I have an ambivalent relationship with social media sites (as I have discussed here). But I am on social media sites most days. Generally I use social media to keep up with friends, conduct business and keep apprised of developments in fields of interest. By and large I am impressed with the range of interests my friends have and the discussions they start and with which they are engaged. I love seeing photos of their vacations and children and enjoy humorous updates from their lives. I have also been known to enjoy the occasional cat video.
But lately I have noticed that my adrenal glands are fatigued- you know the ones that secrete hormones to respond to dangerous situations. The adrenal glands are activated to a greater or lesser extent by stress, fear, anger and rage. And this is where social media come into play. Because I have found that many of the feeds I follow are dedicated to creating anger and rage. Their teasing headlines inform me that I will be “shocked,” “horrified,” and “terrified” by the content of their links. Sometimes they promise me heartwarming links but these too stimulate the adrenal system by releasing dopamine, the neurotransmitter related to pleasure. Additionally, the heartwarming links are often stories of triumph over adversity, pain and injustice.
Social media, with their unending devotion to click-bait, are designed to keep me in a state of emotional agitation. (I should note that cable news outlets and talk radio are similarly designed). And I am no different than most social media participants in that my social circle tends to be comprised of people with similar social and political beliefs. The result is that my social media world is an echo chamber in which my friends and I supply one another with evidence supporting our pre-existing beliefs and fuel each other’s rage.
And my group, like most on the internet, is angry and scared. Our heightened adrenal states of anger and rage, designed for an age in which fight or flight were the only two responses, do not serve us well. On an individual basis, these states are physically and emotionally exhausting. The result is adrenal fatigue, in which the constantly stimulated adrenal system begins to shut down. (I do not mean to suggest that the internet alone is to blame for this condition, but our heightened stress levels are part of the problem and the internet creates and feeds off of that stress.)
On a social level- the results are equally as toxic. Listening to only those who agree with us, we become more strident and more polarized. We are more likely to see those who disagree with us as the enemy- insensitive, cold, irrational and monstrous. If all we read tells us we must resist tyranny, then seeing our political opponents as tyrants means that we are unable to compromise because compromise is immoral in such a view.
So, I am tired. I am tired from being angry and scared all the time. My options for real action as a result of what I read are often limited and so I am left with agitation and little way to dissipate it. The result is helplessness and fatigue which only feeds into the above cycle (it is easier to scare people who are already feeling helpless).
Because so much of my work and professional circle is online, unplugging is not a real option for me. However, I am making new rules for myself. I am deleting feeds that play on my fears. I am resisting the urge to click on links that I know will anger me. I cannot ignore all content that is upsetting, because we live in a world that frankly is often upsetting, but I will try and limit the quantity I consume.
I am also choosing certain areas with which I can engage and about which I am passionate. These areas will be my focus for now and I will take my activism off-line as well. Human contact and connection will hopefully mitigate some of the feelings of anger and helplessness.
We must be wary of business models that are predicated on rage and fear. We must understand that their effects are damaging to us personally and culturally. Whatever their motives are, cable news channels, viral web content providers or political groups are all engaged in the manufacturing of rage. And the world has enough problems without such agitation.