Get Off Social Media This Lent

Life goes on with or without social media. It might be time to go on without it, at least for a season.

‘Ash Wednesday and Social Media’
‘Ash Wednesday and Social Media’ (photo: Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko / Thoom / Shutterstock)

I met my wife volunteering for a Catholic summer camp. Each week we corralled high schoolers through the wilds of Pennsylvania, leading them in hikes, climbing, padding, and all other manner of adventure. Even with the best safety protocols out there, these activities have a real thrill inherent in them. And yet, we found that normally it wasn’t such potential danger that made the teenagers nervous for the week. 

It was being without their cell phones. 

And if we were honest, most of us counselors felt similarly; there was something about being without our screens that was more terrifying than even raging rapids, dizzying heights, and wild animals. 

The initial nerves invariably subsided. By the end of the week, everyone felt just the opposite — there was a dread, almost disgust, at having to pick up the phone again to schedule a ride home. We not only didn’t miss our phones. The first day back, we missed not having them. 

Many campers left with big plans to use fewer screens (even though that wasn’t the focus of the camp). But subsequent youth groups and retreats with them proved that these plans quickly failed. And I unfortunately know why; those weeks in the wilderness gave me similar plans for my phone, which within days proved to be impossible to sustain in the modern world. 

But if indefinite primitive living was impossible, I couldn’t deny that a brief technology detox was both possible and helpful. And yet I found myself resisting even that. I would start moving towards deleting a certain app or getting off social media, or some other temporary and moderate decrease in my screen consumption. Then anxiety would bubble up, staying my hand. How can I go without something that’s such a big part of my life? Something I’ve poured so much time and energy into? And even if I could internally, how could I live in a world that turns according to feeds — whether I join in or not?

I knew it was perfectly possible. I had done it before. And still, social media appeared too big to remove.

It is a hallmark of our digital technologies to pose as giants. Whether we celebrate or detest their existence, we don’t question their existence. They’re as big and permanent as anything, both in our society and (thus) in our own lives. But this is often a false picture. 

Take one of the biggest giants of all — the app formerly known as Twitter.

It’s hard for those younger than us grey-bearded millennials to remember, but Twitter is a fairly new thing. Founded in 2006, it didn’t really take off for a year or two afterward. But it grew fast and became huge. It became an essential part of public infrastructure, governmental and corporate communication, politics, religion, economics, war and peace. It controlled people’s livelihoods and social standings. It turned men into gods, and destroyed them just as quickly. It was unassailable, bringing down even the Almighty President of the United States (long live His Orangeness). 

But now Twitter is widely reported to be dead. As a brand, in fact, it is, becoming “X” out of the blue. Elon Musk’s often daft decisions (and some helpful scheming of corporations to pull advertising) and the giant has fallen — and so fast and easily that I can’t help but think it wasn’t a giant after all. 

So it goes for X, but it could be the same for any given Y or Z. Social media rears itself as a giant. But it’s as impermanent as the electric pulses that create it, and that uncreate it.

Life goes on with or without social media. It might be time to go on without it, at least for a season. 

Many Catholics cut back during Lent, which is the proper liturgical time for deprivations. Food was traditionally the primary Lenten sacrifice; and many Catholics still give up treats like candy, carbs, or alcohol. This is still well and good; but for us modern screen gluttons, digital fasting is even more appropriate. 

We’re preparing for the Paschal Mystery. As Jesus makes ready for this hour of suffering, he gathers his loved ones around him to say goodbye. In the tender Last Supper Discourse, he comforts his disciples with words of their eventual reunion. He will prepare a place for them, “so that where I am, there also will you be” (John 14:3). Later, he counsels them to “remain in me, and I in you” (John 15:4). And when at last his agony begins, he begs his friends: “stay here and keep watch with me” (Matthew 26:38).

Jesus asks his disciples for their presence. Our 40 days of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting aren’t some program we follow to build our spiritual muscles. They’re first and foremost an imitation of our Savior, and a way to draw close to him. We’re meant to give our attention to God in prayer; to our need for growth in fasting; and to the plight of the poor in almsgiving. And it’s that attention that social media most threatens. It substitutes an artificial digital façade — and a very addicting one at that — for the human and spiritual realities surrounding us this season.

Now for the safety of disgruntled teens and marketing reps everywhere, I’m not suggesting we take a hammer to our phones just yet. Our society is inexorably tied to digital technologies generally speaking, even if we’re not bound to any particular one. And social media does some good for at least some people, at least some of the time. (Be sure to like and share this article!) Careless zeal risks destroying the good along with the bad. 

But I am suggesting seriously cutting back. There’s a reason tech billionaires don’t let their own kids use the products they feed to your children every day — there’s poison in the algorithms, and we need the occasional detox. We must sometimes escape the endless stream of unreality and feel again the world around us, unmediated by corporate influencers.

Of course, exactly how much and how long to cut back is a matter for each to discern for themselves. But you should discern. 

Maybe you need to cut back just a little bit. Or maybe you have a healthy relationship with the digital world already and don’t need to change any habits. 

Or maybe you do need to smash your phone with a hammer — at least until Easter. If so, you wouldn’t be alone.