After some thoughtful reflection and (semi)-conscious mindful awareness of my actual internet habits, it appears that it is not exactly my phone itself that is the problem. I can very quickly check my email and then put my phone back down again without that really intruding too much on my day. Likewise, I can quickly check Instagram for a quick “snack” and put it away again. My real problem is Facebook.
Oh, Facebook. How many other writers have already penned letters to you, detailing all the ways you intrude into our minds and lives? How many other thoughtful people have taken Facebook breaks, from short unplugged weekends to deleting their accounts altogether? Facebook, you are so uniquely appealing and appaling at the same time. It’s sort of like a car crash with some kind of hidden easter eggs of delight mixed in. Just scroll through that car crash fast enough so you don’t notice all the blood and gore and then you can get to those treats!
Everyone’s Facebook feed is a little bit different, and probably somewhat the same. I have a mix of retired ravers, social-justice crusaders, environmentalists, family members, self-proclaimed trolls, feminists and moms of various parenting styles in mine. The resulting stream is a bizarre mix of articles and photos, some there solely to wind people up (I should really just block the self-proclaimed troll, but sometimes he’s funny), some things from people sharing tidbits from their lives and many, many others there to “raise awareness”.
This is where my problem lies. I’m not a Pollyanna and I appreciate the need to talk about the difficult stuff in the world so that we are educated and able to help push for change. But there is SO MUCH and most of it is SO HORRIBLE. And at the end of the day, I feel SO HELPLESS to do anything about any of it.
This is why people generally narrow their focus so much, I think. If you work at an environmental protection agency, then reading about all the places that need protecting is useful so you know where to direct your efforts. If you are a Social Worker in the US, then it makes sense to learn everything you can about how screwed up the Justice system is there. If you help treat victims of sexual abuse, it makes sense to read news articles about the terrible things grown-up victims may do to their own children, so you can help them more effectively. If you try to be fully informed about all the injustices in the world you will very quickly become totally buried in information with no way to actually act on any of it.
Maybe part of my difficulty lies in the fact that I read these articles and think about the people in them as individuals, not as cogs in a system. I’m training the part of my brain that feels empathy and then feeding it this stuff… It’s like I’m working hard every day to feed my kids the best brain food we can possibly put on the table and then going over to the corner and secretly stuffing my face with the psychic equivalent of Cheez Puffs and Dr. Pepper.
And, as Tom very rightly pointed out, this stuff is the First World edition of “Things to Get Upset About”. My feed contains very little about the really massive abuses and tragedies going on in other parts of the world. When those articles do come up, I am less likely to click through and read them. Somehow my brain can handle (kinda) the story of one person’s suffering. Thousands of people suffering is so massive it doesn’t even register.
I don’t know what to do about this. There’s no nice, tidy take-away here. We all have to find a balance, I guess, between being informed and whatever boundaries we need for our own mental health. We need to question whether the articles we’re reading are truly educating and informing us, or whether they are link-bait content, with their publishers benefiting from our emotional upheaval by the additional clicks and links we send when we share something and help it go viral. And I think that I personally need to go on a Facebook break. For a little while, at least, until I can think of another way to get a handle on this love/hate relationship with Facebook.