Off the grid: Why it has happened to me

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It’s been exactly a year since I was on a study break and instead of checking my email or taking another Buzzfeed quiz, I went through my phone and deleted as many apps as possible.

In my first semester at the University of Dallas, the harmful effects of social media and smartphones had been brought to the forefront. I wanted to drag myself and as many others out of that twittering, filtered cave as possible.

One of UD’s distinctive strengths is that it does not have a policy regarding student access to electronics or the internet outside of the classroom. As adults, we have the capacity to discern proper stewardship of technology, and the freedom to act on this discernment. Nobody is going to rip your phone from your hand in the Cap Bar line, nor will a professor assign that you delete Twitter.

Similarly, I have neither the power nor the desire to command that you delete social media. But personally, I have been inspired by the faculty and students who embrace a lifestyle as free as possible from the virtual world. In following their example, my life and mental outlook have truly changed. I invite you to consider the following arguments for why social media hinders human flourishing.

Social media is a drug that numbs emotion. How many times have we received bad news or been in an uncomfortable situation and our instinct is to fumble into our back pocket and scroll until our emotions are abated? Although distraction from suffering can sometimes be prudent, we cannot forget that our emotions are a gift.

Of course, emotions must be properly ordered and subservient to the will. But we cannot learn how to experience and order our emotions for good if we are constantly repressing and distracting ourselves through Twitter jokes and TikToks.

Social media presents an artificial, unbodied experience of the human person. We have all heard that a person’s Instagram feed is only a tiny portion of their life. But is it their life at all?

Social media allows a person to craft their own universe, choosing whose voice is heard in his feed, who gets to see updates on his life and how he wants to project his image to followers. On one hand, this remains faithful to human experience in the physical world. We have the freedom to choose our friends, activities and the image we present of ourselves through speech, dress, and priorities.

But one of the greatest joys of friendship is the ability to see beneath the surface image that a person presents, and to know the grief and joy that shapes their experience of the world. Your tears can trickle onto a friend’s shoulder; their laughter can echo throughout a building. In social media, there is no way to see the hidden desire in a selfie. There is no person to embrace.

Social media malforms a healthy understanding of friendship. I stayed on social media for as long as I did because I wanted to remain in touch with friends from across the country and with peers who had graduated. But an important, albeit difficult, aspect of maturity is learning that friendships change. 

If Aristotle is correct that we will only have, at the most, two or three complete friendships in our lifetime, then the vast majority of people are only placed in our lives for a season. This should be a cause for awe, not sorrow; it allows for deeper attentiveness to the person directly in front of us and amazement that even brief friendships can leave lasting goodness in the soul.

But social media promotes a frenzy to remain in relation with as many people as possible. It causes us to cling to the past and substitute the gritty work of virtuous friendship for a purely virtual relationship. 

If you really want to stay in touch with another person, you can get their number and text them from time to time for a life update. Or, you can perform the radical, outdated act of verbal communication and call them on the phone.

Friendship, the highest temporal good, is an art forged in the school of love. We must reclaim it from the virtual world that dilutes friendship into nothing more than posts, likes, and DMs. 

Social media takes too much time. As college students, almost every minute of our day is accounted for. How much extra time would you have for authentic leisure, such as reading, exercise, or intentional time with friends, if a portion of your day was not spent scrolling through your feed?

In the closing pages of “The Lord of the Rings,” the reader is reminded, “You have so much to enjoy, and to be, and to do.” You only have a matter of decades to receive the gift of this beautiful world and make a total gift of yourself. Why would you spend your short life buried in an alternate virtual world? 

Following his surprising conversion to Catholicism, Evelyn Waugh wrote an essay titled “Converted to Rome: Why it has happened to me.” Although my changed stance on social media is significantly less important than a religious conversion, I hope that this piece explains why the rejection of social media has happened to me. 

Although my struggle with my phone is far from over, my hope is that you will join me and other students as we seek deeper fulfillment through silencing the distraction and chaos that social media breeds. A new organization called The Hephaistos Society is currently applying for official status on campus. We invite you to join us in our mission of pursuing virtue in a virtual world.

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