Go and sin no more: Many have given up Facebook for Lent

RALEIGH, N.C. — Nola Boezeman knew she had a problem with Facebook.

The first thing she did in the morning was flip open her laptop and check to see what her friends had posted. The last thing she did at night was sneak another look.

It's not like the 42-year-old mother of two had nothing better to do. But somehow the social networking site had begun to take over her life since she first logged on about five months ago.

By the time Ash Wednesday rolled around last week, she'd formed a resolution: No Facebook during Lent, the 40-day Christian season of penitence and prayer preceding Easter.

"It was becoming an obsession," said Boezeman, who lives in Apex, N.C. "I thought if I spent half the amount of time I spend on Facebook in prayer or service, it would draw me closer to God."

For centuries, believers have marked Lent with self-denial. Early Christians would take but one meal a day. These days, people give up coffee, soft drinks or dessert. Abstaining from Facebook during Lent is the latest thing to do.

College students were the first to hit on the Facebook fast. This year, adults — the fastest-growing Facebook demographic group — have taken on the challenge. Now Italian Roman Catholic bishops are onto it. Sort of. They're urging believers to take a high-tech fast for Lent by switching off iPods and abstaining from instant text messaging.

Paul Griffith, a professor of Catholic theology at Duke Divinity School, said the church doesn't have a problem with technology as such -- only its overuse.

"The concern is that technology like e-mail and the Internet can substitute for genuine human relationships," Griffith said.

For many people such as Boezeman, Facebook, which now has 175 million active users, is a relatively new habit. In October, her father and her brother wanted to share some photos with her and directed her to Facebook. Boezeman, a member of First Reformed Church of Cary, reasoned that if the site could help her keep in touch with her dad and her brother, it was worth a try.

"My plan was to have two friends," she said. "Now I have 87."

And while some people, like Boezeman, are giving up Facebook for the entire Lenten season, others are taking a modified fast. They allow themselves to check in on Facebook on Sundays only.

Brandy Daniels, who is studying for a dual graduate degree at Duke Divinity School and at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Social Work, said she thought her entire Sunday afternoon would be consumed with Facebook once she decided to take the modified Facebook fast. Instead, she found she can log on, "do what I need to do, and get off."

Daniels, 24, said she's realizing how artificial communication on Facebook has become now that she's calling more of her friends or going over and visiting with them.

"It's been more of a blessing than a sacrifice," she said.

That need for one-on-one engagement is what led the Rev. Lee Barnes, pastor of family and students at Apex United Methodist Church, to the Facebook fast. Barnes said he was spending up to two hours a day on Facebook, where many of the congregation's 400 young people hang out.

Before Lent started, Barnes told the youth they could find him at Bojangles' or at Booda Beans, a candy and coffee shop in town.

"The more I prayed about it, the more I wanted to strengthen my relationships with other people," said Barnes. "I really want to have real conversation."

Of course, Barnes can't completely tune out all electronic communication. His job depends on it. So he's found an emergency standby: the real-time short messaging system called Twitter.