Social Media Survival

In Sunday School a few weeks ago we discussed the Facebook data harvesting scandal. We came to the conclusion that it really isn’t a big deal for Orthodox Christians. We should be asking bigger questions about our Internet, social media and mobile phone use.

It is very important that before posting anything on social media we ask ourselves the question: ‘Is this Orthodox?’ At the very least we should ask ourselves: ‘Is this anti-Orthodox?’ Christ says that ‘by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned’ (Matt. 12:37). This applies just as much to our social media posts as it does to what we say with our mouths.

Some of us think that social media makes us popular and wins us new friends. It actually does the opposite! Although social media makes us feel connected with people, it actually isolates us from the real world. We can see this clearly by opening our eyes to what is happening around us. People go out with friends but ignore them and use their mobiles instead. This is the opposite of being social! Social media makes it harder to learn how to talk with people face to face. It makes people feel lonely and isolated in the real world.

This isolation is not the only problem with social media. We will discuss these problems now and how we can overcome them with the help of the Church.

The Problem of Time


We are probably spending too much time on our mobile if we are unable to stop using it for a few days. If we get angry when unable to use it we definitely have a problem. Like any form of addiction, owning up to the problem is the first step to being cured from it.

Excessive mobile phone use is destructive to both our prayer life and family life. It distracts us during prayer or causes us to forget to do our prayers altogether. At best, excessive mobile use reduces our spiritual life to the minimum. At worst, we start worshipping the mobile instead of God; we care for it, we honour it and we turn to it for advice. Instead of trying to ascend the mountain of spiritual struggle we are indeed worshipping an idol of our own creation. (cf. Ex. 32)

Social media has its own unique time-related problem. Social media demands instant replies and constant interaction. So, not only do we spend too much time on our phones, we often post or ‘like’ in a rush without thinking properly. And it’s not just teenagers who post without thinking. Politicians are always doing it! The 28th April is Ed Balls Day on which we commemorate the occasion when the former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ed Balls, tried to search for himself on Google but tweeted his name by mistake.

Bullying


Ed Balls obviously enjoys this joke, but many children and young adults face horrific bullying on social media. Recent studies have suggested that the rise in suicide rates in the U.S.A is linked to bullying on social media. Social media bullying is dangerous because people cannot escape it. Before the Internet and mobile phones, homes were a safe haven from school bullies. Now, a bully can attack people anywhere, even in their bedrooms. To those being bullied like this, it not only seems like the bully is with them everywhere, he is with them everywhere.

Those of us who do not use social media are protected from this. Of course, we might get bullied for not having a good mobile phone, but not having one actually protects us from more serious bullying. Some people choose not to use social media as part of their spiritual struggle as Orthodox Christians. If we bullied for not using it, we should remember the words of Christ: ‘Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you (Matt. 5:11-12).

Depression


Social media can make us unhappy even if we are not being bullied on it. Although it cannot be proved yet, many scientists have suggested that social media use is linked to mental illness in some way. This is because social media promotes ‘ideals’ that people have to seek after. These ideals are normally unrealistic and completely non-Orthodox. People who buy into the social media dream will always be unhappy because they are seeking after something that they can never attain. To make things worse, they seek comfort in social media – the very thing that is making them unhappy. Instead of this, we should run to Christ the true Physician of souls and bodies. This is why the Orthodox Church is called a hospital. She provides healing for our souls that are sick and a cure for the hurt and shame that we feel inside.

Orthodox Christians, like everybody else, can suffer from mental illness and there is no quick fix for it. The Church, however, understands these problems because we are ill to some degree. In fact, many mentally ill people are spiritually healthier than those of who are sane but spiritually sick.

Sexting


Sexting is one example of how social media creates fear, shame and self-loathing in young people. Even young children are led into sharing explicit sexual images through peer pressure. This cannot be called normal behaviour, but it has become ‘normal’ and accepted by many children because it is encouraged by social media. Sexting is against everything we stand for as Orthodox Christians. We should refuse to look at these images if anyone tries to show them to us. Sexting is sexual abuse and we must speak out against this evil.

For us Orthodox Christians, the whole idea of sexting is gross. Why is this? It is because we have grown up in traditional Orthodox Christian homes where we have been taught right from wrong. We should be grateful to our parents for this and make sure that we always show them honour and obedience as St. Paul command us: ‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour your father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; that it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth' (Eph. 6: 1-3).

A ‘sext’ is normally a sexually explicit selfie. Sexting has probably developed from the trend for people taking selfies in revealing clothing and sexually provocative poses. This is clearly not Orthodox. Even if we are not taking pictures, we should not behave indecently or  touch ourselves inappropriately when alone. St. Isaac the Syrian teaches that ‘a virgin is not just someone who keeps his body undefiled by sexual intercourse, but someone who feels shame before himself even when he is alone’.

Dressing and behaving modestly protects us from sexually motivated bullying. More importantly in doing so we are showing honour to our body as ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1. Cor. 6:19). Dressing in a sexually provocative manner is spiritually dangerous and leads to unforeseen spiritual and physical dangers.

Unfortunately, many young Orthodox couples fail to show restraint and fall into the serious sin of having sexual intercourse before marriage. Although many reconcile themselves to the Church and go on to marry within her, many young people drift away from the Church out of shame, despair or a simple unwillingness to change their behaviour. If there is something in our life that needs changing let’s not delay but run to the healing power of the Church.

Mainly For Boys


Girls are the main victims of sexting probably because teenage boys are the biggest consumers of Internet pornography. Watching pornography might be acceptable to our non-Orthodox friends but it is spiritually, mentally and physically destructive.

Having Internet access in our bedroom puts us in danger. The spiritual aspect is probably obvious to us; watching pornography is a sin made worse when accompanied by masturbation. We should struggle to avoid both these sins and confess them as soon as possible. Obviously we will feel embarrassed by this, but remember that what we say in confession is between God and us. The priest is only there as a witness. Confessing our sins will give us greater strength to resist these urges in future.

This spiritual aspect does not concern non-Orthodox secular opponents of pornography; they instead concentrate on the physical and psychological damage caused to both performers and watchers of pornography. They are quite right to point this out.

By watching pornography we become psychologically adjusted to the brutalization and abuse of women. Our perception of women becomes warped without us even realizing it. This psychological damage can manifest itself physically too. Many young men who have grown up watching pornography find it difficult to have a gentle loving relationship with their chosen partner because pornography has warped their idea of what a relationship should be. Some even become physically incapable of having loving, respectful, sexual intercourse.

Watchers of pornography are not the only people at risk. By watching pornography we are also supporting the abusive pornography industry in which men and women performers are placed in danger of contracting various sexually transmitted diseases or suffering serious physical injury by their actions. Every time we are tempted to watch pornography we need to bring the mind the suffering and deaths that it causes. When we watch pornography we are watching people slowing committing suicide. If our refusal to enjoy watching this appears weird to our friends, then they will just have to live with that.

Mainly for Girls

Girls suffer from sexual temptations too, but watching pornography is less common among teenage girls than boys. Most viewers of Internet pornography are men and, as a result, the Internet sexualizes young girls more than boys. Singers like Ariana Grande, for example, perform explicit songs about sex acts to crowds of pre-teen girls. Young girls are encouraged to worry about their weight and appearance and to dress in sexually revealing clothing.

The fashion industry also causes a lot of this pressure. Girls are expected to look a certain way – super thin. The model Filippa Hamilton, for example, was told to lose weight despite being a size four at that time. At 5’10” and 120 pounds (1.78m and 54kg) she had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 17.2 which is technically anorexic. If she had agreed to lose the ten pounds, her BMI would have become a life-threatening 15.8. Hamilton was sacked because she refused to risk death for fashion. To get the right ‘look’ the fashion house simply ‘photoshopped’ her into the right shape. The picture below shows Hamilton as she really is now after gaining weight (right) and after photoshopping (left).




Dangerously thin models were around long before the Internet was invented. The good news today is that some fashion houses are now using realistically sized models. Even so, airbrushed or altered digital photographs are still everywhere on the Internet. These photos are much more dangerous than the traditional sketches used in fashion magazines because they look real even though they are fake.

The Internet and social media both trick us into believing that there is another world out there – better than the one we are living in. Moreover, this world appears ‘real’ because people are manipulated into believing it by various technological tricks. We should be very careful about trying to copy anything we see on the Internet.

Part of being Orthodox is to see ourselves as we really are – as sinners in need of repentance. When we look in the mirror we should see a sinner and not a failed model. If we still hate what we see, we need to remember that God loves us. In fact, what we ‘see’ in the mirror might not be true. Our perception of what we see can be influenced by our mental state. People that have some form of mental health issue relating to body image have a warped view of themselves. This is what causes eating disorders such as anorexia.

The mental health issues concerning body image are complex, and of course most people who are unhappy with how they look are not mentally ill. Our unhappiness with our appearance might be a demonic temptation to lead us into despair. In every case, we need to run to the Church and confess our sins. If we have a medically diagnosed mental health issue or eating disorder then we must combine this treatment from the Church with that given us by our medical doctor.

Fasting, Prayer and Confession


God helps us in many different ways to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (cf. Phil. 2:12) In the Gospels, Christ demonstrates through parables the saving power of loving our enemies, showing compassion to the poor and not judging others. These things however, are impossible to do without fasting, prayer and repentance. These three things are vital for young people trying to survive in today’s world.

Fasting is a particularly important weapon in fighting the passions of the flesh that we have discussed in this article. By fasting strictly according to the rules of the Church we subdue our body to our spirit. On a more practical level, avoiding certain foods on certain days is an excellent reminder that we are Christians and have to behave in Christian manner regarding our sexual appetites.

If we have failed to keep the fasts properly we should confess this. Some teenagers stop going to confession because they feel unable to say some of the sins that they have committed. This is a great mistake. Confession is like going to a doctor. Hiding our wounds will just make them grow septic and cause our spiritual death. Teenagers are not the only people who struggle with sins of a sexual nature so there is no real need to feel embarrassed. Let us remember the words of Saint Cyril of Alexandria: 'There is no sin which God cannot forgive for those who sincerely repent.’ In fact, the Fathers tell us that confessing thoughts that we have had, but not yet acted on, helps protect us from falling into the sins of the flesh that these thoughts suggest.

Preventing sinful thoughts becoming deeds is hard. Even St. Paul says that ‘the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice’ (Rom. 7:19). Prayer helps us stop turning sinful thoughts into deeds; it is an indispensable weapon against sin. We must read our morning and evening prayers every day and also to learn to pray when we suffer some temptation. Making the Sign of the Cross at these times puts the demons to flight. We can also pray the Jesus Prayer to ourselves: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ or pray ‘Most Holy Theotokos save us’.

Conclusion


We need to think very carefully about our mobile phone and social media use. We need to ask ourselves again and again: Is this Orthodox? Obviously, answering this question is not easy. We therefore need discernment to use the Internet. St. John Climacus says that discernment in beginners is true self-knowledge. In more experienced people, it is the spiritual gift of being able to distinguish good things from natural things and evil things. We need to work hard to develop this spiritual discernment by fasting, prayer and partaking of the Holy Mysteries. We will be unable to do this if we cannot control our mobile and social media use properly. If we are slaves to our mobile we cannot be true servants of God.

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