January, as we all know, is the month of the detox. Work colleagues are coming to work clutching five thermos flasks of putrid-smelling green juices, eyeing even the spinach salad lunches of their companions with envy, and snapping half-way through the afternoon with furtive KitKats in the hallway.
Also gaining momentum is the idea of the digital detox, with establishments like the Four Seasons Hotel in Hampshire now offering a ‘Digital Detox Spa’ as part of their weekend packages. And for those of us with a more interventionist mindset, military-style ‘internet detox boot camps’ (which it turns out, are about as fun as they sound) are particularly big in China and Korea, and now appear to be gaining popularity globally.
To top it all off, the Guardian reported this week that schoolchildren in the state of Illinois could be forced to give authorities access to their Facebook accounts, in a bid to curb the rise of cyberbullying. With certain social networking sites such as Yik Yak already being banned by schools in the UK, the tide of popular opinion certainly seems to be that social media is threatening the fabric of our society.
The thing is, we can ban social media all we like. We can, like a friend of mine, have ‘designated Twitter times’ marked into our diaries, so that we can curb the impulse to scroll through the feed at work. We can remove the apps from our phones so that it’s not our go-to fix when we’re feeling bored in a queue or train station. But that doesn’t really solve the problem.
The problem isn’t social media. The problem is us.
No matter how shocking the latest cyber-bullying story may be, if we’re honest we know that in those stories we recognise familiar echoes. The same weaknesses run through all of us: the same capacity to be short with someone in a moment of irritation, to say something in a fit of jealousy, the capacity to ignore or ostracise those to whom we feel in some way superior.
It’s not pleasant or comfortable to admit. Those of us who have never put a cyber-foot wrong don’t want to identify with the type of person who would hound a child online, until they felt life was unbearable. We don’t want to admit that someone we know: a neighbour, a sister, or a friend, may be capable of tweeting something offensive to a perfect stranger.
Even the label we use for these offenders, ‘internet troll’, betrays our unwillingness to identify with them; we use the word ‘troll’ to remove the ugliness a step further away from ourselves, placing cyber-bullying into the realm of the mythic and the horrible.
Social psychologists believe that even those without naturally sadistic tendencies can become cyber-bullies, in the right context. It’s called deindividuation – the phenomenon of ordinary people behaving uncharacteristically when they are part of a group – a description of what can happen when, coupled with the anonymity of the internet, the darker parts of us are given free reign online.
So, what do we do with this? Should we all be going ‘off the grid’ and writing notes to one another on parchment paper, whilst we tend our organic allotments? Is the best response to check out of the whole thing and hope for a swift and sudden rapture?
Perhaps a clue as to the best way forward is in the remarkable story of Cambridge University professor Mary Beard, who ended up writing a job reference for a former student who had sent her an abusive message online. She had publically confronted him after the comments, and he apologised. Since then, she has befriended and helped not only him, but several other online bullies, using social media to identify the person behind the abusive comments, confront their behaviour and then extend kindness toward them.
The fact is, we may not all be facing down Twitter trolls or composing toxic messages to strangers, but as the internet becomes more integrated into our lives, the risk that we will encounter the dark side of it only increases. We can’t check out of this, or plead ignorance any longer.
Our journey to overcoming the ‘problem of social media’ is exactly the same journey of redemption we are called to undertake throughout our lives: the humility to realise our own brokenness; the empathy to see others as human and therefore broken too; and the wisdom to cultivate truth and love in all our interactions.
We can create all the resolutions we want this January, but perhaps the best one we can make is to spread some light in a very dark world, to all people, by all possible means. (Even on Twitter.)
This essay was written in January 2015, as part of the Friday Night Theology series