Since lockdown began, and to be honest, slowly and creepingly for a few months now, my use of social media and the internet has increased quite a bit. I suppose this is not surprising, as real-life human interaction is blocked, that you should turn to social media for contact – but that’s not what I’ve been doing with it.
Social media as a way of maintaining friendships long-distance is one thing, and it’s an excellent way to use the tools we have at our disposal. But social media has become a much bigger beast than just a messaging tool for friends. It has become a many-tentacled, many-eyed, Lovecraftian monstrosity that feeds on our time, attention and emotions. It manipulates us and our political systems. It drip-feeds us bad news, anger, opinion and argument, until we simply get swept away by the constant noise.
Looking at my average day, I’d check the news first thing, then go onto Twitter to see what people are saying about the news. Throughout the day, I’d have Twitter open in one tab, Facebook open in the other, and check them in between jobs or whenever I had a spare moment. I’d look at them on my phone in the evening when “watching” TV, paying half-attention to the programme I was meant to be enjoying. I’d check them in bed, before trying and failing to sleep. And for what? Other people’s political opinions, well-intentioned folks sharing hateful comments as a way of “awareness raising”, banality, mediocracy, photos of people living lives that make me feel like my own is lacking, breaking “news” that is really just another copy of a copy of an opinion from some journalist somewhere, or else deliberate disinformation.
When did I become like this?
I remember when I would carry a book with me everywhere, and spend my tea breaks at work reading, or walking outdoors. Not scrolling endless surface-level hot takes and manufactured outrage machines. I remember when I didn’t have a Facebook or a Twitter account, and I was in no way lacking.
I understand this isn’t everyone’s experience of social media, and I understand that it is a tool that is very much what you make of it. That said, studies have shown a connection between time spent on social media, and depression, anxiety and mental ill-health.
For instance, Woods and Scott (2016) write that “those who were more emotionally invested in social media experienced poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression”. Similarly, Keles, McRae and Grealish (2019) conclude “It is fair to say that there is an association between social media use and mental health problems”.
The noise of social media and the 24/7 news cycle makes it hard to really listen to any one thing. Like different music being played at once, in a crowded bar, it drowns out any individual note or voice. It makes it hard to focus, and surprisingly despite technically reading more information than ever before, makes it hard to really read.
Andrew Dillon at the University of Texas is quoted in one article as saying: “We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scrolling and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you”. Ferris Jabr (2013) in Scientific American writes “A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase—but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text”.
If this is the effect on reading books, what effects might there be on reading “the book of nature” all around us?
With all the noise, it becomes impossible to truly listen.
To hear the wind in the trees, the song of the birds, the voices of your loved ones.
To hear the song of Awen, of inspiration.
Constantly being passive, receptive to a stream of often stressful ideas, kills creativity. It takes brain space, cognitive capacity, and energy, leaving no room for deep thought or moments of silence where the voice of Awen can break through.
So, after (ironically) watching a video on YouTube about giving up the internet for 30 days, I decided to cut out some of this noise.
Now, I’m not giving up the internet altogether. For one thing, I still believe in its value as a tool when used right – it can connect people across the globe, build community and share information. For another, I have to use it for my job. And I have friends I speak to mostly online, especially now in lockdown. For instance, my local Druid grove have moved our gatherings and rituals online for the time being.
But I did deactivate my Facebook account, because I was getting nothing from it.
I went through Twitter and unfollowed over 100 accounts I was following that mostly re-tweeted news and opinion pieces.
And I set myself some rules:
1. No checking the news or social media before breakfast.
2. No social media in the evenings – they are for relaxation and hobbies.
3. If I’m reading a book, that’s all I’m doing. Likewise if I’m watching a film, cooking dinner, etc. No having social media open as well. As Ron Swanson said; “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing”.
4. Definitely no phones in bed. This is non-negotiable. Ever.
5. Have an alternative activity to scrolling: make sure I have a book on the go, pick up Duolingo again, have music nearby to listen to – anything to get the brain to focus on something else other than the urge to “check Twitter” for the sake of it.
6. Instagram is allowed more often than Twitter, because I follow mostly nature/Pagan/gerbil accounts and it’s soothing to see pretty photos, but even that is subject to the above rules.
Will this work? I hope so.
What I do know is I need not more time, but more space. More brain-bandwidth to delve more deeply into the things I truly enjoy – reading, Druidry, walking, cooking, films, spending time with loved ones – and not be distracted by nonsense.
I want to write more here, to do my two posts a week again, which means I need to carve out time and space for this; to read, to research things I want to write about, to spend time crafting articles properly instead of rushing some crap off for the sake of getting something up, or more likely forgetting about it altogether.
Maybe you’re in a similar situation to me. Maybe you’ve managed to cut social media out of your life. I’d love to hear from you.
Reduce the noise. And listen.
What can you hear?
Jabr, Ferris. ‘The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens’. Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/. Accessed 25 May 2020.
Keles, Betul, et al. ‘A Systematic Review: The Influence of Social Media on Depression, Anxiety and Psychological Distress in Adolescents’. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, vol. 25, no. 1, Dec. 2020, pp. 79–93. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/02673843.2019.1590851.
Nightwish. ‘Noise’. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LczGSoibRe8. Accessed 25 May 2020.
Rosenwald, Michael S. ‘How the Internet Is Making It Harder to Read Books’. The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Apr. 2014, https://www.smh.com.au/technology/how-the-internet-is-making-it-harder-to-read-books-20140408-zqseo.html.
WheezyWaiter. ‘We Quit the Internet for a Month. Here’s what Happened’. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ve37Bg4-hPc. Accessed 25 May 2020.
Woods, Heather Cleland, and Holly Scott. “#Sleepyteens: Social Media Use in Adolescence Is Associated with Poor Sleep Quality, Anxiety, Depression and Low Self-Esteem.” Journal of Adolescence, vol. 51, Aug. 2016, pp. 41–49. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.05.008.