Many of us, myself included, make a concerted effort to silence the noise during Lent. Although it’s a good idea to go through each and every day with less media, Lent provides a good opportunity to re-evaluate how much time we’re spending on social media or in front of the TV — time that could be much better spent in prayer and silent reflection. A new study encourages us to continue those efforts. If you like the idea of less stress and more peace in your life, then you might want to scale back your social media use for the long haul.
The study involved nearly 140 participants. Researchers found a lower level of the stress hormone cortisol when those involved who were described as active Facebook users took a five-day break from the social media outlet. The study was conducted by the University of Queensland, Australia, and recently published in the Journal of Social Psychology. The findings also apply to other types of social media, which is good news if you have others in your family (say children or grandchildren) who gravitate toward Instagram or Snapchat. In an interview with Newsweek, the lead researcher said the findings aren’t unique to Facebook.
“Some of my own students constantly check Instagram and Snapchat during my lectures, so I’m guessing that extending our research to other platforms would show similar effects,” Eric Vanman said. The study involved two groups of Facebook users. One group was instructed to stay off Facebook for five days. The other group used Facebook as normal. The researchers collected saliva samples from all 138 participants to measure the changes in their cortisol levels. Vanman says Facebook is a useful social tool but it can also become “taxing.”
“It seems that people take a break because they’re too stressed but return to Facebook whenever they feel unhappy because they have been cut off from their social media friends. It then becomes stressful again after a while, so they take another break and so on.”
One would think that limiting social media eventually would get easier, in particular if we’ve experienced a certain amount of stillness and peace during Lent. But given the heavy presence social media has in our lives, it can be a real challenge as we move past that modern-day Lenten or desert experience. That’s where the discipline, the balance and, most of all, the spiritual or faith component comes into play.
In last year’s message for World Youth Day, Pope Francis warned about the problems of too much social media — good advice for all of us:
“In the social media, we see faces of young people appearing in any number of pictures recounting more or less real events, but we don’t know how much of all this is really “history,” an experience that can be communicated and endowed with purpose and meaning. Television is full of “reality shows” which are not real stories, but only moments passed before a television camera by characters living from day to day, without a greater plan. Don’t let yourselves be led astray by this false image of reality! Be the protagonists of your history; decide your own future.”
— Pope Francis
What’s real is not what we find on our Facebook pages. Yes, there are plenty of good resources shared and discussed on a variety of social media platforms. We would all be much more peaceful, however, if we got real by having more conversations with God and the saints and fewer online discussions. We should remember the words of St. Augustine, that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
This column first appeared on OSV Newsweekly. To read Teresa’s latest OSV columns click here.