Deep water: How to navigate the perils of social media

Social media often comes across as being less about being 'social' and more about the 'me' in media. Even the term 'selfies' reflects this as we capture moments of our lives in front of the camera, whether it's the food on our plates, the family we adore or our holiday snaps.

As we seek to share what's going on in our lives with others, are we are creating a picture of ourselves where people get a sense of who we are without ever really knowing us at all?

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Whatever your views on social media, one thing is clear: it's here to stay. I remember chatting to my friends over MSN messenger after school on a desktop computer. Instant messaging is now commonplace on smartphones such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. It's great that it's so quick and easy to keep in touch with people – yet how intentional are we at conversing with them? Does looking at their Facebook profile and status updates constitute knowing how they're doing? Does liking their photos equate to letting them know that you're thinking of them? And what about those who are not on social media?

There's an ocean of information about people out there, and sometimes we feel we're out of our depth in it – even drowning. As I've considered my own social media channels, I've developed three underwater analogies which can provide a way of thinking about some of the challenges we face.

1. The fish tank

When we spend time flicking through social media, it can feel like looking through a fish tank into the lives of others. We passively watch them do their own thing and there's not really much interaction. People share their lives in full view of a gawking audience and we are like children with our faces pressed up against the glass taking it all in.

Fish tanks also need to be cleaned out or else it becomes pretty unsightly. Unfortunately, so can social media. There are studies which show how social media can negatively affect mental health. This doesn't mean stop using it – although it can be good to have a break. Be aware of how it affects you and be mindful of what you post and how it can affect others; it's a space where words can be misinterpreted and misunderstood.

2. The aquarium

In an aquarium, there is a vast array of species and by walking from tank to tank we can find out about the different attributes that make them unique. In a similar way, clicking on different social media profiles give some idea of who people are, but it's effectively like reading a snapshot of information displayed at each tank. We won't really fully understand what's before us unless we are an expert. Social media presents a glimpse of what the person wants you to know – and it might not correspond to reality.

Then there are the bigger fish and mammals in the bigger tanks. They seem more exciting and often draw a crowd. It's easy to feel that everyone else on social media is enjoying life in the bigger tank, with more exciting updates, more shares and more post likes. Yet, social media can distort what is true. I have heard this quote so many times but it's such an important reminder: don't compare your behind the scenes with everyone else's highlight reel.

3. The ocean

Aquariums are a great experience and well worth a visit from time to time, but if you only ever visit the aquarium, you miss the bigger picture of where this marine life originates. Like the abundance of marine life found in the ocean, there are so many people out there in the world to meet, many places to explore and much to see.

The ocean is full of variety and indescribable beauty, but perhaps it is the fear of the unknown that keeps us in shallow water. Maybe it's a step of faith to get out of the boat, out of our comfort zone and take risks to love the people around us. A listening ear, a hug, an invitation for a meal or a cup of tea – whatever it looks like, we need to connect in person to people.

We can learn so much from others and more about ourselves if we would only embrace the people behind the profiles. We can meet new people, help somebody overcome a sense of isolation by befriending them and share the gospel with a world that needs to know the good news of Jesus Christ. Rather than taking a selfie, put the phone down, close the laptop and turn off the iPad. Stop looking into the tank and look beyond.

Three practical tips

Take a step of faith - Get chatting to people that are different to you. Be bold and confident to speak to those who you encounter in your daily life. Start small with a simple 'hello' to someone if this seems too daunting.

Be aware of the effects of social media – It can feel like waves eroding our self esteem and overwhelming us with information until it feels like we are sinking. You can come off social media (really!) and it's OK to take measures to protect yourself if it is affecting you.

Look to God - We need to be in communication with God daily before we begin our interactions, whether on social media or in person. We need the wisdom of God, not the world. We need his grace for each day. God promises to be our fortress, our strength and our Rock and he will keep us grounded. Hold on to that truth.

Ruth Clemence is a freelance writer and award-winning blogger based in Devon. She can also be found writing at www.ruthclemence.com and on Twitter @ruth_the_writer.

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