By Alexis Barnhart

Thriving in the Matrix: A Call to Social Media Breaks

Sometimes it feels like we live in the Matrix. These days, what’s real or simulated blurs into confusion. We’re Zoom Zombies submerged in social media, navigating the news as we confront new constrictions.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for technology. I can use it to FaceTime my parents and see our dog licking the phone. We can meet new students and welcome them to a campus where they’ll never step foot this fall. Social media is a tool that can help us share resources, find opportunities to learn, and grow in awareness of social injustices. It can help us feel less isolated, ice the wounds of loneliness, and keep community bonds when gathering face-to-face is restricted or prohibited.

But I also must confront our phones’ dark edges, which seem more visible this school year. College students are moving back onto campuses or starting their semesters online. InterVarsity student leaders and campus ministers are seeking creative ways to welcome new students when throwing events, casual coffee dates, and root beer float giveaways aren’t feasible.

Enter Instagram, a great social media platform to connect, share our lives, and spread the word about injustices. It’s also a way to meet new students, who are turning to Instagram to find friendship in our new normal.

So we campus ministers and student leaders spend hours scrolling through profiles, sending welcome messages, crafting beautiful, thought-provoking posts. We take our love of building Christ-centered community and intentional hospitality and pour ourselves into our screens. The funny thing about Instagram scrolling, though, is that no time seems to pass until, suddenly, the day disappears. I look up, and my head is pounding. A strange dryness coats my throat.

Creating Thin Places

If I’m honest, and I suspect if you were, too, time on Instagram never quite feels like time spent in thin places—those moments when the divine kisses earth, and something in us embraces wonder. The contemporary poet, Sharlande Sledge, describes the Irish-coined term this way:

“Thin places” the Celts call this space,

Both seen and unseen,

Where the door between the world

And the next is cracked open for a moment

And the light is not all on the other side.

God shaped space. Holy.

Thin places can surprise us. In my basement one-room apartment, the newest member of my family, a 13-year-old tabby cat, rubs her face against mine on an otherwise lonely day. Her presence is what I needed, a reminder of heavenly comfort. Suddenly, my home’s a thin place. The holy can embrace the ordinary in moments we otherwise would’ve chalked up to the mundane. The problem, though, is we too often miss these moments when our energy is sucked from us. Our minds are distracted, rambling through the unknowns, the picture envy of our friends’ lives, the worry, the frustration, and all that threatens to overwhelm us as we scroll, post, watch, click.

Perhaps, boundaries are in order. Like a fence keeping a dog from running into the street, boundaries keep us safe. In our fight to find the sun poking through the smog of these days, we must look up long enough to see the rays break through. We ought to put fences around the thing that keeps our eyes looking down and missing out. Here are three suggestions:

1. No Phone Zones

I bet one of the places where we mindlessly scroll the most is our beds. Does this sound familiar to anyone else: It was a long day. Chem class was no breeze, reading 100 pages of Shakespeare demanded enough mind power for a month, not one afternoon, and tomorrow promises to be no different. Not to mention wearing masks, limited or no social interactions, and the uncertainty of what will go wrong next. It’s no surprise that in the dark of night we go to the glow of our phones. It’s an easy, quick-fix break.

But what if we replaced night scrolls with a dive into self-reflection? Could we make our beds “no phone zones” and keep our journals nearby to jot down the day’s moments of shalom and brokenness instead? We might try out a daily examen, an ancient practice introduced by St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits. After a few breaths to settle into your bones and notice God’s presence, you let your day play in your mind as if it were a movie. Prayerfully, you allow yourself to notice what feelings arise—when did God feel present? When did God feel absent? Then select one moment from the day to mull over in prayer. In this way, we might close our eyes with gratitude and hope.

2. Quiet before Notifications

What’s the first thing that fills your mind in the morning? There was a time in my life when my first action of the day was to look at my notifications, which took me to emails, Instagram likes (or lack thereof), and filling my mind with whatever the phone lottery put before me. If the bed became our “no phone zone,” suddenly the first moments of morning could be ones of quiet. We might even grab our Bible before our phone (what a crazy idea)!

Before you write this off, let me address the most cited justification to not try: “My phone is my alarm.” This might sound “dinosaur-agey,” but there is an easy, inexpensive, great solution: an alarm clock. You can even get a nifty one that lights up in the color of your choice for just $10 on Amazon!

3. Sabbath Breaks 

Morning and evening breaks from social media are great but perhaps not enough. Genesis 2:2 reminds us that God “rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.” And so we, too, are invited to rest and enjoy creation one day a week. If social media is overtaking us with anxiety, self-deprecation, and mindlessness, is that not a type of work? Should we not rest from the craze of the online world too? A full day to say, “No, that notification can wait.” Perhaps we may find our phones are not a necessary crutch but instead a tool to be stewarded and put in its proper place.

Can we bring feeling back to our numbed minds? Yes. But I can’t promise that pins-and-needles won’t come. The truth is, on the way to bringing life back to our weary brains, we probably will be uncomfortable. But isn’t it worth it when the other side holds thin places, and we recognize heaven isn’t light-years away but right here on the ground we stand? When we’ve taken the break that sings healing over our souls, let us then come back to the Matrix, alive and well.

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Alexis Barnhart is an InterVarsity Campus Staff Minister at Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College in eastern Pennsylvania.

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