So, there is some irony in Dreher’s last topical chapter of The Benedict Option. It’s not that his points are wrong, but there’s something about hearing about how we need to unplug from our screens in order to save our souls from a writer who came to prominence by blogging and keeps an active Twitter presence. Again, he’s not wrong; it’s just that he probably isn’t the best messenger.
Nor am I. But let me tell you about someone else who is a better messenger on the topic. My wife has no social media presence, and has no blog. She uses e-mail, but judiciously keeps it off her phone and on a computer inconveniently located in our attic/office. No, she’s not 90.
She does this not because she doesn’t have the capacity to use technology, but because she knows better. She is a developmental psychologist who has invested a lot of time in staying current on the research about how social media affects the developing human brain, and like studying the effects of alcohol can urge you to stay sober or studying the meat-packing industry can make you a vegetarian, what she’s seen has convinced her that this is the better way.
As our daughter navigates adolescence, my wife’s friends are beginning to realize she was on to something all this time. As they find their adolescent kids sucked into topics and online experiences they aren’t developmentally ready for, or they see them modeling behaviors that come from hours of screen watching exemplars of “teens with ‘tude,” or they find their kids struggling with issues of body image or other insecurities that are heightened by online pressures, or they experience the drama that teens of past generations suffered through at warp speed without a haven of rest because the slights and spats take place not just at school but on their phones, which are with them forever, those parents are beginning to wish they went another way.
Nor is it just about kids. I mentioned at some point that one of the other things I do is lead Love Not Fear, which stemmed from the realization that our society seeps us in fear that is doing us harm, not just socially but individually. It turns out that we are genetically wired to be social creatures in real life. While we may think that our friends on Facebook or our connections on LinkedIn are real, there’s a growing body of research that shows that their presence isn’t salutary and doesn’t replace face-to-face interaction. An online hug doesn’t carry the same power. (I used to say “you can’t e-mail someone chicken soup when they’re sick,” but I’m pretty sure with meal delivery services you can now.) Some studies show that face-to-face connection, even with strangers, has more power to improve mental well-being than time spent online with friends. So think about that the next time you sit in a restaurant with your head buried in your phone or laptop. Time is finite, and the online vs. real life worlds may be able to complement each other in some ways (like inviting someone online to an in-person event), but there remains a zero-sum component of online-offline activity. Every moment you spend on your phone is a moment you aren’t spending in the company of others.
It’s more than divvying time between two worlds, though. Much has been made of “filter bubbles”, whereby we choose sources of information and friendship that fit our worldview, which teaches the algorithms that filter our individualized versions of the internet to give us more of those sorts of opinions, attitudes and people and less of anything that don’t reinforce those views. Less has been made of the fact that we are wired to be most responsive to messages about fear – because from an evolutionary perspective, fear is what kept us alive. So the result for many is this: you go online and are more likely to click on stories that sound scary, which means you get more stories that are also scary, until all of a sudden you see your entire online world as scary.
Our fight or flight instincts don’t manage long-term fears very well, so if you live in an environment that is pervaded by constant fear, it will affect your health. We know this about toxic stress – people in war zones, people in areas of heavy crime and even of poverty share shorter lifespans because of the ongoing stress of just being where they are. What we don’t do is reflect on the way we create online worlds that generate a similar (though maybe lower intensity) toxicity.
So online fear + the isolation that comes from choosing online over offline = toxic stress. Add to it that some of what the online culture of fear emphasizes is the scariness of the real-life world, which spins the vicious cycle all the faster.
This is the dynamic Dreher points to in his chapter on technology. It is the dynamic my wife warns fellow parents about and we work to manage in our daughter. And it’s the dynamic that sparked Love Not Fear as a response.
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