“The dumbing down of American is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance”- Carl Sagan
As a young boy growing up in the highly Roman Catholic greater Boston area, I recall a practice called “going on retreat.” It called for going away for a day or two for prayer and contemplation. Of course, when we went on these as adolescents, we did everything possible to avoid the quiet and solitude that the retreat directors tried to expose us to. They were, undoubtedly, “the lamest thing that ever happened.” Years later, I was a teacher at a Roman Catholic high school and the yearly retreat was a part of the opening week for the faculty. We would spend two days and one night away from the hustle and bustle of the world in semi-isolation on some quiet and usually huge piece of property owned by the Catholic Church. We were supposed to be engaged in prayer, so as to be ready to spend the upcoming school year “teaching as Jesus taught.” I recall not praying very much at all, but I was introduced to that feeling of calm and serenity that being isolated from technology, music, telephones, and TV that those two days provided. And, for some bizarre reason, I always the better spiritually, despite my half assed attempts at prayer. It kind of felt like a detox of sorts, in which I had been purged of all the negative aspects of a culture dependent upon technology.
The reality is that technology is, in fact, addictive. We have become a culture where virtually everyone utilizes every spare moment they have staring at a 3X5 computer that they hold in their hands. Our days are punctuated by the sounds of iPhones that vibrate, ring, chime, and interrupt with inappropriate music. Our whole lives are in those little tiny computers. We pay our bills, get information, music, our books, photographs, and hold the intimate details of our lives – all in the palm of our hand. Way too much information and way too accessible.
This glut of information can be a blessing or a curse. Unfortunately, within the last 10 years it is starting to look more like a curse than a blessing. Here’s some negative aspects of this technology:
1, Social media is highly addictive. Studies show that approximately 70% of all Americans log into Facebook daily. Almost 50% login multiple times per day. People receive likes and shares for things that they post. From a behavioral standpoint, these are positive reinforcements. All living creatures seek positive reinforcements and they can be addictive. Dr. Cecilie Andraessen at the University of Bergen, Norway and her colleagues have classified the overuse of Facebook as an addiction, creating an instrument called the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale to quantify what constitutes Facebook Addiction. You can look it up, but don’t bother. You probably have it.
2, Social media leads to unrealistic and contrived comparisons to others with regard to looks, possessions, relationships, and belief systems. For young people, particularly adolescents, social media is a way to develop your identity, embellish your looks and accomplishments, declare your relationship status or lack thereof, and let everyone know what you just had for lunch. For the older crowd, social media is a way to feel superior to others because of your religious or political beliefs. Adults will argue about two conversational taboos that they would never argue about face to face-religion and politics, pontificating about their private and personal beliefs to friends that disagree in a way that would be insulting and obnoxious if done in real time.
3. Social media creates a false perception of making a difference. People can be lulled into a false sense that they are promoting social justice by trying to convince those with different beliefs to change their ideals in causes that they support. Liberals versus conservatives, Republicans versus Democrats, Hillary versus the Donald, etc. all of this cyber posing and posturing can make one feel like Gandhi, Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, all the click of a button. However, nothing changes in real time. To my knowledge, there are no instances ever of anyone changing a belief that they already held because of a Facebook argument.
4. Social media and the Internet have created a Cult of Celebrity, where the opinions of actors, athletes, musicians, and pop cultural icons are held in higher esteem than those of politicians, scientists, spiritual leaders, and intellectuals. If Springsteen or Kanye say so, it simply has to be true. This Celebrity Cult can be dangerous if the culture looks to celebrities for guidance in realms that are out of their areas of expertise. We have recently elected a celebrity as president of the United States and there is a growing groundswell of support for other celebrities to run in 2020. Yesterday I saw a petition online to support Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson for president. Really? Can you smell what the president’s been cooking?
5. Social media tends to promote nonscientific and archaic solutions to society’s problems based on anecdotal evidence. According to the Internet and social media, yoga, cannabis, and curcumin can cure virtually anything. No need for physicians or science. There’s nothing that probiotics cannot cure. Oh, and forget about those vaccinations. They can kill you.
6. Social media and the Internet has created an environment where anyone can find any news story they may need to support a false assumption. Conspiracy theories abound, exciting the imagination of millions of people. Once a theory goes viral, it becomes an accepted fact. It has to be, because everybody believes it, right? The masses line up, either for or against, and society gets dragged into a rabbit hole of nonsense. The interesting thing is that both sides, for and against these theories, can find ample evidence supporting their viewpoint – all at the push of a button.
7. Social media has distorted the meaning of community. While online communities can be highly beneficial, they’ll never replace real communities where people meet face-to-face, in real time, and share their human experiences. Ideally, people should have both. Social media can be a great way to stay in with extended family and old friends that you’ve lost touch with. Just be sure not to neglect family members and friends who live close by.
8. Social media has distorted our sense of privacy interpersonal boundaries. People will vent about a relationship that they had just ended, some personal problem that may have just gone through, or how much they hate their job. Existential angst gets dispersed into cyberspace and, once it’s there, it’s hard to get back. Some people use social media in the same way that previous generations used a journal or a personal diary. Today it’s very fashionable to put all your deepest and most private thoughts on your Facebook page. Sometimes not a great idea.
9. Social media has changed the ways that people share good wishes, congratulations, and condolences. This is one of the better aspects of social media. Being able to respond to someone’s grief, joy, or to be able to instantly celebrate something of significance with them is great. Just make sure that you try to do the same thing in person if possible. I often wonder if that guy that writes that long and rambling post about how much he loves his wife on their anniversary had the brains to tell her to her face.
10. The Internet and social media have replaced books, pens, paper, and libraries. While this, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad, it can lead to faulty research. Most people latch on to the first article that pops up in a Google search and unquestionably believe it to be true. It has to be, right? I got in on the Internet.
Like most things in life, the answer is balance. Use technology wisely, as overindulgence can lead to misinformation, impaired relationships, loss of privacy, and a host of physical and emotional disturbances. But, don’t take my word for it.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” – Carl Sagan
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