Virtual Friendship: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Doug Ponder

Virtual Friendship: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Foursquare, Flickr, LinkedIn, Reddit, Tumblr, Imgur, or whatever comes next—social media have changed our relationships in significant ways. With the touch of a button on a small device I carry in my pocket, I can instantly discover what’s happening with friends on the other side of the world.

Drawing from personal experience, pastoral conversations, and recent sociological studies, I’m willing to wager that social media’s impact on our relationships has been equally wonderful and detrimental, introducing lots of new opportunities and lots of unforeseen challenges for Christians who use them.

The Good

Keeping in touch has never been easier thanks to the instant, far-reaching, and widespread power of the internet. Social media outlets afford us with the chance to know and be known by people thousands and thousands of miles away. A father serving in a foreign war can see daily pictures of his wife and children at home with just a few clicks. A mother can keep in touch with her son at college, who probably won’t remember to call as often as she would like, but who will always remember to update his profile to let the world know what he’s doing. Missionaries in remote corners of the world can keep their sponsoring churches informed with stories and images of their latest work. Churches can send out collective messages to all of their members, instantly notifying everyone of important events like service cancellations during extreme weather, an immediate prayer need, etc. All of this good has come about despite our relatively short time using this technology. So, I suspect  we will continue to discover nearly limitless opportunities to use social media for good. However…

The Bad

People often say that things are neutral, and what you do with them—not the thing itself—is good or bad. While true in one sense, that statement is a very misleading. For to say that something is neutral is not the same as saying that something is harmless or inert or benign. Consider fire, for example. Fire is morally neutral in that it does not commit morally just or unjust actions. Yet fire is not harmless or inert or benign. It is highly dangerous when not respected for its great power to destroy.

The same is true of social media. Like fire, it can be used for very good ends, but it also involves unavoidable consequences in its use. The unavoidable consequences of using fire are obvious: its heat and light are constant forces that affect all who are near the flames. But what are the unavoidable consequences of using social media?

To begin with, prolonged use of digital screens (TVs, computer screens, tablets, smart phones, etc.) have noted negative effects. Medical, psychological, and sociological studies have reported various disagrees of problems caused by prolonged use of digital screens, including: a reduction in our attention spans, an increased need for visual stimuli and certain auditory experiences, a reduced capacity for abstract thought and concentration, etc.

On top of this, social media present us with further challenges, too. One of the features of social media is that we can choose who or what we want to listen to, when we want to hear them, and whether we want to respond. If you don’t like what someone said, you can simply “unfollow” or “unsubscribe” to their posts while still remaining “friends” with them in an utterly meaningless sense of the term. Friendship does not work this way in “real life.” I cannot simply “unfollow” you or “unsubscribe” to your thoughts and conversations, because those are what form the bedrock of every genuine friendship.

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