I’ve found my experience online has grown darker lately. My Facebook timeline has fewer happy snaps of family holidays, less encouragement and hilarity, not as many links to edifying blogs or stimulating podcasts. Twitter is a web of intrigue and plot. I lose hours following threads, trying to discern the voices of sanity in the general babble of nonsense. Christians take shots at Christians from neighbouring tribes, fighting in comment threads, writing shrill opinion pieces shared by comrades hunkered down together in the same echo chamber. There is so much news, so much of it bad, too much to process.
We don’t need debates about whether the internet is a good or a bad thing. The internet is not going away; it is part of our reality, for better or worse (and much is better). What we need is reflection, discussion, and developing thought on living well in the digital realm. And we need strategies to keep our souls safe in an environment as risky as any on the planet. Here are three:
1. Set boundaries
It is very easy to fall into compulsive, addictive habits with your online behaviour. This is a pretty constant struggle for me, which is why I have some disciplines in place. I don’t take my phone with me when I go up to bed. I fast from the internet every Sunday. I don’t allow myself on Facebook before nine in the morning (I’m ashamed to confess my Facebook use had led to my girls being regularly late for school). Most parents put some kind of restriction on their children’s screen time. Have you got any limits on yours? If this seems an uncomfortably challenging idea, the Apostle Paul might help put things into perspective: ‘Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever’ (1 Corinthians 9: 25).
2. Get help
Everybody has different vulnerabilities online. You might find porn a problem, or gambling, or shopping. Or maybe you get consumed by envy as you flick through Instagram, or go online for a moment and come up for air to find three hours have been frittered away, or stalk your ex-boyfriend fantasising about getting him back. Jesus said that it was better to cut off a hand or pluck out an eye than leave it there causing sin (Matthew 5:29-30). If you are serious about holiness, flee temptation. And if amputation seems extreme, you could always look into getting an app to help you out. Offtime, Freedom, Anti-Social or Breakfreeare some among the many great tools available for combating internet addictions.
3. Choose your influences
The author Sarah Bessy wrote a blog post about a phrase her family uses: ‘Guard your gates.’ The meaning has evolved, and as she explains, ‘Guard your gates now means that we get to decide who influences us – how we think, how we feel, what we do.’ We need to be aware of toxic influences online and avoid them. Facebook lets you stop people’s posts appearing on your time line. You can unfollow and block Twitter accounts. You can decide not to click the link, not to get sucked into the rage, not to dwell on the salacious detail, not to linger, hitting refresh, inhaling every poisonous particle.
Many of the ways we can protect and nurture our souls online are the same ways we use offline. We need to live alert to the presence of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit, mentored by and modelling our character on Jesus. We need to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves, courageous and careful and bold. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen by accident and we don’t leave our souls behind when we log on.