By BENEDICT ESPOSITO, Special to the Bulletin | Published September 30, 2022
I was born in January 1993. Within the span of the next four months the Buffalo Bills would lose their third straight Super Bowl, Cheers would air its final episode, and it was announced that the World Wide Web would be royalty free.
My earliest memories are of Sesame Street, hearing the “Macarena” everywhere and always having a computer in the house. That last part is something most young adults have in common: we do not know of a time without the internet.
Sure, we know it did not exist when our parents were growing up, but as I cannot imagine using a typewriter, most young adults cannot fathom life without the internet. We have simply grown up with it.
Now that we live in a world where we have devices in our pockets with more processing power than Apollo rocket computers, it is even harder to escape that influence. We can simply Google the answer to any question. If I need to follow along with a prayer, get directions, or look up who starred in a movie, there’s an instant answer.
There is also now another aspect of the internet that is inescapable—social media.
Let me get this out of the way, social media is not inherently bad and I am not going to say you should not be on it. On the contrary, I think young adults should be on at least one platform.
Social media can be useful. You share fun memories, major life events, upcoming gatherings, prayer requests, business referrals, birthdays, recipes, group chats, funny cat videos and more. For sports, Twitter lets you get team news much faster. Occasionally someone looking for the owner of an old item they came across will go viral and social media leads them to a happy reunion.
Before his recent passing at the age of 101, I had been following the Facebook account of Jim “Pee Wee” Martin, a World War II paratrooper who jumped into Normandy with the 101st Airborne, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment during D-Day, and saw combat for months afterward. His posted stories and photos were inspiring.
All the active Catholic young adult groups in our archdiocese have social media pages. There is a Facebook group called “Atlanta Catholic Young Adults” with nearly 2,000 members where people ask for prayer requests, fellowship and good roommates.
However, there is a bad side to social media, such as misinformation or subconsciously comparing yourself to others and the dopamine overload.
Some say it is farfetched, but social media really can be like an addiction. You want that stimulation, which leads to dopamine overproduction, an amount of the hormone and neurotransmitter our brains are not wired to handle.
This is, I think, one reason young adults are leaving the faith. They are used to instant stimulation, instant answers and instant gratification. I pray about wanting something at Mass yet by the time I’m home, nothing. I can post something on social media and within five minutes, I get that dopamine rush of seeing a notification that someone likes my Facebook, Twitter or Instagram post.
Why read dull, boring Scripture when I can watch endless colorful videos and memes that capture my imagination more, especially ones that my “friends” or favorite organizations share? It’s a constant stream of new content, which I can interact with directly. My brain gets more stimulation scrolling than sitting in church staring at a still tabernacle. It’s not my fault secular posts are more common and often more interesting on social media than religious ones.
I say this as a young adult who knows how ingrained social media is and struggles with not checking in.
Every Lent I drastically cut back my social media use and the first few weeks I will sometimes find my hand twitching or inadvertently reaching for my phone to scroll. A similar reaction when going through a drug withdrawal. Nevertheless, I push through and I feel better each time by the end of it.
Is it just coincidence people seem to have even shorter attention spans now? Sometimes I cannot even sit at a red light without pulling out the phone. Or standing in line at the store. Or sitting on the beach. Or going to a concert. We have wired our brains to crave that dopamine release in unhealthy amounts. It’s like a never-ending sugar rush. I see all ages out and about on their phones, often checking social media.
Removing the stigma is one reason for mental health struggles being more widely known. However, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say mental health issues are affecting more people because our minds are constantly being bombarded with endless stimulus that they aren’t set up to process.
Yet as mentioned, social media can be useful too. So, what do you do?
A plan of action
While many accounts offer you the ability to tailor your feeds to favorite accounts, I find I often am still constantly checking those favorites far too often. During Lent, I’ll check my accounts at the same time of the day for notifications like event invitations or being tagged in something and no more. No scrolling.
Another strategy is to set a timer for how long you can be on all accounts, again just once a day. Usually, five minutes is sufficient to check any notifications you have across all accounts. Then when the timer goes off, close out. No excuses. If it’s urgent, they can send you a direct message.
This is being strategic about it; not being sucked in by boredom to aimlessly scroll and get that stimulation, but also not completely abandoning what can legitimately be a useful tool.
With all that visual noise, it’s harder to be silent and let your mind think on its own. In order to pray and hear God talk to you, you need to let yourself be still.
It’s key to know that we can live with social media in simple moderation, knowing both the good and bad. Just be strategic and smart about it so your brain can focus in a healthier, more natural state.