Giving up social media for Lent

March 15, 2013

At home. At work. On the go. Everywhere Nicole Pagano went, Facebook went with her. Not that Pagano isn’t busy. The 26-year-old Frederick woman juggles motherhood and a job as a multimedia technician. Yet somehow, she says, she found herself logged into Facebook upward of seven hours a day.

“I can fully admit that I am addicted,” Pagano says.

Three weeks ago, Pagano decided to change all that. First thing on Feb. 13, Ash Wednesday, she became one of those Christians worldwide who gave up social media for Lent, a period of fasting, prayer and repentance.

“I disabled my account and deleted the Facebook app off my phone,” Pagano says. “I allowed myself to keep Twitter and Instagram, but it is not doing the trick,” in terms of satisfying her social media craving.

In the Christian faith, Lent, the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, is considered an opportunity to give up worldly luxuries as a form of penance and an act of devotion to Jesus.

Traditionally, this has meant abstaining from eating; modern interpretations include giving up specific items such as sweets, alcohol and other favorite vices for six weeks. The fast is usually accompanied by prayer and almsgiving.

In recent years, the practice has expanded to include digital abstinence. As participation in Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest began to soar, so did interest in giving up social media.

In Pittsburg, the Rev. William Curtis, a Baptist pastor, asked members of his church to give up social media for Lent, and he confided, “It’s going to be hard for me because I practically live on Twitter.”

Christopher Ruddy, an associate professor of theology at Catholic University, called social media fasting “a sign of the times.”

Social media have become increasingly intertwined with spirituality. Facebook pages such as “Jesus Daily,” which has received more than 16 million “likes,” offer a form of communal prayer. Smartphone apps are available for prayer books and confessions. Christian leaders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, have published social media guidelines.

Most famously, Pope Benedict XVI joined Twitter. (His handle @Pontifex, quickly gained millions of followers but was frozen when he stepped down as pontiff.)

For many people, social media have modernized a 2,000-year-old religion. But others believe that the obsessive, possibly addictive use of social media closes people off from one another, creating a false sense of intimacy.

That’s where a social media fast comes in.

“Fasting in the Christian tradition is not about masochism or deprivation or dieting,” Ruddy says. “It’s about slowing down and opening ourselves up, hearing God and connecting to our neighbors. A Facebook fast can help us do that. It’s a way to refocus on the fact that social media is our servant because sometimes, it can feel like social media is our master.”

Halfway through her fast, Pagano is having a hard time. At first, she says, the sacrifice didn’t feel too difficult; the novelty of going Facebook-free pushed her forward. But now, “I find myself going through my morning routine and pulling up a separate tab, just so I can log into Facebook, [then] realizing that I can’t and having to restrain myself. It’s pretty sick,” she says.

That’s normal, Ruddy says.

“Fasting is hard. From personal experience, I don’t like fasting. But it’s taught me things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.”

It’s worth noting that Ruddy’s experience with fasting is limited to abstaining from food, not social media. “I may be the only person under 60 without a cellphone, let alone Facebook or Twitter,” he says.

But hunger is hunger, whether you’re craving a steak or a Pinterest board. “It’s the most fundamental human drive,” Ruddy says. “There’s something really elemental about hunger.”

There’s no doubt that Pagano still hankers for Facebook, but she is learning to do without. Once Lent is over, she plans to use the site again but to limit herself to a half-hour once a day.

Without Facebook, “I am forced to connect with people via text message and phone, which definitely makes things seem more personal when it comes to keeping my friendships,” Pagano says.

She says she is also more aware of how her addiction may have affected those around her.

“I’ll ask a co-worker a question and be completely ignored because they got distracted by a Facebook posting and just had to comment,” she says. “Pretty sad.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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