Online Personas: Promotion vs. Avoidance

What part of you do you want to present to the world? How will the choices you make online affect your life? While I believe there are plenty of people who engage in activities online without giving it much thought, the truth is we should all think about what we post online, whether it be pictures, politics, or even parts of our personalities. Studies have been conducted, as this article explains, showing that “there’s little correlation between how people act on the Internet and how they are in person,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve given this a lot of thought lately. I recently self-published my book and have done a little here and there to market it. I’ve read a lot online about what authors should do when promoting their work, and creating an online presence is one of the most common suggestions.

In what ways and places should authors create and present their online presence? Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, your own blog? The options really are endless. I created this website to highlight a little bit about myself and my work, and one of the suggestions given to authors is to regularly post in an online blog-type format. So, here I am. But what do I write? Honestly, I prefer writing something that I can use in my next book than posting something here that may or may not be read by one or two individuals, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t thoughts and experiences I may have that wouldn’t necessarily work in a book but would be fine shared in a blog post. Again, what to write, though…

Our lives are complex, and our thoughts are regularly engaged by social, political, and economic forces. Not everything, though, is really appropriate or necessary to share online. There are also plenty of ideas that may be appropriate to be discussed, but not necessarily by you. I watch a number of YouTube videos by individuals that I respect and I value their opinions politically, but do I want to add my political voice to theirs? As an author, I would never want my work to be overlooked simply because someone disagrees with my political beliefs, or other beliefs not related to politics. On the other hand, I believe wholeheartedly in my political, social, and religious leanings, so why wouldn’t I stand firm in those beliefs?

It isn’t that I’m advocating for self-censorship or hiding your beliefs, but I think it’s important to really think about what we should and shouldn’t say, given our goals and desires online. Whereas some may argue, as the aforementioned article, that “people tend to exaggerate their personas because they have much more time to revise and calculate the content they present than in spontaneous face-to-face interactions,” I think that time for revision and calculation can also lead people to do the opposite. We may minimize or play down specific parts of our personas online so as not to offend or drive people away. Whether or not you have a physical product to sell (like a book), our online presence itself is a product. Social media personas all beg for followers and likes, whether you’re on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or whatever else comes out in the next year or two. Ironically, social media also tends to lead to quite a bit of nastiness and anger directed at people, both friends and strangers.

Recently, I’ve been reading about all the twitter exchanges surrounding the UN climate meetings this week. It seems as though everyone, including the President, has to comment on what they think about Greta Thunberg and her impassioned speech at the UN. I have my own opinions about climate change, both the science and the media that discusses it, but do I want to jump into the ring, so to speak? Honestly, I’m happy to discuss my opinions with anyone in private conversation, but when it comes to such heated topics online, it seems as though there’s no way to engage in such discussions without devolving into animosity and looking down at the other side. That is not a place I feel is worth my time or energy. Still, I do believe completely in my opinions, and I believe these subjects affect us all, but…

In the end, it seems as though a lot of questions come down to whether or not one wants to promote or avoid a cause. Still, promotion of one cause may hinder promotion of another. Often, when an online personality attempts to present a specific argument, they are drawn into completely different arguments. I see this all the time among political commentators. One individual makes an argument regarding freedom of speech, and quickly they become embroiled in a world of discussion regarding hate and subjects they really had no intention of engaging in. Their words are skewed and misapplied in ways that they have to defend themselves and further explain that their original point had nothing to do with whatever other controversial point someone decided they were arguing. Ultimately, discussions end up taking people far from their intended purpose. Some of the hatred spewed at individuals and groups is so intense that they completely abandon social media. As Bob Iger says, “the nastiness is extraordinary.”

So, is it better to promote or avoid? In the world of social media, I’m afraid there really aren’t easy answers. Regardless of what we choose to say, I think it’s probably a good idea to maintain one universal principle: Be nice.

Mother and Father Know Best

On my way home this morning I had a conversation with a neighbor about discipline in school versus discipline in the home. What became extremely apparent is that parents really are best suited for disciplining children. We know our children better than anyone else, including their teachers. Although teachers often care for our children, the structure of the school system doesn’t allow them to get to know our children as well as parents. Everything in the school system is designed for groups. Teachers can’t teach children based on individual needs, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. That doesn’t mean that the school system has no value; it just means that parents are that much more valuable.

The value of parents can not be overestimated when it comes to discipline. Consider the following story I heard today. My neighbor’s elementary age son watched a “family-friendly” comedy show where a specific skit has adults purchase a piano that is haunted. This haunted piano says things like “I’m going to kill you!” and it’s all played for laughs. Seeing this phrase in a comedic context, the young boy writes “I’m going to kill you” on a note and passes it to another student in the school. Naturally, and rightfully, the school acts immediately in disciplining the young man. From the school’s point of view, a serious threat has been leveled, and they must deal with it. The young boy was sent to the principal’s office and, with his mother in attendance, the principal talked about the seriousness of the situation. The mother, knowing where her son heard the phrase, attempts to explain that he meant no harm and that he must have thought he was being funny. The principal insists on disciplining the boy, taking recess privileges away while threatening suspension in the future for any other incidents. The mother, knowing that her son is intelligent enough to know that suspension would mean he could stay home from school (something the boy would love to do), hopes the principal avoids mentioning that possibility any further.

Who is right in this scenario? The school sees the entire situation very seriously, whereas the mother sees it as a harmless mistake based on a young boy’s misunderstanding of adult humor. I believe both are right. The school must protect all the children from any possible threats, real or imaginary. The mother knows her son, and knows where he gets his thoughts. She also knows how he responds and uses situations in his life. The school plays an important role in teaching and also in helping children learn behaviors appropriate for public life. Parents have the same responsibilities, but their personal knowledge of their kids’ personalities and proclivities qualify them best for empathy, understanding, and knowledge of how to best discipline their children.

Is this really profound or an out-of-this-world idea? Not necessarily, but it’s been on my mind today. Perhaps one thing we might learn from this situation is the importance of communication between parents and teachers. Parent-teacher conferences so often seem to be useless and one-sided. Teachers talk about their expectations and how students are doing in their classes. Perhaps parents should talk more about their children’s personalities, experiences, desires, strengths, weaknesses, etc. I suppose some parents might do this, but maybe it would be useful for teachers to be trained in asking more directed questions about students from their parents. This may also require such conversations to occur without the students present. For some reason, my children’s school has teacher conferences with parents and children present. I suppose at some point someone argued that parent-teacher conferences should include students. Maybe there is some value in that. Then again, maybe it was a mistake.

Writing, Therapy, & God

Last Christmas I was watching the Muppet Christmas Carol with my family when I had a bit of inspiration. It occurred to me that Dickens’ Christmas classic was the perfect medium wherein I could tell part of my own story. I sat down and began typing that night. I finished about two chapters of A 21st Century Christmas Carol and didn’t look at it again for a number of months.

At some point this last summer I went through a very difficult period of depression, unlike anything I had ever experienced. One day, I just came home from church and, having heard a lot of talk about brotherhood and service within the community, I started having these thoughts about how I don’t have any friends. The truth is, there are plenty of people in my neighborhood and church family that are kind to me, and I do have some friends, but these thoughts continued to attack my mind. Every day I felt increasingly depressed. I cried each day, though I hid from my wife and family to keep my pain secret. Finally, after four or five days of this, I broke down and told my wife what I was going through.

I told my wife that I didn’t know why I was feeling so depressed. It felt as though Satan knew I was down and was taking every opportunity to kick me harder. I broke down in tears while I shared my struggle with my wife. She provided the only support she could; just letting me know she was there for me. The fact is, I felt quite a bit better after I told her what I had been going through. The next day, however, I felt the pain and anguish again; only, I didn’t have any negative thoughts with the depression. It was merely this overpowering feeling of sadness that sat on my chest. I cried and cried, wondering what was wrong with me. The thought came to my mind what I had heard spoken only a year or so earlier, that the time will come when we simply won’t be able to survive spiritually without the constant companionship of the Holy Spirit.

I felt like I was dying. I felt like I was spiritually dying. I feared for my life, and I didn’t know what to do. Only a month or two before this experience, I was sitting in church and the thought came to my mind that I really should record some things in my life. I was never a regular journal writer, but I do believe that writing about our lives is important, at the very least for our posterity. So, while I was wracked with torment and feeling utterly hopeless, the thought came back to my mind to sit down and write.

I opened my computer and stared at the screen. What should I write? Should I open a blank Word document and start writing a journal entry? I didn’t know what to do. Then I saw the file for my Christmas Carol story. I opened it up and began writing. In just a couple days, I finished the book. It’s a short novella, so it didn’t necessarily need to take long to write. Most importantly, while I wrote I felt the comforting influence of the Holy Spirit enter my heart. I felt God’s love again each day as I wrote. After just a few days, I realized that I hadn’t felt that pain and depression that had earlier threatened my life.

While some may assume that the act of writing can be therapeutic, for me it was more than just writing. It was acting in a way that invited the Spirit of the Lord back into my heart and soul. This experience taught me the invaluable worth of maintaining a constant companionship and relationship with the Holy Spirit.

I’m not suggesting that anyone with clinical depression can overcome it alone by feeling God’s love. There are probably a host of things we can do, including medication and therapy, but regardless of the path anyone takes to overcoming their depression, I truly believe that developing a relationship with God will make that path more manageable.

What Can I Allow My Child to Watch?

Every child is unique. That is perhaps the greatest advice I ever received regarding parenting and media choices. I don’t even remember who I was talking to at the time, but we were discussing how to decide whether or not certain content was appropriate for children. I was a young father at the time, with one or two toddlers in the home, and my friend was someone older who had already raised his children to adulthood. I think the conversation was spawned over the kind of movies I had watched as a child. Re-watching some of those eighties favorites caused considerable shock when I realized how much language and sexual innuendo there was in some of these movies. Was I shielded because of my youth in that I didn’t notice or was affected by that material before?

My friend told me at the time that, through trial and error, he and his wife learned which of their children were sensitive to different things when it came to the movies and television they watched. Whereas one child simply could not watch anything with violence, another child wasn’t phased by it at all. That other child, however, responded quite negatively to any kind of sensual or sexual content. Language also affected the children differently. “Hmm,” I thought, “how do we watch movies as a family then, if each child is sensitive to different material?” I suppose the obvious answer is to just filter everything out of your family movies. That’s a lot easier said than done.

My ten year old son has been bothering me for months and months, saying “everyone in my grade has seen Avengers: Infinity War, except me.” My wife and I had watched it before and decided that, even though our children had seen all of the other Marvel movies over the last few years, we were going to wait until we could show them both Infinity War and Endgame together so that the depressing cliffhanger at the end of the first movie would have less of an impact on them. Well, last night we watched Infinity War for the first time with the kids. Afterward, my twelve year old daughter came into my room and cried in my arms.

“What’s the matter?” I asked her. “I just…” she was having a difficult time composing herself, “I just worry about losing people in my life.” What followed was a long conversation about death, life after death, angels, etc. This was all spawned by her negative reaction to the violence and killing in a Disney movie. Yes, I said it. Marvel is owned by Disney, so they can own it. In fact, there’s a lot more Disney needs to own up to, especially with all their corporate acquisitions. In this article published today, Jason Aten demands that Disney, which currently owns Hulu, take responsibility for the “commercials for rated-R horror movies, alcoholic beverages, and some of the most violent, graphic, Mature Audience-rated shows on television” shown between so-called “kid-friendly” programming. I find the same problem when I’m watching the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon with my kids. In between shows like Paw Patrol and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, commercials are filled with women shaking their rear ends in jeans and swimsuits, and a host of other sexualized material that I find completely unsuitable for children. I’m sure the argument is made that these ads are targeted toward parents, but let’s be clear about something. Your audience for the shows are children, so the commercials should not flip all of a sudden toward adults. There’s a reason why those filthy phone sex commercials never appeared on television until after dark.

What does this all have to do with parenting and choosing the content appropriate for our unique children and their individual sensitivities? Well, I don’t mean to sound defeatist, but the fact is that the media, whether it’s HBO or Disney, will never be able to filter appropriately for our children. In fact, as is clear, they don’t even try. Like anything else in life, our children are best parented by… you guessed it, parents. We may have to sacrifice certain films for family-togetherness consumption, or allow kids to watch some movies without certain siblings present. We may have to split family movie nights into two rooms with different movies in each. We may need to have long conversations with individual kids if we know they’ve watched something that harmed some of their sensibilities, and then try even harder to shield them from that kind of content in the future.

I don’t think we should beat ourselves up when a child has been negatively affected by something they’ve watched. I look at it as an opportunity to have personal and growing conversations with them. Disney and other so-called “kid-friendly” organizations will continue to push agendas and even immoral lifestyles into our children’s faces. It’s up to us to control the conversation, … because we know our children individually, and we definitely know better than Hollywood.

Technology & the 3 Q’s

Nintendo, PlayStation, Kindle, Television, iPad, Laptop, Desktop, Alexa, Google Home, Innotab, Leapfrog, Smartphone…

The list is endless. Children today have access to countless forms of technology and screens to keep themselves occupied. As a stay-at-home parent, I admit how tempting it is to let my children turn to their digital babysitter so I can have a moment of peace. Yet, we have to be extremely careful about the quantity, quality, and qualifications of the technology we allow our children to spend their time with.

Every month or two, there seems to be an article on the news about children and technology. Today, the New York Times published an article that tells us what we didn’t already know: “All things in moderation is a good way to think about it.” Yes, we should “let common sense prevail” and moderate the amount of screen time our children view. Let’s consider, for a moment, that quantity and quality are less important than qualification.

What do I mean about qualification? Well, let’s go back to quantity and quality for a moment. Quantity is about the amount of time spent with technology. Yes, we should limit how often our children are being babysat by screens. Quality is about the kinds of material with which we want our children to engage. Obviously, I’d rather my three year old watch Sesame Street than Vampirina. Okay, so what about what qualifies for our children? Yes, qualification has something to do with the quantity and quality of technology, but it’s more about what the technology isn’t than what it is.

Would you rather your child ask Alexa and Google about sexuality, or yourself? Would you rather your child learn about human interactions from PBS or through their own interactions with their family and friends? Here’s perhaps a complicated one: Would you rather your child read on a Kindle alone, or on your lap? Would you rather that be a Kindle or an actual paperback or hardcover book?

I will be the first to admit that there is a lot of good in the information we can gain from sources of technology, but I believe there are sources that are better, and even best. What qualifies something or someone to teach our children? I believe it is those simple things like faith, hope, and charity (1 Corinthians 13:13) that qualify parenting. These are the attributes we want to instill in our children. While technology is good in supplementing our children’s instruction, it will never qualify as a replacement.

Moderation is good. Filtering and screening is important when considering technology allowances for our children. You, however, are irreplaceable. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, sibling, uncle or aunt, cousin, friend, teacher, companion, etc., you can instill faith, hope, and charity like nothing else. While moderating and filtering, please don’t forget to consider the importance of time away from technology. And, perhaps even more important, consider how that technology is only supplementing your love when you are sitting beside your child as he or she is watching a show, playing a video game, or reading a book. Technology is qualified only when it accompanies you.

I am not saying you can’t step away and do the dishes, cook dinner, etc., while the children watch a show or play a game. You don’t always have to be present. I am saying, however, that you should consider not only how much time they are spending with technology, but how much of that time spent with technology is also with you present.

Christmas Angels

It’s August and, yet, there have been an increasing number of advertisements and releases of upcoming Christmas products and features. Whether it’s the new Disney movie “Noelle” or the return of a dedicated Christmas channel, the media seems to be telling us it’s time to start celebrating Christmas. Obviously, I’ve jumped into the Christmas marketing that occurs for months, having recently published my own Christmas novella. Despite the marketing blitz and its attendant annoyances, celebrating Christmas by watching movies, listening to music, or reading books really is a yearlong activity. I sometimes listen to Christmas music in June or July. Why is Christmas so endearing throughout the year?

The celebration of the Savior of mankind easily brings joy and happiness to hearts and minds throughout the world all the year long. There’s another aspect of Christmas, though, that I’d like to discuss today. Why is family so important at Christmas? I know some may point to traditional gatherings as psychologically creating a sense of belonging and acceptance within a family unit, but I would like to posit another idea. Christmas is about Jesus Christ, and central to His plan is the family. Because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, the entire human family, all the sons and daughters of God, can receive salvation and return to Him.

I know that various denominations within Christendom view salvation and eternal life differently, but the idea that those who inherit eternal life inhabit the same place in the Heavens is mostly universal. Take, for instance, Christ’s declaration in John 10:27-28: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” Anyone who follows the Savior looks forward to the day when we shall be together in His hands. I think Christmas, unlike any other time of the year, reminds us of those who are no longer with us, and we look forward to the day when we can be with them again, and this is made possible only because of the Savior.

A common ornament found on Christmas trees throughout the year is the Angel. More specifically, angelic ornaments are often hung “in memoriam” of loved ones we’ve lost. My late wife passed away at Christmastime, so my thoughts turn to her pretty easily during the holidays, but I don’t think it’s any different for people whose loved ones passed away at other times of the year. Christmas is a time when we are grateful for those who gather together, but also for those who are no longer with us. Or are they?

This is the story I tell in A 21st Century Christmas Carol. I believe Christmas is a special time of gathering, for those here on this earth together with those no longer in mortality. What other time of the year would be any more special or important for families to gather on both sides of existence?

Spotlight on the “Web”

My first author/novel spotlight was posted! It was really nice. I asked Perspective by Peter if he’d review A 21st Century Christmas Carol and he responded immediately that he had already purchased it and would publish a spotlight on his blog.

This experience has taught me the value of community. In my opinion, Christianity, and religion in general, seems to be increasingly under attack. How can we fortify ourselves against the fiery darts of the adversary? Or, how can we protect our children and instill in their hearts and minds a love of the Lord that trumps the peer pressures of the world tempting them to abandon faith and spirituality?

Nothing can compensate for an individual relationship with our Savior. First and foremost, we should be developing our own testimonies of Him, and strengthening our resolve to follow Him. We should encourage our children to do the same. But I think supplementary to that relationship is our relationship with each other. A community together in Christ helps individuals be stronger in the faith. Whether you foster that community in church, your neighborhood, or on the world wide web, you can gain strength from other like-minded individuals who share your love for the Lord. People are not perfect, though, and those in our own communities may even offend us at times, which is why our testimonies must be anchored to our relationship with God first. Still, it is always heartening to see the interconnected family Christians can become, even on the web.

Recording Acts of Kindness

To what degree should acts of kindness be publicized? This is a question I often ask myself. In my opinion, the most important kind of charity is that which is given in secret. I think of the Sermon on the Mount, where the Savior taught, “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them… Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee… That thine alms may be in secret.”

This is a difficult subject for me. Obviously, we all like to get a little credit when we do acts of service. At the same time, when we read about other people’s charitable acts, it can often motivate and inspire us. I guess the answer might be in that we shouldn’t seek praise from others for our kindness, but as bystanders we should highlight those acts of others that inspire us. Of course, that requires a recognition when others are kind or charitable. I also think there should be a level of understanding that not all we read or see online is as it seems.

I was looking at this article on the GoodNewsNetwork about a “Kindness Photography” contest. Looking at the pictures, I wondered how many were staged. Like Social Media, so much is often staged to show perfection (and I think a contest might be an obvious place for staging). This made me think about acts of kindness that I’ve seen that I simply did not have time or the right moment to take a picture. This morning, for instance, while my kids were walking to school, my fifth-grade son called to my kindergarten son to come give him a hug before going to class. Seeing my two boys hug each other was absolutely inspiring. I am so impressed with the love and kindness my children can show toward each other (when they aren’t tearing each other to shreds at other times), but those moments are never caught on camera. There are so many acts of kindness in the world that are never captured. And yet, Christ promises that “thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”

Kindness & Depression

Keeping with the theme of kindness this week, while adding to it the theme of depression, this article on the Washington Post really shows how committing acts of kindness can help those who have depression.

First of all, I didn’t realize how many social media platforms there are and how useful they can become. Personally, I’ve never used Reddit, and I really don’t know anything about it, but it sounds like the Pittsburgh area has really benefitted from Jon Potter’s use of it. According to Potter, “pushing himself to interact with people by helping them has given him new appreciation for others” and that “helping others has brought on a big turn for the better in his own life, especially by keeping his depression and anxiety at bay.” I think this is probably true for most people. I know that when I am busy serving others, for one, it helps me keep my mind on better things and two, it makes me feel better.

I do want to address one other thing in this article, though. Potter admits that he is not very religious, but that he believes there is “an order to the universe.” While I believe service and kindness helps immensely, I think that developing a relationship with God (regardless of one’s religious affiliation) is one of the best ways of overcoming depression. In my experience, God is personally interested in every one of us. One of the worst feelings of depression I ever experienced (over a period of a full week) was ended when I started to write about my experiences in life. These experiences were eventually framed into my book, A 21st Century Christmas Carol. It was the realization of God’s hand in my life, and the feeling of the Spirit of the Lord in my heart again, that helped me get out of a spiraling depressive cycle.

It’s Kindness Week!

A day after HuffPo publishes a list of children’s books regarding empathy and kindness, BookRiot puts out another list of books about kindness, although they take it in a slightly different direction with books appropriate for older kids as well as picture books. This must be the week for teaching our little (and slightly bigger) ones about kindness! I love it! Although, I have to “Wonder” if a list about books that have been made into movies, like The Giver, is really all that helpful. Sure, there can be a list about books that were eventually made into movies, but how about a long list of books regarding kindness and empathy people have rarely heard anything about? Then again, I suppose there are always those popular books, like A Sick Day for Amos McGee, that someone doesn’t know about and would benefit greatly from learning about.