Faith online: Cultivating healthy habits

We are a plugged-in society, and that’s not changing. Increasingly, our interaction is happening primarily through social media. In so many ways this is fantastic — our networks are bigger, we can stay in touch with so many people. But as communication and relationships shift to the digital sphere, how do integrate our real lives and online selves? How does faith inform our presence and interaction online? We’ll be exploring these ideas and more over the next few weeks.

Hannah Heinzkehr is the Executive Director for The Mennonite, Inc. She lives in Goshen, Indiana, with her husband, Justin, and two kids.

Facebook first became a phenomenon when I was a college student studying abroad during my junior year at Bluffton University. I can remember sitting in the computer lab at Magee College in Derry, Northern Ireland, and receiving an e-mail (arriving in my newly launched Gmail account) inviting me to sign up for a Facebook account. At that time, Facebook was rolling out slowly and was still only available to college students or people with an e-mail address that ended in “edu.”

I share this memory as a reflection on the fact that — in many ways — social media was coming into being as I was becoming an adult. Although in some ways social media and online communication may feel ubiquitous and like they’ve been here for a long time, but these modes of communication are still very new, relatively speaking. Add to that the fact that the pace of change in the communications field has greatly accelerated (I once heard someone compare the process of social media companies building their networks to engineers building a plane while flying it), and it’s no wonder that we are still figuring out how best to communicate with one another online.

As someone who has spent most of my professional career working in the communications field, let me just come out and say that I frequently advocate for social media use by church organizations and I speak and write a lot about the benefits of online communication.

Social media allows us to engage with a wide, global network of perspectives and voices. It gives people platforms who may have historically been marginalized or denied access to typical institutional systems and platforms.

It allows for ongoing injustices to be named and made visible in new ways (I think of the video recorded by Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, who livestreamed Castile’s deadly encounter with a police officer). It gives individuals (somewhat) direct access to institutional leaders and corporations. It allows us to share art, music, videos and more across time and space.

In his book, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, communication theorist John Durham Peters describes the messaging method used by Jesus as one that was not just about dialogue (intentional one-to-one communication) but about dissemination. As in the Parable of the Sower, Jesus sowed (or disseminated) seeds broadly, knowing that some would take root and grow fruit, while others might not.

In some ways, social media allows us to sow seeds broadly. In my own online spaces, I use social media as a place to test ideas, to call on my friends to engage a particular justice issue, to share articles that resonate with me and, frankly, to share lots of pictures of some pretty cute Heinzekehr kids.

But I’m also aware that these online spaces are limited. I have “friends” on social media that I have never met in person. Research has shown that when people are not face-to-face with one another, they may find it easier to “drop bombs,” or write in ways that attack another person (or group of people). And social media has been proven to exacerbate our own feelings of being “less than” (A recent article in The Atlantic suggested that the rise of smartphones and social media has the iGen generation on the brink of a mental health crisis.). When you hold all of these factors together, and include the fact that we’re still learning how to responsibly use this new technology, the potential for misunderstanding and mistreatment of one another online is great.

In my work and personal interactions, I’ve developed three habits that I do my best to cultivate online.

Be vulnerable…

It’s so easy to posture online: To look like our kids are always cute and happy, like we always know what we’re talking about, like we’re always doing something fabulous in our free time and that our job is the #bestjobever. I think this desire to present a cleanly curated personal “brand” or image is perhaps a natural outgrowth of social media, but we all know that this is not the reality, and seeing ideals constantly paraded in front of us online can make it hard to be honest about our own less-than-Instagram-worthy feelings of failure, self-doubt, confusion, fear, anger, sadness and more.

Just like they do in face-to-face conversation, honesty and vulnerability can go a long way. It’s okay to post about that time you spilled coffee all over yourself. Ask a question when you see a friend post an article that you disagree with. Rather than engaging hate-filled comments online, post a supportive comment to let the original poster know you see them and support them. Let people know that school, parenting, work, life, etc. is hard right now.

…but also take control of your online spaces.

But there certainly is a limit to this. Remember that your online spaces — or spaces that you are responsible for at work — are spaces that you get to help shape. You don’t have to allow behavior that makes you uncomfortable or that targets you or your friends. You can be clear in your posts about the conversation traits you hope will be modeled in your online spaces. You can unfriend people. You can delete people’s comments. You can choose not to approve friend or follow requests.

As a Christian, I firmly believe that Jesus calls us to love, even those who we would consider enemies (and with whom we disagree ideologically). But I also think it’s okay to pause and ask ourselves what the form of our engagement should take when we disagree or find ourselves in conflict.  One year ago on The Mennonite’s website, we decided to take a 30-day sabbatical from website comments. We saw the quality of conversation deteriorating and, as a staff, we needed to take one step back and reassess how we might work with comments that would help us to better live into our goal of helping readers “grow in faith and become agents of healing and hope in the world.” When comments returned to our site, we were very clear about our expectations for commenters: Comments need to be 120 words or less, people can comment on each post a maximum of two times and we no longer accept anonymous comments. It hasn’t been a perfect system, but we’ve found that being very clear about our expectations has led to a higher level of conversation on our site.

And just to clarify: This is not meant to be a get-out-of-jail free pass to allow us to be passive aggressive or to avoid conflict. I firmly believe we need to find spaces and ways to have direct, difficult conversations with one another. But it is worth asking ourselves what spaces will help those conversations to be successful.

Take a screen Sabbath.

And every once in a while, it’s okay to step back. I’m still living into this, but I find that I feel healthier and happier when I carve out a time each day to be away from my smartphone or when I reserve one day a week to be a “screen free day.” When I walk in the door at home after work, I “park” my phone in a designated spot on our counter and try to leave it parked until after my kids go to bed at 8 p.m.

Your Sabbath practices could look many different ways, but I would encourage you to think through what it means for you to set healthy boundaries online. I am a believer in the many gifts that social media brings us, but I also know that taking the mental space to engage with the people and environment around us, without having it mediated through other people’s experiences and observations, can be highly healthy.