On Saturday, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints replaced its men-only session at its General Conference with a women’s session for the first time. (Previously, men had their own meetings at every twice-yearly conference, and women met annually on a different weekend.) The president of the church, 94-year-old Russell Nelson, used the historic session to issue Mormon women a challenge: to “fast” from social media for 10 days.
Nelson presented the “fast” as an invitation—less a command than a nudge to reset priorities. “What do you notice after taking a break from perspectives of the world that have been wounding your spirit?” he asked, describing the way social media tends to “bring negative and impure thoughts to your mind.” But for some women, the suggestion couldn’t have seemed like a worse, or more tone-deaf, moment. “I don’t know why my prophet felt this was a good time for women in the church to step back,” said Michelle Quist, a Republican candidate for city council in Salt Lake County, Utah. “I know our national dialogue has been caustic … but there’s still a national conversation going on. If we’re not in it, then we can’t influence the conversation for good.” Even if Quist doesn’t curtail her own social media use as a candidate, she said, she estimates she will lose about 20 percent of her audience in the crucial last few weeks before the election.
Some Mormon women who use social media professionally were also jarred by Nelson’s abruptness. “The social media fast took everyone by surprise,” said Jana Riess, a columnist, editor, and author. “I am not in a position where I can simply give up social media for 10 days without any warning.” She said she plans to observe the fast at a later time, perhaps over the Christmas holiday. (Language note: Nelson recently issued a statement strongly discouraging the use of the terms “Mormon” and “LDS,” although the church had previously embraced the shorthand and the language is still in widespread use.)
Nelson also didn’t specify when the fast should begin, or even what precisely he meant by “social media.” But many Mormon women have felt called to plunge in immediately and totally. Amy Parker attended the session on Saturday with two of her daughters, who are 9 and 11. Her first thought when she heard Nelson’s challenge, she said, was that she would deactivate her personal accounts but maintain her business’s Instagram presence. She operates an Etsy shop selling hand-sewn turbans for babies that brings in between $800 and $1,000 in sales a week and is largely driven by social media. But she soon decided to seize the fervor she was feeling after the conference and just go for it. On her business’s Instagram account, which has 4,500 followers, she posted a cheerful graphic reading “unplug,” and told her followers she would back in 10 days.
“It would be awesome to say the prophet asked me to stay off of social media and it didn’t affect my sales, or I got double the sales,” she said on Wednesday. “That’s not what happened.” She restocks her Etsy shop on Mondays and typically gets 70 percent of her orders that day. This Monday, without posts to nudge customers, she made only one sale. In a culture that strongly values both hard work and stay-at-home motherhood, many Mormon women like Parker rely on social media for their incomes: Multi-level marketing, for example, is the second-biggest industry in Utah behind tourism.
With a major election less than a month away, Nelson’s timing was particularly unfortunate for women involved in politics. Parker is a member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government, a left-leaning group founded in the wake of the 2016 election to encourage LDS women to become politically involved. She is helping to organize a nonpartisan “voter prep party” in her neighborhood where women will gather to review the issues, with the goal of boosting turnout in the midterms. Her group had planned to distribute sample ballots and other materials online before the party, but now they are handing out invitations and information by hand and hoping for the best.
Parker remains cheerful about her participation in the fast. The conference was spiritually inspiring to her, and she has found herself with extra time for some long-postponed projects over the last few days. But she did take note of the fact that women were the only ones being asked to make this particular sacrifice. “That pricked me,” she said.
She wasn’t the only one: “What irks me about it personally is that men have not been invited to do this yet,” said Riess. To be fair, Nelson suggested a weeklong social media fast earlier this year for young people ages 12 to 18, and it’s possible that a similar call for men will come in the future. But another speaker this weekend urged women specifically to limit their reliance on cellphones. Asking only women and children to abstain so far, Riess said, “sends a message that teenagers and women may be using the internet for frivolous reasons.” In her column on Monday, she noted that only one woman addressed the full audience last weekend—compare that with 26 talks delivered by men.