I am defensive of social media. Yes, it's easy to make fun of when you're just not into it. And it's also easy to criticize when you've been negatively affected by it. But I still believe that it's going to be more and more like air – an unavoidable and ubiquitous part of the atmosphere in which we live life.
That being said, social media can destroy your life. Quickly. Consider the recent story of a PR executive who, on her way to Africa, tweeted something with rather racist implications. She lost her job and six-figure salary and probably won't find employment again soon in the industry she's built her career in. Or the many thousands of couples whose divorce proceedings include details of an affair that started with flirting over Facebook.
Social media will destroy your life. Or perhaps more accurately, social media will allow you to destroy your own life quickly and painfully. How?
Social media allows you to be the center of your own universe. If you're not careful, you'll actually begin to believe that the world revolves around you – that people are just waiting with baited breath for your next status update. There's a reason why "selfie" was the big word of 2013. This is not at all to say that letting your personality shine through your social networks is all bad. But if you struggle with egotism or self-centeredness to begin with, social media can provide the stage for excess.
Social media provides a dangerous (and false) sense of anonymity. Everything is public. Privacy is an illusion. Facebook is a stalker's dream. These are warnings I issue over and over to people who believe they are being anonymous online, and I speak as one who is an open book online. But I'm careful. While transparency is certainly a value of our current culture, and it's well warranted, too much transparency can get you into serious trouble.
Social media allows us to vent our feelings without a filter. I cringe whenever a Christian leader says anything controversial online. I know what's coming. A barrage of criticism from people who may indeed be right in their assessment, but wrong in their approach. The disunity of the church has never been on display more than in our current age when everyone is a publisher.
The problem is, because we speak from behind the thin veil of a screen, we disconnect a person's words from the context of their life. We pounce without understanding the heart, the motives, or the real life story of the one whom we are castigating. And when everyone voices an opinion about everything that is major news, the world sometimes sees the worst side of who we are. It is by our oneness that the world will know we are followers of Jesus, but social media can fuel division and put it on display.
Social media can distract us from what matters even more. What matters more than our presence in the digital space? Our physical, mental, and emotional presence with those whom we love. Social media will direct our attention to conversations happening elsewhere and distract us from the conversations happening right around us. How many times do we see tables full of family members, each in their own world with a smartphone? And how often do we "just check Facebook for a second" while our kids are playing a dozen feet from us? Sometimes we just need to check in instead of "checking in."
The problem isn't really social media. It's our humanness. But social media, with all of its power for good, can provide a pretty great outlet for some of our worst human habits.
Brandon Cox became a pastor at age nineteen and has served in that role in small churches, as well at Saddleback Church, one of America's largest and most influential churches. He's now planting Grace Hills Church in northwest Arkansas. Brandon also serves as editor, mentor, and community facilitator for Pastors.com and Rick Warren's Pastor's Toolbox, one of the world's largest online communities of church leaders. He's an avid, top 100 blogger (according to Kent Shaffer's semiannual list) and lives in Bentonville, Arkansas with his wife, Angie, and their three awesome kids. His book "Rewired" releases in February.