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Technology and Education (6) –Friendships and Familial Relationships

Sahar Dahi is a twenty-two year old Tic Tocker that gives relationship advice to millions of her followers. Specifically, she gives advice as to when someone should be completely cut out of another’s life. When interviewed by The Atlantic about her advice she was asked if she practices what she preaches. She claims that she has cut out a wild number of toxic people from her life. When pressed on how many exactly in the past year, she responded, “Like, just doing a quick count? Oh my God, I’d say, like, 10.” Take that in for a second—she has completely erased ten people from her life within the past year. That means she is cutting out a person, on average, about once a month. And this is someone that millions of people look to for relational advice.

I think there are a few reasons for the popularity to this approach to relationships.

First, it is easy and our flesh likes easy things! A traditional view of relationships holds that friendship and kinship come with strict demands and that a good friend will honor these demands no matter the danger or cost—think of Pippen, Merry, and Sam’s relationships to Frodo. This approach is hard and it is no surprise that people want to lessen these demands. But even advice earlier on in the self-help movement was more demanding, stressing the need to build and maintain relationships and of opening up and connecting with others. Simply cutting someone out of one’s life—making no effort to repair the relationship and giving no explanation to its end is very, very easy.

Second, we are a consumeristic culture. If someone does a bad job repairing our car we don’t go back to him or her; if a grocery store is continually out of goods or consistently has bad produce we shop elsewhere. This is the beauty of a free market: we need not settle for poor service or faulty products; when we fail to receive goods and services commensurate with what we pay we can go elsewhere. But people aren’t products. When we treat a struggling friend like a bruised banana and discard him because he no longer meets our immediately perceived needs or when we treat a spouse like a personal trainer and discard her in favor of a new one because we found someone that we work with better, we fail to remember that these people bear God’s image and as image bearers they have a dignity that far exceeds that of any product. Yes we should not continually pay for faulty goods and services, but we sin greatly against others and greatly against our Creator whose image they bear when we treat people like consumable and disposable products.  

Third, we have defined the good life not in terms of faith or virtue or even service to one’s community and the honor that this accords—we have defined the good life as the psychologically healthy one. Relationships are messy and can make one feel offended, unsafe, triggered, hurt, etc. While there are legitimately abusive relationships that one should flee from, I know of no relationship in our fallen world with sinful individuals that will not be dangerous and hurtful to some degree. All sin is abusive and every human relationship involves sin! In our desire to protect our psychological health there is an undo quickness to write people off, cut them out, and ghost them. But instead of becoming stronger, in cutting people out of our lives we often sin against them and make ourselves weaker by our unwillingness to face difficulties we should face.

And this is where social media comes in. Most of us have a pseudo-scientific understanding of psychological health that encourages us to cut people out of our lives in order to protect our well-being and this understanding all too often confirms our flesh’s desire to avoid doing hard things. But none of this changes the fact that we are made for relationships, so if we continually cut people off we will soon find ourselves alone and suffer the natural consequences of our folly. And yet people continually cut others out of their life without feeling alone because social media platforms, in various ways and to various degrees, mitigate the effects of a continual erasing of others. The way that many of us utilize social media gives us the illusion of friendship—that we are in someway meaningfully connected with others—or even if we aren’t, that we could be. From this it follows that we don’t need to stay in touch with that ‘toxic’ friend because there are a lot of like-minded people out there that can easily replace him or her. And among these potential replacements, given our finely tuned algorithms, we can always find someone that ‘speaks our language’, that does not say the hard thing to us that we need to hear, but instead validates what we already feel. This validation allows us to feel good about completely erasing family and friends from our lives even thought this is something that most people in most times would have considered highly immoral; moreover, these virtual connections simultaneously keep us from the sense of loneliness and alienation that we would otherwise experience after continually cutting out family and friends from our lives.

In thinking through these dynamics I think it is important that we remember that each and every social media platform is a commercial enterprise. It is designed to make money, not to help you become happy, let alone holy. These programs are designed to maximize your time on them—every minute you are talking with a friend in a park, or gardening in your backyard with your children, or walking with your spouse in the woods—is a minute you are not scrolling through your feed or watching a video. In other words, there is a huge financial incentive to encourage you to move away from real friendships and embrace technologies that give you the illusion of friendship.

Aristotle, among many other ancient writers, considered friendship the very greatest good that life on earth offers. Please don’t hear me condoning abusive relationships—they exist and there are times when the moral thing to do is to flee from them. Please don’t hear me universally condemning social media—in various ways and to various degrees they have good uses and when used in the right way they can help us maintain and promote real friendships. But we need to be on guard because we have a false understanding of psychological flourishing that encourages us to break with family and friends that is coupled with a technology that seemingly allows us to do this without cost. These things, taken together, can cause us to be too quick to walk away from life-giving, virtue encouraging, joyful friendships.