Overexposure to like-minded sources and material that reinforce existing beliefs has the potential to develop into an obsession, says a Southern Baptist counseling professor. Events in recent months have created a climate that increases the risk of unhealthy content consumption and, subsequently, relational conflict. If Christians seek to engage platforms and evaluate voices in a manner that honors God and their neighbor, discernment and strong communication skills in relationships are indispensable.
A social media platform described as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook became the most downloaded app on Apple and Google devices following Election Day last year, with more than 2 million downloads between Nov. 3 and Nov. 9, 2020. Parler was designed to be a space for users that disagree with other platforms’ community standards and content moderation policies.
Jason Thacker, chair of research in technology ethics and creative director at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, explained that Parler relies on users to curate their own feeds and increasingly became a partisan application.
“Parler has a large number of users from one side of the political spectrum, which can at times lead to a siloing effect where a user only sees one side of an argument,” Thacker wrote in a Dec. 14 explainer piece. “This was one of the issues of traditional social media that Parler set out to overcome with its lax moderation policies in the first place.”
In January, Google and Apple removed Parler from their app stores after calls for violence continued on the platform following the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill. Amazon also removed the site from its web hosting service, citing repeated violations of terms.
Kristin Kellen, assistant professor of Biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told the Biblical Recorder the appeal of platforms like Parler and information sources that lean right or left can stem from lost trust and a disconnect in values. Many Americans especially value free speech, she explained. “When a platform supposedly, true or not, does not fall in line, it loses trust.”
“Our values drive what we think and what we perceive, so it [Parler] aligns with that value of ‘I should be able to say what I want and it not be filtered, not be moderated,’” Kellen said.
Values similarly push people away from other kinds of information sources and influence how consumers engage with their content. People tend to perceive what they read through their desires and preconceived notions, Kellen said.
“For instance, if I’m super conservative, and I see CNN put something out, my value is already prejudicing me against CNN. So it’s not that CNN has written this story that may or may not be truthful. It’s that I have already decided, based on my values and what I want, whether or not to accept that.”
The weight of perceptions and values then increases the risk of relational conflict when people carry the same lens of understanding into relationships.
“We also tend to take a rejection of an opinion as a rejection of a person,” Kellen said. “So that when someone disagrees with me, they’re rejecting me.”
Kellen often sees this type of conflict between parents and teenage children. It’s typically during teen years that children begin to challenge ideas they were taught growing up, many of which drive political and social attitudes.
“The parent takes that as a rejection of them and their values as opposed to a disagreement or conversation. … We gotta get back to the values and what’s underneath that and look at those instead of feeling personally attacked by a disagreement.”
When we approach with a position of humility, I think we’re lowering ourself not to be humiliated but to say, ‘I value you, and I value your opinion, and I want to understand it.’
Kristin Kellen, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Counseling families through this kind of conflict often comes down to learning good communication skills, Kellen said. “They’re not innate in us.”
Modeling humility in conversations invites the other person to take a similar position, she said, citing a Biblical teaching to assume others greater than one’s self. Kellen recommends families and individuals adopt some of the common phrases counselors use, like “Help me understand” and “So what I hear you saying is this …”.
“When we approach with a position of humility, I think we’re lowering ourself not to be humiliated but to say, ‘I value you, and I value your opinion, and I want to understand it.’”
It’s important for both individuals in a conversation to know “they’re not rejecting somebody they don’t understand. … It’s a position of humility that invites dialogue as opposed to personal offense, or at least gets us a lot closer,” she said.
Information engagement amid ‘abnormal events’
Last summer, news stories reported an increased influence of the conspiracy theory “Q-Anon” among evangelical circles. When asked whether people who are drawn to online content like Q-Anon are prone to mistrust people they encounter in everyday life, Kellen said she hasn’t seen a direct correlation but an individual’s personality and habits could be a factor.
“If we’re suspicious about things here, we’re suspicious about things generally,” Kellen said. There is also a greater temptation for people to keep looking for content that aligns with their beliefs because of its physiological effects.
“When we look at things that are reinforcing for us, it changes things in our brain. … It releases dopamine. We like dopamine, so there is this sense it becomes much easier for us to pursue those things.”
Kellen told the Recorder it is possible that the disruption many people experienced in the past year could affect their digital habits and overall well-being.
Trauma is a normal response to abnormal events, and it has lasting effects, she said. The COVID-19 pandemic, the resurfacing of racial distress and a bombing in Nashville on Christmas Day were only some “abnormal events” compounded by the isolation brought on by social distancing.
“There’s a lot of normal reaction to abnormal events, and we’re seeing some lasting consequences,” she said. Reactions can come in the form of anger, frustration, anxiety, depression and mistrust.
“We were meant to live in community,” Kellen said. “So when these things happen, we have no one to process them with except someone that’s on the other side of the screen that’s not responding immediately.”
When we look at things that are reinforcing for us, it changes things in our brain. … It releases dopamine. We like dopamine, so there is this sense it becomes much easier for us to pursue those things.
Kristin Kellen, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Kellen has seen more people coming to counseling in recent months. She acknowledged that many don’t have access to counseling or therapy, and resort to social media as a space to process their reactions and emotions.
“For a lot of people, Facebook is their counselor, their therapist, and boy is that a recipe for problems. These events have triggered things in us that we need to be processing in the context of community.”
Unhealthy online engagement not only affects the content people share through social media but how they relate to the content they consume. Kellen cautions people to watch for two markers regarding their consumption of news and information: an impact on functionality and a transition from awareness to anxiety.
“It’s one thing to be informed, it’s one thing to spend time on doing something and getting information, but if it’s impairing someone’s ability to function the way that they should, then that’s a problem.
“I think the scriptures are really clear about we should be wise, and we should be aware of reality and of truth, but it speaks very clearly about ‘do not be afraid, do not be anxious.’”
She has encountered cases in which conflict within a family was caused not by disagreement over content but by the volume of attention a family member gives to it, which can cause an individual to neglect personal responsibilities. She advises close, trusted people to ask questions instead of making accusatory comments.
A gentle tone and established relational capital can help affirm someone’s personhood during a confrontation. Questions such as “Are you missing out on other events or time with family the more time you’re online?” or “Are you feeling more angry now than when you started?” can lead someone to come to a conclusion on their own about the amount of attention they give to information habits.
Christians must constantly evaluate their hearts and examine the motivation behind either their critique or acceptance of sources of information, and to align their values with the Lord’s, Kellen said.
“Knowing that God’s Word speaks truth and that truth is sufficient for us, we need to be evaluating everything against the Lord and His Word before we just accept it.”