Ann M. Garrido, DMin is associate professor of homiletics at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri, and a consultant with Triad Consulting Group, a conflict mediation and communications team based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of numerous books, including her most recent book #Rules_of_Engagement: Eight Christian Habits for Being Good and Doing Good Online (Ave Maria Press, 2021). She participated in the Words that Sing Collegeville Institute workshop with Mary Nillsen in 2015.
In this interview, Garrido spoke with former student and fellow Collegeville Institute alumnae Rhonda Miska about ethical navigation of social media.
How has your own engagement with social media changed through the process of writing this book?
I experimented with different practices because I didn’t want to recommend tips to other people unless I’ve done them myself. I set a timer and I tried a fast from social media. I tried switching to a grey screen—that means removing color from your iPhone, since colors are like eye candy to our brains and it’s easier to get sucked in. I moved social media to the third page of my phone, which means I have to swipe to get to it.
Social media is a tool for humanity and there are a lot of great things about it. It’s a wonderful complement to in-person relationships. I developed eight rules of engagement and created an online pledge to encourage people to commit to changing the tenor of conversations on social media to maximize the positive aspects of social media. If you do these eight things, you’ll engage well on social media. If you’re attentive to truth, the personhood of others online, and the way you manage your time, then social media can be a great way to keep connected with people.
The image I like to use is that of leaven. Christians are called to show up as leaven in the world, and that applies to social media, too. Though we might feel small on these platforms that have billions of users, our actions can be transformative. How can we bring some leaven to social media platforms through our individual choices? Through practicing the rules of engagement, we can choose to show up online in a different way. We can choose to show up online in ways that build community, value truth, and honor human dignity.
If you’re attentive to truth, the personhood of others online, and the way you manage your time, then social media can be a great way to keep connected with people.
In your book, you mention that one of your social media habits is to “value the person.” How do you see social media engagement as promoting or eroding human dignity?
Underneath the question of what content is posted, there’s the question: How is the conversation itself unfolding? Part of the commitment to truth is finding out what is true, as in accurate. The other part is practicing being true.
Even if I don’t think what a person posted is accurate, how do I treat that person with dignity? There’s an old adage in the church: “Error has no rights.” But people always have rights. They always deserve to be treated with dignity. I don’t need to give your opinion air time and I still need to deal with you with the greatest respect, honoring your humanness.
There are some things baked into the structure of social media platforms which make treating people with human dignity more difficult. First, when you’re talking to someone online, you’re just seeing their head. You don’t think of them in the wholeness of their personhood. Secondly, since communication is asynchronous, you don’t see how your comments are landing. You don’t have nonverbal communication or facial expressions. There aren’t the same cues as in oral communication. Finally, social media imposes limits on length of communication, sometimes even restricting it to a certain number of characters, as with Twitter.
You can’t replicate on social media the fine science of communication that has taken two million years in the human species to evolve. We often end up doing damage to our relationships.
It is often said that there’s an epidemic of loneliness. How do you see social media impacting loneliness? There’s a strange way we can have thousands of “friends” yet be practically isolated. What does this mean for Christians?
This is the book’s underlying thesis: At the core of Christianity is the proclamation of God as Trinity. God is relationality. All our life on earth is building up our capacity for relationality so we can enjoy trinitarian life! We do that through community. What builds up a community? Communication! Communication, community, communion—these are so deeply linked.
Sherry Turkle speaks of strong ties and weak ties. It’s not just relationship, but depth of relationship that matters. God is three persons, not a hundred persons. Turkle observes that we make a preference in society for a lot of weak ties. This doesn’t challenge, grow, and support us as much as having a few deep ties.
Robin Dunbar says there’s a relationship between brain size and the number of relationships a primate tends to have. The human brain can manage about 150 relationships. Historically, 60% of time goes to deep ties, 40% to looser ties. Dunbar observes that the ratio seems to be flipping. We spend less time cultivating deep ties because we attend to weak ties. With social media we keep in touch with more people, but these people won’t bring you soup when you’re sick, drive you to the doctor, or share deep conversations – at least not online. Weak ties aren’t a bad thing, but they can’t replace strong ties.
Dunbar’s insight is that circles of relationship need to remain in the right proportion. If you’re in daily conversation with 500 people, you aren’t attending to your innermost circle: kids, spouse, really close friends, parents. That’s where loneliness comes from. Loneliness is not solved by weak tie relationships.
Also, absolute connectedness lessens our capacity to manage aloneness. If you have the capacity to be alone, you don’t suffer from loneliness in the same way. Social media can enable avoiding learning how to be alone and confront yourself.
Another challenge of social media usage is the fragility of self that comes from curating an online image and then seeking validation from likes, comments, and shares. “Digital native” college students I’ve taught are keenly aware of this and the connection between anxiety and social media.
The human system is wired for feedback to learn and grow, but the degree of instantaneous, constant feedback we receive is too much. We aren’t wired to take that much in. The younger you are introduced to something, the harder it is to keep in balance. For younger people, the social media pain point is around identity, self, and relationships at a critical stage of human formation. The sense of feeling left out or the concern at not knowing how to interpret someone’s comment is harsher.
The mystic Simone Weil said that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” The poet Mary Oliver wrote, “I don’t know what prayer is, but I do know how to pay attention.” What role does social media play in our capacity for attention?
When you find something worthy of focus, that focus will lead you into God’s presence. If we aren’t attentive to the person in front of us and the place we are in, that’s a hindrance in coming into contact with transcendence. Through social media, we pursue relationships without geographical closeness. The danger is that we become inattentive to our actual physical space. When I walk across campus, everyone is on their phone and not encountering the person in front of them. No one sees the tulips because they are attentive to some other place. God is everywhere, but we need to be somewhere to encounter the everywhereness of God!
The current Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma features social media designers speaking about “reaching into the brain stem” in designing platforms that maximize usage and, ultimately, profit. This stands in stark contrast to teaching from Romans: “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” For Christians committed to ongoing conversion, what questions should we ask ourselves about how social media impacts our minds, relationships, and institutions?
Evolution is designed for a species’ survival. We now understand what makes us tick at a whole new level and we are manipulating our own design. We like to think our actions are motivated by reason, but there are things going on in the limbic system. People try to battle human compulsions at the rational level. But when I’m scrolling for a long time, it’s not because I consciously think: “I’ve got time to waste—let me blow it on social media!” There’s something compulsive at work.
When I think about renewal of the mind and righteous social media use, I return to core beliefs: truth, Trinity, incarnation.
- Truth: Am I contributing to a more informed, realistic portrait of the world so better actions can be taken?
- Trinity: Is this activity building or fragmenting community?
- Incarnation: How do I treat people with human dignity and privilege face-to-face interaction in managing circles of relationship? Physical, bodily presence matters. Despite technology, we still need other bodies in our lives.
These are the questions to assess our social media behavior. The whole book is a prolonged examination of conscience for social media. Psychological research can describe what’s happening, but fundamentally this is a spiritual and theological issue.