Four months ago, I quit going on Facebook. We were on vacation with no computer. I could have kept checking in on my phone, but I dropped Facebook as a vacation gift to myself. Vacation’s long over. I haven’t gone back on. I don’t plan to, despite my curiosity about the interest groups I have belonged to in past years. I’ve never used Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, or any other online social media.
I’ve always called myself a selective Luddite. I retain an email account and I bank and pay bills online. I use PayPal. Not all technology is to be shunned, but you must be careful. Skype enables me to talk to my European grandchildren, but gas-powered leaf blowers should never have been invented; they produce far more pollution than a broom.
Then there is mental pollution, and that’s what I avoid – or try to – by shunning most, if not all, online social media platforms. I prefer conversation, and not even on the phone: in person. Face to face. Or actual letters written by hand.
I’m not the first person to discover anew that quiet is better than noise, that genuine relationships are to be preferred to pretend “friendships” online, and that addiction to our phones is a social illness comparable to drugs and alcohol. These are spiritual problems in contemporary American society: the loss of quiet for solitude and meditation, the loss of relationships, and addiction to the media. Go to any restaurant and watch what has happened to interaction, particularly among younger people. Noses buried in phones rather than talk across a table.
French philosopher Jean-Claude Larchet recently wrote The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and our own Soul, one of a spate of books that address problems we face from these new media. Larchet acknowledges the genuine advantages in communication, information, and access to cultural life which the media provide. He goes quickly, however, to the downside, which begins with the monopolization of time by social media – itself a kind of addiction.
Larchet recognized that marketing manipulation occurs when we use social media and this drives our addiction. You know how it works: look up a product on Amazon, and immediately Facebook and your smartphone sprout ads related to the last thing researched on Amazon. This is the algorithmic funneling of attention. It shapes our whole lives, however, not merely our product preferences. Social concepts, political positions, and educational preferences are funneled as well, and you wind up in an echo chamber or a silo. You may think you are broadening your experience and your mind by engaging in social media, but you are confined to the interests you already carry. We expand, yes, but within a narrow band. We move from active to passive participation in life and, to add insult to injury, our attention span shrinks.
The substitution of “virtual” relationships for real ones bypasses the challenge the building of real relationships poses. It takes time and effort to develop relationships and communities, and time and effort are precisely what we misplace in addiction to social media.
Lastly: I’ve often written that paying attention is the heart of a spiritual approach to life. The opposite of attentiveness is distraction, and we are drowning in distractions via social media today. The information overload that overwhelms us when we do a Google search for a topic no matter how obscure is daunting and tiresome. For our sake and the sake of the next generation, we’ve got to gain control over the media rather than allowing them control over us.