The Internet, Desire & Depression

Is Facebook making us depressed?

For at least some users, the answer to that question may be yes, according to a new study out of the University of Missouri. Researchers there found that when Facebook users primarily use the popular social network to compare their friends’ lives to their own, the result is often envy. And too much envy is, not surprisingly, depressing.

“Facebook can be a fun and healthy activity if users take advantage of the site to stay connected with family and old friends and to share interesting and important aspects of their lives,” says Missouri professor Margaret Duffy, chair of strategic communication at the MU School of Journalism. “However, if Facebook is used to see how well an acquaintance is doing financially or how happy an old friend is in his relationship—things that cause envy among users—use of the site can lead to feelings of depression.”

I believe Duffy and her fellow researchers are on to something here. And I also suspect that the correlations that they’ve identified are a lot bigger than just Facebook. In fact, they may be broadly true for the way we interact with the Internet in general. This interactive medium can be a remarkable tool for communication and connection. And it can also stir up desires that are not easily met, desires that ultimately leave us feeling, if not depressed, certainly unsatisfied and longing for more.

Let me unpack that thought further.

The human heart is a desire factory, as theologians such as John Calvin and (much more recently) John Piper have noted. And one of the chief challenges of the Christian life is submitting our hearts—and the many desires that churn constantly within—to God as we seek to surrender our lives to Him.

For some of us, the Internet’s instant access to anything our hearts might dream up can become a barrier to spiritual growth. Instead of focusing on God and relinquishing our desires to Him in faith and trust, we can short-circuit that process by turning to the Internet in search of satisfaction that, ultimately, only God is able to provide for our hungry souls.

Believe me, I speak from experience here. As I’ve confessed a few times before in the Plugged In blog, there’s lots of stuff out there I really like. Over the course of my life, I’ve been “into” photography, mountain biking, motorcycling and playing guitar, among other things. Materialism, frankly, is part of my spiritual battle. No matter what I already have, the Internet offers me a functionally limitless opportunity to look for more and to be seduced by the lie that somewhere out there is the “perfect thing” that’s finally going to satisfy my soul.

I know that’s not true, of course. But it’s so easy—so easy—to act as if it is.

And it doesn’t have to be just stuff, in the materialistic sense of that word. However we define and imagine the “better” life, somewhere on the Internet there’s a vision of what it looks like. It might the perfect home, the perfect vacation, the perfect family or the perfect romance. In fact, the objects of our desires are as practically infinite as the number of sites out there trying to fulfill them. From Facebook to Pinterest, dating sites to travel sites, motorcycle sites to guitar sites, what the Internet offers is a never-ending stream of possibilities, visions of “betterness” we can latch onto with a vengeance. (And that’s not even getting into the darker, more destructive “visions” we’re dealing with when it comes to issues such as pornography and other online vices.)

To the extent that we use the Internet as what I might call a “dream portal”—a way to fixate on images and presentations of what our hearts desire most—we’re setting ourselves up for longings that get stirred up but not easily met. It’s like having your foot on the gas pedal and the brake simultaneously in a car. The result is sound and fury and the smell of burnt rubber, but little movement. And it’s likely not helping our relationship with God much, either.

Now, my point here isn’t that everything we might want is bad. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the good things that life has to offer. My point also isn’t to imply that whatever you want, God probably wants the opposite. That said, I do believe He wants us to bring the desires of our hearts to Him to sift and mold. And, ultimately, He wants to give us something better than anything we might find online: Himself. For some of us, though, the Internet’s vast realms of possibility can become a hindrance to finding what our hearts really long for: the rest and peace that God promises those who follow Him wholeheartedly.

I’d like to land this blog today with a question for you to ponder: How do your desires and the Internet overlap? It may be that your interaction with this powerful medium is healthy, helpful and informative (a desire we certainly have for the way you interact with Plugged In’s content!).

But if you find yourself online a lot and frequently feel empty or antsy or even depressed when you’re not engaged there, it might be a sign that the way your desires and the Internet intersect isn’t as healthy and life-giving as it could be. It’s a self-inventory I need to take regularly (if not daily!), and I’d encourage you to spend some time taking one too as we continue the journey of trusting God with our hearts’ desires.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

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