29 November 2021

Intermittent Social Media Fasting

I'm tired of the degradation of language! This may be a great idea, but it's NOT 'fasting'! Fasting is to abstain from food, to eat sparingly, or abstain from some foods.

From Crisis

By Matt Kappadakunnel

The trend of intermittent fasting has been embraced in Christian and secular groups. Some people utilize a 9 a.m.-5 p.m. eating regimen, thereby fasting for 16 consecutive hours. Others, on occasion, fast for a full 24 hours once a week.

Fasting in and of itself offers more than dietary benefits. The Desert Fathers practiced fasting not to attain beach bodies but to grow in union with Christ through mortification and self-denial. Fasting helps us better understand the words of Jesus in response to the first temptation from Satan: “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).

Thus, fasting aids us in growing in dependence on God and in mindfully giving Christ centrality in our life.

But fasting is not limited to food. Moderation teaches us to have less dependence on created things so that we can grow in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (caritas) and thereby better imitate and follow Christ.

The stress of the pandemic has led many to medicate by drinking more heavily, eating more “comfort” food, binge-watching shows on streaming services and—last but not least—staying glued to social media.

Let me be clear: there are certain positive ends to social media. We have enjoyed becoming connected to like-minded people and growing our network across the globe. Additionally, we often become informed of breaking news in the Church and in the world through our online network. In fact, I discovered Crisis Magazine through social media, and I am sure I am not the only one to do so.

However, social media can often and subtly overtake our time and energy. We see a headline related to the Church or to politics and it elicits a knee-jerk reaction. We then post angrily, get angry responses, and the snowball effect of anger-posting continues. This appears to be a page out of a modern-day adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

I propose intermittent social media fasting as a way to promote a joyful, Christ-centered, peaceful disposition that has the added benefit of reducing our blood pressure and unnecessary stress.

A recent Crisis cartoon titled “Salesman of the Month” inspired me with this article. The smartphone has proven to be a productive instrument in the enemy’s plot to take our eyes off of Jesus.

In an unexpected manner, I inadvertently began practicing social media fasting when, during the summer, my toddler found my cell phone and threw it into our pool. I jumped in after the phone, but as expected it was too late. No tricks such as bags of rice could salvage the phone’s operating system.

As you can imagine, I was upset. But over the course of a month before obtaining a new phone, I ended up checking social media just a few times a day. The biggest surprise was that whether I spent ten minutes or ten hours on social media, I really didn’t miss much.

In addition, by spending hours away from social media, I noticed I felt less weighed down by what was the latest controversy on Catholic Twitter, and I was more present to my work, my family members, and most importantly, God’s presence in my daily life. Feeling light and more removed from social media chatter was a priceless experience.

In retrospect, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, our Lord was teaching me something important by allowing my child to throw my phone into the pool in textbook toddler fashion. Jesus was saying to me, “Pay less attention to this device and more attention to your wife, your children, and Me.”

Message received.

I admire people who have been able to get rid of certain social media accounts. Austin Ruse shared how he felt called to sacrifice his “Blue Check” on Twitter to leave behind the hours it usurped and the nastiness that is often encountered. I’m not there yet (though I wish I were), but I applaud his decision.

Mr. Ruse’s bold move to leave Twitter is consistent with his exhortation on the danger of distraction in his book Under Siege: No Finer Time to Be a Faithful Catholic.

Ruse observes that smartphones and social media take “us away from what is happening in the world and stifle[ ] our proper reaction…We live in the most distracted era the world has ever known…And it has profoundly dangerous consequences not just to us and to our family life but to society as a whole” (132–133).

Additionally, Ruse notes that distraction prevents people from participating “in one of the most glorious times in the history of the world to be a faithful Catholic” (133). I strongly agree with this position. As the saying goes, “Laziness is the workshop of the devil,” and it is exhibited in one of the seven deadly sins—sloth. Laziness deters Catholics from the heroic work of growing in and defending the faith, thereby forgoing halos and crosses (135).

In addition to the danger of falling prey to the devil’s workshop, mindfully limiting social media usage has a profound effect on our children.

Over the past ten years, I have seen the future of our world becoming sedated by tablets and devices. Even children as young as kindergarten have school tablets that they apparently learn the ABCs on. The overdependence on technology instilled at such a young age is a very scary prospect.

Three months into the pandemic, I recall the neighborhood children would often ride bikes and congregate. However, a school year on Zoom resulted in these normally energetic children resigning to stay home during the daytime to play videogames and watch YouTube videos. They all have a glazed look over their faces, reminiscent of a sci-fi or horror movie.

But I cannot solely place the blame on schools. Look at us! Our children are watching us: they see us on our phones constantly, and they notice how we are scrolling while they are playing or eating.

As infants, both of my sons became aware that the smartphone was something of importance. When the phone fell out of my lap or pocket, they would often crawl and try to obtain it. While my wife and I try to limit our phone usage around our children, the children are far more aware than we think they are, and they pick up on seemingly everything we place our attention on.

Moreover, tech leaders are very aware of the harmful effects of social media on children. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, expressed great concern over the amount of access children have to social media. Microsoft founder Bill Gates placed limits on his children’s screen time and even went so far as to ban phones at the table and prohibit his children from obtaining phones until they turned 14. Snap Inc.’s cofounder and CEO, Evan Spiegel, limits his nine-year-old daughter’s screen time to 1.5 hours per week. Google CEO Sundar Pichai doesn’t even allow his middle-school son to own a cell phone.

The message from these tech leaders is very clear: they don’t allow their children to get high on their own supply.

If those far better versed in technology are placing strong phone and social media limits on their children, shouldn’t we be doing the same?

But our limits are not credible if we don’t practice social media discipline. This is where intermittent social media fasting can not only increase our own peace and health, but promote these important elements in our own home.

As with any discipline, I encourage you to take this proposal to prayer:
  1. Express to God your desire for the grace to be open to hear Him and to trust that what He wants for us is truly what is best for us.
  2. Next, ask God to reveal to you how, specifically, social media is impacting your relationship with Him.
  3. Seek God’s guidance on how He is calling you to limit social media usage. Note that our Father is never drastic with us. Rather, He leads us to choose what He knows we can handle with His grace.
  4. Take this social media plan and implement it, trusting that the Trinity is with you and is giving you the grace to commit to this plan. Additionally, know that at times you might falter, but that is an opportunity to turn to God and ask for the grace to continue.

For some people, it might be beneficial to cease social media usage after a certain hour in the evening and not return until sometime the next morning. For others, perhaps the workday is a great time to close the apps and potentially limit usage to a brief period during lunch or a couple daytime breaks. But only God knows what is best for our particular circumstance.

The trickier nuance is for those who utilize social media as part of their job. A wise confessor or spiritual director can aid with this situation. Ultimately, God will not lead one in this predicament to a drastic resolution, but rather one that balances work while limiting personal online usage.

Lastly, as we approach the end of the year—and not too long after, the beginning of Lent—we can consider intermittent social media fasting as a New Year’s resolution or an added discipline to grow spiritually and personally. We need not enable the overuse of social media during the pandemic to overtake us years later. Rather, by the grace of God, we can experience freedom from the pandemic of social media toxicity by practicing a God-directed form of intermittent social media fasting.

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