Dear Ann Cannon • In our increasingly digital world, a lot of important facets of day-to-day life have moved online. Social media has become the primary means of connecting and networking, both personally and professionally, for so many people (especially millennials and the millennial-adjacent) that those who avoid the online water-cooler are put at a competitive disadvantage. Likewise, the shuttering of printed news outfits across the country has meant that to be a fully informed citizen on local, national and world issues and events requires time online. Text, email and different instant messaging platforms have become the primary methods of communication, and streaming services have become a major source of entertainment. For better and for worse, the practical reality of our modern lives involves some form of online engagement.
But that comes with certain perils.
The sheer volume of content and advertising pouring over our minds online can feel like a form of digital waterboarding, making the experience difficult to manage. Parsing truth from misinformation can seem like an overwhelming task, and the interpersonal conflicts can be emotionally exhausting and even toxic. The state of things doesn’t seem likely to improve, and if anything, with another presidential election on the horizon, seems likely to only get worse. So given that many of us feel (often correctly) that we need to be online, and given the personal toll that being online takes from us, how can we best negotiate that experience?
Dear Bewildered • Thank you for this extremely articulate, thought-provoking look at “online engagement.” You’re right. It’s here to stay. And you’re right again. The amount of information and (misinformation) we’re currently called upon to manage is overwhelming. You also allude to the personal cost associated with living online. How many relationships have been damaged because people feel distressingly free to lob verbal grenades at one another in a way they never would in a face-to-face conversation? For me, there’s also the issue of time and how much of it I’ve squandered, going down one internet rabbit hole after another. Ugh. How best, then, to negotiate the online experience?
- Think about eliminating one or more social media platforms from your life. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. Do we really need to sign up for everything? All that stuff requires a lot of babysitting.
- Try setting time limits for yourself one way or another. I KNOW! HARD! But still worth a try.
- Notice when and why you’re getting online. Are you bored? Seeking diversion? Avoiding a real-time task that’s hard to complete? Then ask yourself if getting online in that moment is really worth it. What will you gain from the experience? What will you lose?
- Turn off your smartphone. Leave it at home, even. If you’re of a certain generation, you spent a lot of your life without one. Remind yourself you can still survive without it.
- When you do get online, be mindful of what you’re actually consuming in terms of information. If everything you read validates your point of view, you’re being manipulated at some level. This doesn’t mean you have to go searching for other points of view, necessarily. But you should be honest enough to acknowledge that you’re not getting the full picture. About anything.
- It’s probably a good idea to also acknowledge that by limiting your digital footprint, you might not be able to fully engage in the cyber water-cooler conversations you reference. But so what?
- Finally (and most importantly!), do not confuse online social interaction with true face-to-face social interaction. In a TED talk titled “The Secret to Living Longer May be Your Social Life,” developmental psychologist Susan Pinker shares research suggesting that the single most important predictor of longevity is the number of face-to-face interactions you have as you pass through your day. Friends. Family members. The mail carrier. The barista at the coffee shop. All of these contacts are good for you. So in other words?
And get out.