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Free Will in the Age of Social Media by Christina Murphy

You may recognize this scenario – you pick up your phone to check your school email, but upon opening up the search engine, an overwhelming list of flashy headlines appears on the screen. Or you may message a friend on your social media only to find yourself scrolling through countless posts, feeling more stressed than entertained. I first began to experience the effects of information overload during quarantine when I began to develop habits of randomly browsing on the internet, reading online news daily, and looking at social media. As a result, my increased technology usage, paired with troubling news about COVID-19 and current events, often left me feeling anxious and spent. I was acutely aware of all the turmoil happening, yet I felt that there was nothing I could do to solve the problems I was reading about.

In the midst of my media-related anxiety, it was easy for me to believe that my peace of mind would return if I were able to change my situation by molding the world to my desires or altering the things that bothered me. However, this was not the conclusion that I came to. I slowly realized that sometimes the one thing I could control was how I chose to react to the situation. This could only be achieved by exercising my faith and choosing to entrust God with my troubles. By intentionally choosing to surrender my stress to God, it was easier for me to let go of my anxiety.

The worry we feel from the news and media is not trivial to God. His grace is ready and available to help us with anxiety, information overload, or other such modern worries. God has done this by gifting all people with free will. It is natural to have fearful, knee-jerk reactions in response to current events. The opposite of this fear is trust and faith – coming to God in prayer and trusting that He will guide our judgement. The Holy Spirit is accompanied by gifts such as wisdom and understanding, key elements in discerning between good and evil or truth and lies. With this guidance, we can then tackle the myriad of information being thrown at us. By asking God to help us form our free will and by being open to His guidance, students at Seton Hall will gain discernment and peace of mind when consuming social media and news.

In order to apply this Catholic doctrine to everyday life, the Seton Hall community needs to know what it is and why it is an important concept to understand. Free will is one of the basic attributes of the human person, intellect another. The Catholic Church states that free will is innate to human nature, regardless of religion or upbringing. This stems from the reality that all people are created in God’s image. As the Catechism states “Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his acts” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1730). Since humans are created in God’s image, they will naturally have an intellect and free will like He does. While the human will is barely as complex or profound as God’s, people can discern between good and evil and make moral choices without coercion. Furthermore, free will is a human power that other animals nor any other created life form do not possess. It connects humans with God in a profound way, for only through free will can someone choose God and form a bond of love with Him. To this point, the Catholic Church asserts that free will is, “an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person” (CCC 1738). Free will enables human beings not only to choose for themselves, but also to choose God, the greatest source of happiness and purpose.

Many Catholic students may not consider using their free will in times of duress because of the common misunderstanding of free will as the ability to do whatever we want. If this were truly the case, it would mean that we become powerless whenever circumstances restrict our range of potential actions. However, free will as Catholicism understands it is not simple autonomy, but the ability to recognize and choose the good that is God. It is directed towards someone higher than us as individuals or our immediate desires.

Engaging with social media and the news requires the judicious use of our free will. Especially since quarantine, many of us have become immersed in media, obsessively checking COVID-19 statistics or the latest news of political upheaval. Young people have grown up with devices which constantly expose us to media, causing anxiety from information overload and the inability to recognize false information. According to a 2017 study by Sprout Social, eighty-six percent of people want social media brands to be honest above any other trait (“Brand Personality: The More Authentic, The More Effective”). It is probable that this statistic has stayed the same or even increased during quarantine. This combination of confusion and apprehension can aptly be named “media-related anxiety”. A common way people seek respite from media-related anxiety is avoidance, such as not watching the news. While a media detox can be healthy, we cannot realistically check out from the outside world. There must be a solution in which people can maintain internal calm while also actively engaging with reality. After all, how can Setonians be the “salt of the Earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14) if they are not present in society? Our use of free will rather than permanent avoidance is the foundation for a long-term solution for media-related anxiety.

If media-related anxiety removes a sense of control, then free will helps regain it. Although I learned that I could not always regulate outside events, I was able to utilize my free will in response. Catholics can take heart in the fact that free will is one of humanity’s most powerful gifts. It is independent from any other external force or influence, whether it be Facebook or the news on television. However, to use free will most effectively, it must be directed towards something, or most properly someone. That someone is God, who is the true object of free will. Instead of letting worry wash over us, we can purposefully turn to God and ask for help. Choosing to invite the influence of God and the Holy Spirit is one of the best ways to utilize free will during media-related anxiety.

Young people must understand that choosing to invite God into the worry is not an ineffective or passive response to the problem. In fact, the Catechism assures the faithful that, “Christian experience attests … the more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world” (CCC 1742). Many of us can relate to feeling the “pressures and constraints of the outer world” brought on by social media, news, and current events. The Catechism clearly states that people will become more equipped to face such troubles if they direct their free wills to the “promptings of grace” given by God and the Holy Spirit. By doing so, we can better discern what information we consume, how much we consume, and how it affects us. God will free us from media-related anxieties, since directing the free will towards God is, “a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness” (CCC 1731). Maturity of judgement and greater recognition of truth and goodness are important skills when consuming social media and news in the modern age, particularly for the next generation. Since they will be the ones creating media and reporting news, a focus on truth and discernment is key.

There are many other ways in which students at Seton Hall can address media-related anxiety, such as prayer, fellowship, or quiet time away from technology. Yet, free will is the underlying determinant to dealing with any kind of stress in life. It can be used to combat media-related anxieties with right judgement, discernment, and a clear mindset. As the faithful, we must choose to direct our wills towards God. However, as flawed human beings, we need God to guide us. It is openness to His guidance which will allow the faithful at Seton Hall to utilize their free will in positive ways and not let the world affect them. As Philippians 4:7 promises, “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ”.


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