Welcome to the Recovery Room. On the occasional Thursday, I invite guest writers, pastors, therapists, and practitioners to step in and discuss their process of recovery--recovery from any old thing.
Today, welcome Tanya Marlow, theologian, writer, and colourful Brit (hence the across-the-pond spellings below). Tanya is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, and writes honestly about God, suffering and the messy edges of life at Thorns and Gold. Find her on Twitter @Tanya_Marlow or Facebook, and get her book for FREE here.
Follow her. You'll thank me.
And now, without further introduction, welcome Tanya to the Recovery Room.
It began as a lifeline at a moment of crisis.
I gave birth, and woke up the next day unable to walk more than a few metres. I have an autoimmune illness, and going through labour was too much for my body. As a new mother, I was also newly disabled, needing to rest in bed for 22 hours a day.
For the first eighteen months, I was excruciatingly lonely. I had no activity, no achievements, and very little contact with friends.
My concentration was drastically limited. No extended chatting time. No books. The magazine-style feed of Facebook was the only thing I could do to fill the beige hours. Lying in bed, desperate for some sort of interaction, I would refresh my Facebook feed every few seconds.
When crisis hits, you grab whatever lifeline you can in order to survive. Facebook and Twitter saved me from loneliness at the most difficult time of my life.
But if you’re not careful, the rope that once saved you can become a noose around your neck.
Four years on, and my relationship with social media is not straightforward.
I am still ill. I am still housebound. I can see friends, but only in tiny rations--four friends per week, for 2 hours each time. That’s the limit of my socialising. I’m an extrovert; it never feels enough.
When I am tired, I ought to be resting, doing nothing, but then I am back there, in those early days after the birth, staring at the ceiling, wondering if I will ever be well enough to leave the house again.
So I reach for my iPhone, and pretend it’s like resting. Social media is an escape from the excruciating pain of loneliness, and the tyranny of boredom. What I really want is to be healthy, and to be back in my ministry job or hanging out with friends in a coffee shop. But I can’t have that, so social media is my displacement activity of choice.
Scroll, like, scroll, like, scroll, like.
[tweetherder text="They say that 5-10% of people can’t control their social media usage. Why is it so addictive?"]They say that 5-10% of people can’t control their social media usage.[/tweetherder] Why is it so addictive? Dopamine - the more-more-more brain chemical, is triggered by the ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ system of social media. Dopamine makes us feel good, but it also makes us crave more.
When I have more energy, my approach to social media is healthier: I love to read and celebrate other people’s blog posts, or cheer on others’ campaigns for social justice, or catch up with friends’ news.
When I am feeling tired, lonely or powerless, it’s another story.
Suddenly, I hate every other writer in the planet, because they are more successful, more talented, more photogenic, or, at the very least, more prolific than me. I invent magnificent, outraged speeches to anyone who disagrees with me on Twitter. I want to delete every cute, super-hilarious cat video in the universe and put them into an everlasting internet bonfire where the flame is never quenched.
Ironically, when I am tired is when I most need to step away from social media, but that’s also the time I feel its pull most strongly.
Scroll, like, scroll, like, scroll, like.
There are some who want to decry all social media as a modern evil, but I think that is to miss the point. It’s about using it well.
More than most people, I have to constantly examine how (and why) I am using social media. Because I am still housebound and severely ill, social media is necessarily my gateway to the wider world - it’s all my limited concentration can cope with. Unlike most people, I don’t have the option of going for a walk or having a coffee with a friend if I’m feeling lonely or vulnerable.
My compulsion for social media is more like binge-eating than a drug addiction. A drug addict has to abstain from all drugs. A binge-eater can’t abstain from food - they need to learn to eat in a healthy way.
I can’t avoid it, so I need to control it.
I watch my motives.
If you’re feeling powerless, angry, or lonely, it’s always going to be a bad idea to scroll through your Twitter feed – but you can use Facebook for the healthier option of contacting a friend. It is an amazing gift of God that I can write, ‘I’m feeling sad today,’ on a Facebook message to someone on the other side of the world, and I can get a truth-telling reply in minutes that can help me refocus.
So here’s three questions I ask myself to test whether I am using social media in a healthy way:
1. Am I interacting, or am I consuming? Scrolling through feeds at speed is like stuffing your face with fries till you puke. We tell ourselves we’re productive, but actually we’re bingeing, and it’s no wonder we emerge from an hour of Twitter feeling slightly sick. Better to read a few updates of interest than to try and eat the whole internet before 8am.
2. Is this interaction serving to deepen this relationship? I can choose to see the stranger on Twitter as a whiteboard to write my opinions upon, or I can see them as a potential friend I am conversing and connecting with. The two attitudes produce very different behaviours.
3. Am I looking to social media to tell me I’m significant, loved? Whenever I find myself incessantly refreshing the page, hoping for more Facebook likes, that’s when I know it’s time to step back.
[tweetherder text="'Social media is the fast-food outlet of the communications world.' @Tanya_Marlow //"]Social media is the fast-food outlet of the communications world.[/tweetherder] To look to social media to affirm us in our achievements and our popularity is to look to Big Macs to provide our nutritional needs.
I am significant because God says I matter. I am loved because God loves me. It’s wholegrain truth, and it’s healthier. Sometimes that feels like enough. (Sometimes, however much you want it to, it doesn’t feel like enough, and you crave some easy affirmation. At such times, I recommend posting a hilarious cat video).
Over to you:
-What are the motives (good and bad) that govern your interaction with social media?
-When are the times in your life that you find yourself compulsively drawn to social media? Is there a pattern?
-Interaction versus consumption - to what extent does this distinction help determine a healthy use of social media?
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, until she got sick, and became a writer. She loves singing opera arias, eating dark chocolate and laughing at her own jokes. (Not at the same time). She is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, and writes honestly about God, suffering and the messy edges of life at Thorns and Gold. Find her on Twitter @Tanya_Marlow or Facebook, and get her book for FREE here.
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