It’s probably not a coincidence that during this period of increasing autonomy (exacerbated by social media use), mental illness, depression, and suicidal ideation are also on the rise. As we separate from one another and the transcendent God who created us, we sink into the despair of our own authority and isolation.
New technologies nearly always impact the way we live and think about the world. The automobile changed our mobility and even shaped the nature of our cities. The telephone connected families and friends and even changed the nature of international diplomacy. Each generation encounters its own set of opportunities as it navigates new technology, along with new challenges and unexpected consequences.
The social media generation is no exception. The creators of platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter promised an interconnected world of new relational opportunities, increased connectivity, and mutual collaboration. Few probably predicted the rise of tribalism and division that has resulted along political, philosophical, and religious lines. Fewer still anticipated another consequence of the technology: the amplification of our sense of autonomy and its power to shift our priorities.
Social media exacerbates two forms of autonomy. I call the first, “informational autonomy.” Most of us now get our information and news from these platforms. Twitter, for example, acts as a news filter and aggregator for many people in the social media age. As users, we choose where and how we get our information as we tailor our information consumption to reflect our own personal presuppositions, biases, and beliefs.
Social media also amplifies another form of independence: “moral autonomy.” A recent national survey found that “according to a majority of American adults (57 percent), knowing what is right or wrong is a matter of personal experience.” This form of moral independence is even stronger in teens. Social media algorithms strengthen our personal “echo chambers,” uniting us with like-minded users who share our moral beliefs. We shape our own moral view of the world and surround ourselves with people who agree.
The rise of informational and moral autonomy—driven by the algorithms of social media platforms, are now contributing to a shift in our priorities and perspectives:
From Objective Truth to Personal Belief
Competing internet news services and social media platforms often make opposing claims about the same daily occurrences or historical events. For many users of these services, “facts” are simply a matter of opinion. This is exacerbated by our individual, informational autonomy. Personal beliefs related to “my truth” or “your truth” have now replaced objective notions of “the truth.”