Commentary: What I learned on my Mormon social media fast

| Courtesy Jana Riess

I’m back.

You may not have noticed I was missing, but I certainly noticed you were missing: all my friends on social media. I gave you up over the Christmas break.

It wasn’t totally my choice; I was trying to be an obedient Mormon. (I mean, an obedient member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sigh.) At the October General Conference, church President Russell Nelson asked all the women of the church to give up social media for 10 days.

I have a job — a couple of them, actually — so it was not possible for me to do what some of the hyper-orthodox women around me did immediately, which was to sign off their Facebook accounts. I use social media as part of my work, as well as for fun and connection, so I waited until the holidays, when I was planning a rest from my regular work anyway.

Part of me was looking forward to it. I’ve taken retreats from social media before and found them helpful, and I particularly appreciated the openness with which Nelson framed the challenge — the “what do you notice?” aspect of the invitation:

“I invite you to participate in a 10-day fast from social media and from any other media that bring negative and impure thoughts to your mind. Pray to know which influences to remove during your fast. The effect of your 10-day fast may surprise you. What do you notice after taking a break from perspectives of the world that have been wounding your spirit? Is there a change in where you now want to spend your time and energy? Have any of your priorities shifted—even just a little? I urge you to record and follow through with each impression.”

(Keith Johnson | Special to The Tribune) President Russell M. Nelson speaks during the concluding session of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 7, 2018, in Salt Lake City.

In other church talks about social media, leaders have emphasized the need to remove ourselves from media that inspire us to envy other people, or be discontented with our own lives — witness the Pinterest-driven craziness that we have to have that particular paint color or life is just not worth living.

Pinterest envy is frankly not my issue, so that kind of rationale has never been terribly compelling for me. So I’m grateful that Nelson didn’t trot out that rather hackneyed reason, though I’m sure it’s helpful for other people.

What he promised about being surprised did turn out to be true in my case: I was surprised by two things over the past 10 days of virtual silence.

First, I hadn’t realized how much I needed a respite from moral outrage. Over the years, social media has morphed for me into one of the primary ways I consume the news. I’ll see a link to a breaking news story on Twitter and click on it, or read a Facebook friend’s repost of a New York Times editorial about the latest insanity from the Trump administration.

How many times a day do I do this? Before my fast, I would have told you that I probably encountered the news this way three or four times a day. Now I realize it is much, much more often — and that it is far more toxic to my mental and emotional health than I would have admitted to myself. We’re living in an abnormal administration that thrives on chaos and discord. What I need to figure out now is how much I contribute to that by repeatedly clicking on the latest scandal or crime.

Where, I now wonder, is the line between being an informed citizen — which is more important now than ever — and being a person who perpetuates anger 24/7? How can I stay vigilant without letting the news, as Nelson put it, wound my spirit?

So that’s the first lesson of my social media fast. The second is that I need and love social media, because I need and love my friends. This was especially true during this holiday season, when so, so many things broke or went wrong. Someday I’m sure my family will look back on the last week and a half and laugh at all of the enduring stories the holidays provided us — things like broken teeth (not once but twice!) that required emergency dentistry when every dentist in Ohio was out of the office, or broken cars (not one but two!) that stymied even my unflappable Mr.-Fix-It husband, or planned home renovations that were DOA because the company sent the wrong parts and couldn’t remedy it until the new year.

Nearly every day, I recorded in my journal what broke or went south that particular day. Suffice it to say it was not my favorite holiday season. And it wasn’t the kind that you can point to and say, “Oh, that Christmas was awful because my loved one was dying” or something equally compassion-worthy and understandable. It just sucked us all dry, this endless series of first-world problems that, when taken alone, might have been funny. But coming in a regular litany, they ground us down a little more each day.

And it was made worse and more isolating by the absence of social media. I missed seeing the adorable Christmas morning pics of my friends’ children opening their presents, and knowing how they were spending their New Year’s Eves. I missed the rough stuff, too, like hearing from friends who’ve lost parents this year about how they were coping in this first holiday.

I just missed their voices, the love and the pain, the ups and the downs. All of it.

I found that I need my people. And that was a lovely realization worth fasting for.