Spirituality and Connectivity: From Facebook Fasting to Phantom Phone Vibrations

At ACU this year I'm doing research as a Mobile Research Fellow about the relationship between spirituality and connectivity. A month or so ago ACU put out a press release about some the the data I collected. From the ACU press release:
“More and more studies are coming out every day documenting the cognitive and social impacts of social networking – all the texting, Tweeting, and Facebooking we do during the day," says Beck. "To date, however, no one has taken a close look at the spiritual impact of all this electronic interaction. That’s what my team set out to do.”

Beck, along with two psychology graduate students, Anne Briggs and Mary Tomkins, surveyed 313 undergraduate students at ACU about their social networking habits and how those habits affect their perceived spirituality, their relationship with God, and their faith overall.

The research also surveyed various ways students have attempted to limit or moderate their use of social networking to mitigate its impact on their spiritual lives. For example, 53% of the students in the survey report having undertaken a “Facebook fast,” where they stopped checking or logging onto Facebook for a specified period of time.

“Fasting,” Beck observes, “is the practice of refraining from something pleasurable in which we tend to overindulge. It's an ancient spiritual practice used in Christianity and other faith traditions. It’s interesting to see college students applying this discipline to the modern world of social computing. It seems that more and more people are exploring things like this in order to maintain their spiritual equilibrium in our hyper-connected age.”

Why is unplugging for spiritual purposes on the rise? According to Beck’s survey, 49% of his students agree with the statement that “the time I spend on things like texting, Facebook or Twitter has drawn me away from God."

Beck also assessed a phenomenon researchers have dubbed “phantom phone vibration,” the experience of thinking your iPhone is buzzing in your pocket, only to find out it isn’t.

“Eight-nine percent of our students reported having experienced phantom phone vibrations," says Beck. "Of these, 38% of our students have this experience every day or every week.” According to Beck, the experience suggests we have become hyper-vigilant in monitoring our cell phones.

“Even when we aren’t on our phones, we are still on the edges of awareness paying attention to them,” Beck observes. “This might be one reason we feel our social connectivity is making it more difficult for us to be fully present in the moment.”

For example, according to the ACU survey, 55% of the students reported texting other people while talking with their friends. This might be why 28% of the survey respondents agree that “the time I spend on things like texting, Facebook or Twitter is interfering with me having deep, meaningful relationships with others.”
Some of this is particularly relevant, the fasting from online or mobile connectivity, given that Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent is tomorrow.

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3 thoughts on “Spirituality and Connectivity: From Facebook Fasting to Phantom Phone Vibrations”

  1. Great post. I am not a college student, but I have to admit that some of the observations  are true of me as well. I have experienced the phantom phone buzzing. I have also considered a Facebook fast simply because of the negativity of so many of the post I see. I think the negativity has a huge affect on how we view some of our Facebook friends after awhile. Social media certainly has it positive points, but we do need to consider how much of our time is spent on it and how it affects our interpersonal relationships.

  2. It seems your research focused on college students only? I think older users of technology like myself find that social media and tech gadgets have actually brought me closer to my faith community and to all things spiritual. I'm more connected to my worship leader, preacher, and other ministry staff and elders than I ever was before facebook. Receiving prayer wishes for various worries or procedures shared/posted has increased and my prayers for others who have shared similar concerns has risen too. There's even an app I use to pray scripture over my wife and children that encourages more prayer time when I'm just hanging for a few minutes here and there than I ever would have before these devices existed. Also, I think there are some inherant practices that more "mature" users of tech employ than younger counter parts in general. For instance, we turn off our phones in places that are not appropriate for their use (theaters, church, work, classroom, counseling, etc.). When having a personal conversation with anyone, we never look at our phones or text someone else. Some of these things are just good manners which have escaped some imature people. I would love to see your research broadened in many categories before being applied broadly across all technology users, from a sample of ACU privaledged (no disrespect, but is a factor) college students.

  3. Hi Richard
    I came across a great acronym the other day.  It's probably well-known already to all your plugged-in readers, but it was new to me.  The acronym was FOMO, as in "My secret life as a FOMO", and stands for "Fear of missing out".  It seems to capture something of your research as well as your theology.


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