Social Media, ‘self-spirituality’ and ‘nones’ amongst the youth
The Internet has empowered people with access to more information than any other generation in history, but there is a growing trend, especially amongst Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) and post-Millennials, who prefer not to follow a traditional, communal-based faith, such as Christianity, but create their own personalised spirituality or follow atheism and be labelled as a ‘none’ on the Census. According to results released in 2016 from an extensive survey conducted by Baylor University, it found youth who use social media were more likely to develop a ‘cherry-picking’ approach towards religion and spirituality according to their personal needs and societal trends, even if contradictory, than those who do not use social media.
It cannot be said that the rise in ‘buffet-style’ spirituality or atheism is solely caused by social media since the last several decades have been especially critical of traditional Christian beliefs and religion in general. Legislative reforms, social changes, mass secularisation, materialism, the rise of individualism and the idea that ‘enlightenment’ is solely achieved through science are all causes. Even though these catalyses are responsible for the massive cultural shift away from faith in society, it is now in the Digital Age where people are seeking meaning at their fingertips.
Most people spend a significant portion of their day on social apps; however, it is young people who spend even more. If a young individual’s spiritual conviction has not already been attacked in the real world, they will definitely experience it online. Social pages, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat flood its users with messages. Some are helpful and entertaining, but there are several major flaws with the ‘social’ experience.
First, the marketplace of ideas. Many options and opinions are on offer, but like any marketplace, it does not mean they are beneficial or true. Ideas, like physical items, have capital value enabling individuals to freely pick and choose from these ‘religious commodities’ based on their appeal. Having alternative spiritual beliefs, or disbeliefs, on offer enables youth to justify – or excuse – their behaviour and choices by subscribing to something convenient and flexible. For example, Astrology apps such as Co-Star have successfully penetrated the US$2 billion psychic industry in America. With over 1 million users it was made popular thanks to savvy social media marketing and celebrity endorsements.
Second, democratisation of opinions and information. Most of the time when issues of faith and morality are being discussed online it is anything but diplomatic and respectful. In an environment where anyone can comment or post on spiritual truths, even as a meme, its validity is decided on the consensus of majority rule. This is not proper theological discussion when based on aspects of pop-culture and peer-pressure.
Third, the widespread societal philosophy of moral relativism and individualism. To understand why there is significant risk to youths’ spiritual wellbeing, one needs to understand the current thought process or mentality of general society. This directly affects how discussions, especially moral ones, will be treated by the majority and the expected backlash if an individual does not accept them because of their faith. Secularism and radical liberalism has fuelled and legitimised the idea an individual can create their own sense of moralism based on their lifestyle and environment. Though it may initially create a non-judgemental and ‘tolerant’ society, the toxic side-effect is a highly defensive counteraction if your voice, which is founded upon Christ’s teachings, is contrary to the mob. It has created the environment of the ‘Social Warrior’ who believes what they pursue is right and just and is seen by others as a ‘good’ person. Inclusiveness is fine and well, but when its ideas are tested people fear being ostracised and bullied are forced to conform.
Fourth, simplification of theology. It is no coincidence each generation’s attention span reduces with the achievement of digital entertainment. As a result, it produces individuals who want a spirituality that is not time-consuming. How is it possible to coherently explain the depth and complexity of God in a tweet of 160 characters? This is a sign of spiritual laziness. Memes, videos and photos can be persuasive, but this does not mean it is divinely true. If people, especially youth, are serious about accepting or dismissing faith, they need to go back to the original source material, like the Bible and Church Fathers, before making conclusions. The saints constantly studied and meditated over scripture and teachings, as well as lived a personal experience to gain a closer relationship with God. The more social media users reduce the complexity of faith and morality the more ‘fake’ and artificial it feels.
Fifth, erosion of community and human relations. As youth spend more time online they believe their virtual community is real and they can satisfy their spirituality without the need to physically participate in Church services. They begin to convince themselves that liking a meme or following a page is the equivalent of reading spiritual books or participating in Sacraments. As a consequence, they lose out on developing real-world connections with other parishioners and learning from their experiences. Humans are social beings. Community exists to help the individual when in need. The advancement of communication technologies in recent decades should not be a substitute for community. Unfortunately, social media is changing the sense of community as we spend more and more time there.
So, what options are there to help young people who take up this online DIY approach?
Get them to work for their spiritual growth. Explain that is where true spiritual fulfilment comes from.
As parents, show the benefits of physically participating in worship and community. Be a family unit, not a group of phone-swipers.
Help them understand that they do not lose their individuality when part of the Church. The spiritual life instead makes them more whole and complete individuals who share a living relationship with God.
They need to walk their spiritual journey with others; it cannot be done alone.
If a youth says all religion is man-made, ask them how their approach of customising spirituality is any different.
Try prayer and stillness rather than ranting online or chasing after likes.
The Orthodox Church is not formulaic or restrictive. It is not a courthouse, but a spiritual hospital, which only aims to heal.
When they say religion is out of touch with the times or irrelevant to their life, tell them that moral relativism is an unstable and unreliable philosophy because it provides little direction of where it draws the lines for right and wrong. As it constantly shifts, depending on the socio-political climate, how does that provide consolation or certainty? Church teaching remains unchanged.
Young people want guidance, which is why they search online. Someone needs to be there for them.
In conclusion, social media has developed into a platform where truths and traditions can be subjected to self-serving justification and commercial profit. Social sites make it easier than before to influence young minds and alter their perception of self. It is not to say youth cannot go online or use social media, but it is about helping them understand the true essence of why we have a spiritual life and that belief in God is not mere tradition but a real-world application.
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