Tyranny of the frivolous

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written quite extensively about social media and its effect on childhood, mental health, and society more broadly. His lengthy piece for The Atlantic was shared widely and for good reason. It is a potted history of how we got here, but also a summary of the impact this technology has on us all. He suggests that social media is a driving force for division over the last decade and is making Americans stupid.

You’ll have to ignore his evolutionary views, but Haidt has some excellent insights. He points out that adding a “like” button to Facebook was a game-changer, but all in the wrong direction. He argues that being able to show your approval of posts encouraged people to want to become “internet famous” through managing their personal brand. It also gave the notorious algorithms plenty of data to reinforce each user’s bias. Haidt says the ability to “share” posts on Twitter had a similar effect.

Studies have shown that most social media content is posted by a small percentage of activists, whether on the left or right, who are often white and wealthy. So, running away from the social media circus should free you from all this, right? Haidt sees it differently, suggesting that the “chronic fear” of getting cancelled has led to self-censoring in all institutions, which has undermined trust in everything.

Ultimately, Haidt may have pinpointed one of the worst things about social media— it has both “magnified and weaponized the frivolous”. Mad Christians will know that a Twitter exchange is much less satisfying than time spent reading Scripture’s wisdom literature. And surely much less able to make you wise!

While Haidt has some ideas for how to combat the dumbing down and the division, on this point, Mad Christians are ahead of the curve. He suggests we need “extensive social networks with high levels of trust” and “shared stories”. It may be a while before we hear any humility or contrition from governments and corporations that twist the truth to their own ends, but we don’t need to. Our trust is never in princes.

We do have the greatest story to share. It is one that makes enemies into family and creates unity with all the saints through our baptism into the one true God. More than that, our Father has given the “spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints”, as St Paul wrote. Perhaps gathering around God’s Word and sacraments, focusing on strong families and faithful churches is not so mad after all.

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