How to Lose Friends and Lower Your Intelligence

Is over-consumption of news and social media making us less intelligent and fulfilled?

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Turn off the news. Just stop. Yes, you. Just turn if off and take a break from social media too, while you’re at it.

Thank you. It feels better, doesn’t it?

Feeling Overwhelmed? Too informed? Do you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweats, sick with the thought that you can’t remember the number of confirmed cases versus probable deaths for Covid-19 in your state? Maybe you hardly slept last night because of nightmares that your credit score or personal identity was compromised. The former president pardoned or didn’t pardon so and so …

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Apologies for the hyperbolic title and lead paragraph, but I do so to make some valid points about our media consumption — as a society. The irony is not lost on me that this website is a type of “media” and social in nature. My takeaway is more about moderation.

And if you can’t moderate? Well, most of us know what they tell alcoholics and addicts. “Don’t pick up the first one.” Are you someone who can’t moderate your media consumption?

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I was watching an interview on YouTube with former physician and addiction specialist-turned acclaimed author, Dr. Gabor Mate, about trauma and he summed up our tendency to waste time in a wonderful way. The interview was organized by the Science and Nonduality organization (SAND), an advocacy group that explores non-dogmatic spirituality, and co-founders Zaya and Maurizio Benazzo asked Mate how the pandemic is affecting our emotional health. He responded by referring to the daily news cycle and how its constant intrusion into our lives about things we mostly can’t control is completely toxic. To roughly paraphrase, he said that you can spend all day watching coverage of the pernicious effect of the current pandemic, but all you need is 5-minutes of reading to get the information you need that day.

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So true.

It is no secret that we live in what might be referred to as the age of endless and unnecessary distraction where our most valuable nonrenewable resource slips through our fingers like sand as we scroll through a never ending loop of media that adds zero value to our mindset or lives and, in fact, leaves behind psychological vandalism along with distracting us from doing more productive (and enjoyable, life-affirming, meaningful) activities.

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Before you label me a Luddite and exile me to That Country of No Internet (good luck), this article is not a call to action to deactivate your social media accounts and throw away your television.

Just STOP spending a lot of time following the daily news (I don’t care what the source of it is). Just stop. There is no need to be so engulfed in an inferno of mostly incendiary information and the repetitive stream of mindless data that is the daily news cycle. Stop (or at least moderate) the unnecessary and ceaseless chatter of the Social Media Industrial Complex (SMIC) while you are at it, too. Yes, you. And you. And me.

It should be of no surprise that many people get a lot — if not all — of their daily news injection from their social media outlet(s) of choice (SMOC). I suspect this group of people is in the younger category, but I’ve been wrong before. The complex technology and mountains of cash that go into making our devices as deliberately addictive as possible combined with the systematic aggregation of data and surveillance capitalism would make it probable that no one is safe from falling into a pattern of media consumption that is unhealthy, no matter their age.

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I’m not preaching or telling you how to live. In fact, many people would say it is rather hypocritical for me to post an article like this. I need to be careful with my words and “to make each word count” as Mr. Writing, himself, the erudite Cornell University professor William Strunk, JR. said in his little, concise (intentional redundancy) and conceited treatise on writing The Elements of Style — made famous by the similarly erudite and somewhat conceited E.B White in a New Yorker article. Ironically, White became more famous for penning arguably the most famous kid’s book of the 20th century, Charlotte’s Web, than any of his commentary on writing.

But I digress, yes, I have some social media accounts, read all the time, and work for an EdTech company. I’m also a recovering news junkie and have wasted countless hours and mornings on social media. Like most addictions, it started off pleasantly enough — an unexpected love affair rather than an ongoing and transformative romance- turned- horror- show.

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I used to read and follow news incessantly. This was partially because I wanted to write and being a journalist was one of the more logical pathways into the profession. I felt that by reading about news, I would learn a lot about the world and the craft of writing. My real dream was to write literary fiction, but I knew that I would need a related trade to help pay the bills until I finished the grand Bildungsroman that had been gestating in my restless soul since early adolescence. Journalism would be a way to pay my bills while I hammered out On the Road II in the middle of the night in my little New York City apartment (room). My brilliant, incandescent stream-of-consciousness, mental revelry, in between sips of Campari-sodas, needed to be captured for the best minds of future generations, preferably on an antique, real typewriter …

Before the internet was mainstream, information was less available. We still had the 24-hour news cycle on television, but no Google searches and smart phones. I spent much of my early adulthood collecting books, particularly a good reference collection, so that I would always have access to information for my writing. Some information was difficult to access, and still is today, locked up in libraries, behind internet pay walls, and buried deep in books and databases. Some is withheld intentionally; other streams of information have been buried under the dust of time and it takes some digging or luck to find it.

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One of my first jobs after college was as a reporter for a small newspaper in North Carolina in the late 90’s. I depended on libraries, subscriptions to paid databases, and other print news to inform my own writing and try to hone my craft. It was a time of awkward transition and powerful change, the late 90s as we surfed the top of the wave to the dot-com crash of ’99. Access to instant information via an easy internet search — information that is constantly updated and located easily via every device imaginable, especially a “smart” phone” you carried with you everywhere — was on the distant horizon of an abstract future.

I subscribed to esteemed publications, had stacks of magazines everywhere, studied the stories in the library copies of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and The San Francisco Chronicle. For more long-form articles that took a deep dive into complex topics, I read pages and pages of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books for long form writing of a journalistic style that I still believe today can be creative and a true art form. Copies of Harpers Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and Playboy piled up on my coffee table, bookshelves, and the back of my toilet. I felt that to be a “true writer,” I needed to study current events, and always be reading. If I wasn’t reading news and interviews and features, I was reading fiction, poetry and the classics.

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I eventually moved to Washington, D.C. for a journalism internship at a specialty newspaper, and after long days of filing papers, doing research, and making copies for the section writer I was assisting, I would trudge out through Dupont Circle, often stopping at Kramers and grabbing a book or magazine. Hesitant to go home, I often found myself at The Childe Harold, a cozy little pub shuttered in 2007 or Brickskeller (closed now, too, tragically) to have a cheap dinner and do some more reading over a pint or three of their very impressive list of beer.

Looking back now, it all seems rather pretentious, but I still believe in the transformative power of language — or I wouldn’t be writing on Medium. It has been a long strange trip since those days when I was a budding young reporter and aspiring writer starting off in DC because of that internship. I could go on to tell you how I quickly became disillusioned with journalism, saw the eerie ambers in the small fire that would eventually engulf my sacred world of print in flames, sought refuge in academe, became a teacher of writing as I began to write less and less — but I think I will save most of that for the shockingly funny — shockingly sad — then kind of funny — again memoir I have been working on for the past decade.

I continued to follow news and the evolution of journalism and digital media (with astonishment and anxiety)— from my lofty refuge atop the ivory tower, where I had escaped to graduate school out West. Often, after teaching my composition course or enjoying a lecture in art, philosophy, or other courses I was auditing, I would head over to the coffee shop on Central Avenue in Albuquerque. Passing by the Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico, I would grab a fresh and free print copy of the New York Times out of a metal kiosk. Sometimes there was a lock on it that you needed a code to; most of the time nobody bothered. The copies were technically only for students in certain classes. Many days, it was overflowing with copies. I wrote and edited for the campus newspaper, so I didn’t see any harm in taking a copy and actually reading it. I usually left it at the coffee shop for others to read when I was finished.

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A few years ago I went through a personal crisis of sorts and realized that starting my day consuming headlines and the stories of the day was perhaps not the best use of my time. Actually, it was distracting me from what I really wanted to do: write. It was also slowly eating away at my soul. The mind-numbing violence, the repetitive nature of the news cycle, the vacuous advertising … all of it had a negative effect on my mood and overall perception of life.

My daily routine was unhealthy enough. I was in between jobs and not writing much. I would normally wake up feeling anxious and simultaneously reach for my phone. Wired on coffee, I would simultaneously scroll through story after story, headline after headline, sometimes with the TV on the news as well. I knew it was an awful habit, yet part of me felt that since it was helping me stay informed about the world, keeping me in the habit of reading, and that the news I consumed came from quality sources made it okay.

It didn’t make it okay. It was a waste of my time and the whole thing made me sick to my stomach. I would usually follow reading the news with more wasted time scrolling through mindless social media … Facebook. Horrible events and headlines followed by more negativity and narcissism on social media cluttered my mind with more useless, mostly toxic, and unnecessary distractions. Not to mention the endless stream of advertising and propaganda I exposed myself to.

So I unplugged. I took social media and all the news apps off my phone. I made it a habit that if I got on the internet it would be for a reason. I would look up topics that interested me, that were not click bait bullshit meant to contort your soul and brainwash your mind. I would keep one news feed where a cursory headline of the top stories would let me know if the apocalypse had commenced and make proper preparations but otherwise: Who cares? Who cares what the President said yesterday that offended so and so. Who cares what my old friend from middle school is making for dinner tonight? Who cares that my college buddy is now rich [ or at least portrays himself to be on his FB account]— and has now has such a diametrically opposite world view than I do that it is hard to imagine I once considered him my best friend at all?

  1. It takes you away from where you are and eventually who you are.
  2. It is designed to be very addictive; therefore, it is. We are assuming that addiction to anything is not positive.
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3. Time is a nonrenewable resource: you never get it back. I can’t imagine being on my death bed one day regretting that I had spent so few hours scrolling my phone for news or social validation.

4. What we focus our attention on has a tendency to grow. In effect, watching or reading hours of news and social media every week controls, in a way, what we focus on. Media naturally tilts to the negative … the data is pretty clear that calamity increases newspaper sales and television news ratings. The same is true for social media … at the end of the day the house always win. You see more negative shit and advertising that good stuff.

  1. Be aware of how much time you are spending on your devices for work and free time.
  2. Abstain for sustained periods of time to recharge your mind. (People do it with food and substances all the time; why not more technology cleanses?)
  3. Reward yourself for going without.
  4. If you use a computer for work; keep all internet tabs closed.
  5. Avoid mindless scrolling as a habit. Use the internet strategically to look up information that you need — not every time you can’t remember something or are anxious about something.
  6. If you must read or watch the news — limit it to 5–10 mins in the morning or whenever you have time.
  7. Experiment with not having cable television, if you currently subscribe. Maybe just have Netflix or Amazon to make it harder to mindlessly hop channels; however, beware of binging on those too.
  8. Take frequent walks or other activity without your phone — or do so with it completely silent.

I love writers and journalists and innovative technology. We need reporters to cover our news and watch over the systems that control us. Unfortunately, much of the media is now that system. Let’s not lose our humanity to datafication and the obsession to digitize, document, and classify everything. I’ll succinctly conclude this meandering diatribe with an appreciative nod to iconic American reporter Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965), most famous for his brave coverage of World War II and the smear tactics of anti-communism zealot, Senator Joseph McCarthy:

Good night and good luck …

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