been shunted off my homepage, replaced by innocent, adorable amusement. When we’re struggling to stop sowing to the flesh, we need to double down on sowing to the Spirit. We need to bombard our search engines with requests for the true, pure and admirable content spoken about in Philippians 4:8. Or sneezing cats. That works too.
Addiction to anything can be a hard thing to break. We may not even know we're addicted. We may need to ask those around us what they think we are addicted to and think carefully on their responses.
Or even better ask God what God thinks and allow his Holy Spirit to teach us about those things which God would prefer us to move way from as well as those things which God would want us to focus in on?
Don't de defined by your addiction.
You are an image bearer of the God of love and freedom.