Facing the Disorientation of Digital Overwhelm at a Time of Social Distancing

Facing the Disorientation of Digital Overwhelm at a Time of Social Distancing

Anyone feeling slightly disorientated?

For the vast majority of us, this has been a week like no other. To be honest, by most accounts we’re only just getting started. The next few months will look very different. It’s going to be a year like no other.

We’re facing up to situations previously unknown to the majority of the UK population: panic buying and emptying shelves; extra tensions on our health services; schools, social places and many businesses closed.

And of course, increasingly there’s the threat of the virus itself. Exposing our frailty and threatening and taking life, all the while invisible to the naked eye.

Fear is a completely understandable reaction.

And yet for all that, I’m finding that there’s another source for the disorientation that I’m feeling.

It’s the disorientation of digital overwhelm.

Digital Detox

Only last week I was leading a seminar with trainee church leaders on ministry in an age of social media. I had surveyed over 130 church leaders who used Twitter, and strikingly 85% said they either had ‘no clear boundaries/limits on their social media use’, or only ‘rough limits’.

As a result I talked with the group about practicing a ‘tech rule of life’. In other words, intentionally deciding how much we will let social media play into our days. We talked about having set times where we put our phones elsewhere, having a ‘digital sabbath’, and seeking to be ‘fully present where we are’.

But that was all in ‘normal life’. Peace-time, if you like.

Now we face a reality where increasingly the majority of our contact with other people will be through social media – whether it be two-way multiple-screen video calls, watching live broadcasts, or consuming a barrage of information and entertainment.

Zoom video meetings are popping up left, right and centre; the latest daily crisis measures are beamed straight to our devices from Downing Street; maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never had so many active WhatsApp chats…

And not only am I tuning into a number of Facebook live broadcasts each day, I’ve even given it a go myself!

And you know what? It’s disorientating.

Counting Our Blessings

Of course, technology can be a real gift.

Families and individuals confined to homes have the opportunity for content and community. We have unprecedented access to information and data. Many of us will be able to communicate regularly with loved ones using technology that was the stuff of science fiction just a few decades ago.

And the online response to the events of the past few days in particular has been an incredible flood of resources, opportunities, and connectivity: social networking groups to offer and coordinate support; teachers offering subject-specific advice, ideas and even live tutoring; authors and artists reading or performing their works ‘live’ to fill our hours.

It’s a spectacular display of the creativity, variety and ability of the human race.

Facing Overwhelm

But what I’m particularly noticing is my response to it all.

I’ve noticed a temptation within myself: I don’t want to miss out. I want to stay connected. I want to be aware. I want to respond, engage, help.

Call it FOMO if you want, but it’s easy to feel that with all these opportunities going on, I need to make the most of them.

With all these resources available, I need to stay up-to-date.

With all this potential for staying in touch and finding out how people are doing, I need to be on it like a car bonnet. Whether that’s for myself, for my kids, or for my church.

So how will we cope?

Intentionality Amidst Hyper-connectivity

It strikes me that as we get used to a season of social distancing and self-isolation, each of us will need to radically consider how we approach social media and our relationship with ‘online’.

Whether you call it being self-aware, or self-care, or practicing rest, this is a new landscape for most of us.

In John Mark Comer’s book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, he notes the ‘busyness cycle’, shown in the image. The theory is that as Christians our default will be to assimilate to our culture’s trend of busyness. As a result, God becomes more marginalised in our lives as we neglect our own ‘interior life’. Our own walk with God takes a back seat and in turn that makes us more vulnerable to adopting the culture’s assumptions about how to live.

In a sense, this is a call to intentionality. To consider how our daily rhythms might resist the endless stream of information and include ‘gospel hooks’ that snag at our lives and re-orientate us to Jesus and his grace.

The Gift of Discernment

Amidst this feeling of being overwhelmed, last night my wife & I reached for Doug McKelvey’s Every Moment Holy. If you’ve not come across it, it’s real treasure trove of a book, in which McKelvey offers a collection of written prayers for ‘everyday moments’. There’s a prayer for changing nappies, and celebrating a birthday, or facing loss. The idea is that these prayers bring the gospel to bear on the realities of life.

However, one of them is particularly appropriate for this season, ‘A Liturgy for Those Flooded by Too Much Information’.

The prayer begins like this:

‘In a world so wired and interconnected, our anxious hearts are pummelled by an endless barrage of troubling news. We are daily aware of more grief, O Lord, than we can rightly consider.’

After focusing our hearts on the wonderful truth that Jesus carried the ‘full weight of the suffering of a broken world when [he] hung upon the cross’, McKelvey ends the prayer with this request:

‘Give us discernment to know when to pray, when to speak out, when to act, and when to simply shut off our screens and our devices and to sit quietly in your presence, casting the burden of this world upon the strong shoulders of the one who alone is able to bear them up. Amen.’

My hope is that this is the start of a conversation, perhaps the first post in a series. But more than that, my hope is that as the weeks go by we re-discover ways to live out our days that aren’t driven by clicking refresh on our newsfeeds, but instead find true refreshment with our Creator.

What do you think? Can you identify with the disorientation of digital overwhelm? How can we intentionally ‘take hold’ of our days?