A few years back, I picked up a book called In the Shallows. I had read Nicholas Carr’s article Is Google Making Us Stupid?, and the author’s concerns mirrored my own. Was I losing my attention span? Was I finding it hard to consume information unless it was cut up into bite sized pieces? Was I craving validation through social media? Was I becoming a slave to the little device with the blinking light?
To be very clear, I love the internet and I think it’s more positive than negative. I also think that it needs to be managed carefully. I think it’s something we need to think about, talk to our kids about and I know I need to be more mindful of my use. Here are some of my concerns and observations about the way social media and the broader internet is changing our hearts, minds and imaginations.
Social Media & Our Minds
In his book, Nicholas Carr, refers to the work of neuroscientists. Apparently, our brains have more plasticity than originally thought. It is possible, through consistent effort, to change neural connections. This can be a positive – people who have suffered brain injuries can use other areas of the brain to compensate. And it can be negative – the neural changes that occur in drug addicts. In the case of social media and the internet in general we are re-educating our minds how to consume and deliver information. I enjoy reading novels, so I still feel comfortable reading large amounts of fiction, but I struggle reading pages of non-fiction. I doubt I could read text books as effectively as I could during my university years. I find it difficult to pen a long letter. Some of these things are no doubt due to lack of practice. But I do believe constantly consuming and delivering short burst of information has led my brain to prefer small doses. Then there is the frequency of information – I may be consuming information in shorter, sharper bursts but it’s coming at me in pounding waves. No wonder our minds have had to change to cope.
Even the way we read is different. When we read information on line, we do not read left to right. We scan, try to find the pertinent information and skip over words – after all our time is much too precious to stay too long on one site (present company excluded?). This article talks about the way we read online.
So what to do about it? Personally, I will continue to read fiction – although my attention span is obviously an issue, as I like to have two or three books on the go at once. I will try to read more non-fiction and educated myself on topics in some depth (with books!) – rather than relying on bites. I think this sets a good example for my boys and could also be a family project.
Social Media & Our Hearts
I have a number of friends who are passionate about being vulnerable online. They think we need to halt the highlight reel culture and start being real with one another. I have always been a bit skeptical about this approach. I would prefer people be authentic online, but it seems naive to think people are going to post the bad or even mundane stuff as readily as the awesome stuff. And I also think we all understand that.
But then I was talking with a friend about fear of flying and I started to change my mind. People who are afraid of flying are very aware of the statistics that tell them it’s the safest way to travel. But that knowledge is not enough to barricade their fears when they hear about the latest aircraft tragedy. If the news was your only source of information, you could be forgiven for thinking that airplanes are crashing with worrying regularity. In the same way, even though I know that people are only showing the tip of the iceberg on social media, constantly seeing envy-inducing posts eventually induces envy. What I know on an intellectual level doesn’t always translate to the way I feel.
So what to do about it? If looking through social media isn’t making me feel good – then I will step away from it. I will keep the highlight reel in mind, but I will also exercise some self-care and realise when enough is enough.
Social Media & Our Imaginations
When my son wants to make something, the first place we go is Pinterest. We copy someone else’s creation (who has no doubt copied someone else’s creation) and end up with something quite lovely that inevitably gets instagrammed. But have we used our imaginations? I remember when I was a kid, I would create all sorts of crazy things – not terribly pretty things – but my imagination ran wild. If your kids are into Lego, you will know the difference between the carefully constructed sets of today and the haphazard creations of eighties and nineties youth. I wonder if social media, and the internet in general, is stopping us from crazy creations that have no pinnable value but that give us creative and imaginative freedom. I really don’t want to rob my children of that joy.
I remember being bored as a kid. My mum would tell me “only boring people get bored”. Now it seems “only people without smart phones get bored”. I think we need space for boredom. I think there is magic there. The place where imagination can blossom.
So what to do about it? Next time we want to get crafty, I am going to leave Pinterest alone and we will use our imaginations, unassisted by technology. It might end up a total mess but the goal will be to have fun, not to post a pretty picture at the end of it. And the next time I feel a twinge of boredom, I am going to use it to think, rather than to check my phone.
What do you think? Have social media and the broader internet had an impact on your heart, mind and imagination? Are you worried about it? Have you read In The Shallows?