I have been doing online ministry for over ten years, most of that via IRC (Internet Relay Chat), email, blogging, and discussion boards. Last winter I ceased my IRC activities in favor of nurturing offline relationships. More recently, I went against my better judgement and got involved with Facebook (about one year ago) and Twitter (a few months ago). Both have their upsides as well as their downsides. The main reason I did it was because it allowed me to have extended contact with offline friendships and with my family. I will belay discussing the other obvious benefits and failings so that I may point out a paradox of outcomes which I perceive to be at work in homes which allow social networking.
On the upside, social networking encourages reconnection (especially Facebook) and new connections (especially Twitter). These can have wonderful benefits. Catching up with old friends and extended relatives. Maybe even realizing that old high school nemeses have grown up (or helping them to realize you have grown up), giving a chance to set aside old wounds. It can be an easy way to let friends, acquaintances and family know what you are thinking and doing from day-to-day. All good.
But here is the tension. When social networking replaces face-to-face contact within a home, there can develop problems. When children and parents set aside facetime in favor of Facebook time, that is a red flag. When husband and wife replace eyeball-to-eyeball conversations with Facebook bantering or Twitter ranting, then it makes me wonder why social networking has been allowed into the home as a sort of mistress to lure spouses away from each other and into a world of gaming applications and unnecessary online drama? When single adults find social networking to be their primary source of fellowship and friendship, then a major reality check in needed.
It is a paradox. Properly kept in check, social networking has wonderful benefits which I heartily defend. But, if and when it replaces real human interaction face-to-face with family, friends, and neighbors, then I am more than happy to be a stick-in-the-mud, and say, “Hello? Anybody else see a problem here?”
So, how do we discern if social networking has become a problem in our homes? Try logging out for two weeks. All users, young and old. Examine the attitudes and responses. You be the judge. And if you perceive that you simply cannot live without social networking, then maybe it is time to unplug the computer from the wall and focus all the more intently on your family and friendships offline.