Social media & an increasingly scattered sense of reality

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When I went to Ireland last March, I visited an 81-year-old friend who had taken me under her wing decades ago when I first traveled there. Years later, email became available, but she never quite adapted, and for years we wrote letters.

Now, this Christmas, my friend was suddenly and miraculously online, and it’s so fun to be able to keep in touch often. Technology is marvelous. Except when it isn’t.

Especially exasperating are the people who sit at social events or lectures and scroll through their phones, as if a text or the latest “like” on Facebook is at least as important as the conversation going on around them. I often think it would be nice if people had to check their phone at the door, because you can’t halfway pay attention.

It’s fun to have a smart phone available when a lively after-dinner conversation presents a question. What year did Princess Diana die? Who played Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey? But otherwise, mute the phone and put it away.

And it’s not just kids who compulsively scroll. When my kids were young, way before there were smart phones, they enjoyed listening to the adults talk. It was a learning experience in how to relate socially to people of diverse ages and political or religious persuasions.

Maybe that’s why my own kids never picked up the habit of phone-scrolling at social events. They remain fully present to the possibility Uncle George may reveal something intriguing after his third glass of wine. (There isn’t actually an Uncle George, but there’s always wine.)

Lately, I’ve noticed a cascade of articles second guessing our overuse of social media and the Internet. An Associated Press article describes a Seattle-area rehab center called reSTART Life, a residential program specializing in tech addiction.

And then there’s the question of what constant online activity is doing to kids, their social lives, their concentration, their ability to be fully present. Not to mention the ready access to online porn, a horrible issue all by itself.

But for many of us who are older, the problem is simply that our use of the Internet and social media is too pervasive, it steals our time when we don’t intend it to, and it may subtly erode our ability to be silent and introspective.

And how many times have you seen a friend on Facebook swear off social media only to soon reappear? It’s like giving up chocolate.

Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook, often make me feel as if I have a ping-pong game going on in my head. Here’s a problem; no wait, here’s a worse one. You should be really concerned about this, but here’s something hilarious. And here’s a child dying at the border right above the pictures of my cousin’s bridal shower. It can be wholly entertaining, while at the same time leaving me feeling anxious and off-center.

When I was a Jesuit Volunteer in the Alaskan bush in the 1970s, it would have taken days for me to find out about a death in my family. Today, if my granddaughter in Philadelphia is involved in saving a baby squirrel, I get updates immediately. In so many ways, this accessibility is fantastic. But is it creating a “need to know” attitude 24 hours a day, an uneasy sense of urgency?

Many of my friends give up social media for Lent, something I’ll ponder before Ash Wednesday March 6. But any day is a good day to evaluate how online activity impacts our ability to pay attention.

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.


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