Social Distancing From Social Media

In this viral moment, it may be timely to socially distance from social media.

While there’s a really serious disease out there at the moment – with real risks and real precautions that are necessary to mitigate those risks – it seems to me that the current digital realm is a separate disease that may be doing us more harm than good. 

In the last week, my Internet feed and no doubt many of yours has seen the following:

* Professional journalists offering countless Tweets criticising expert-advised strategies as somehow inappropriate and inadequate, condemning the ineffective “mixed messaging”, and citing overall community anxiety. Too often, this material doesn’t cite any data or evidence at all, or it source-mines random quotes from Dr Somebody who happens to confirm the Tweeter’s starting point bias.

* Anxious Facebook status posts and What’s App shares from otherwise normal Australians about which supermarkets still do or don’t have pasta or toilet paper that generally feed the beast of panic buying (in one of the world’s most affluent countries).

* Blame attribution across all sorts of digital platforms, whether it’s Scott Morrison’s fault for the somehow flawed design of the containment strategy (when the actual national approach is actually bi-partisan), officials’ fault for not closing the schools (when the advice from the best epidemiologists is advising against it), or “selfish people” (who got to the 18 rolls of toilet paper you were aiming to buy before you got there).

It’s a toxic stew of subjectivity, irresponsibility, and unfiltered emotional responses with the added steroids of social media’s speed and sometimes anonymity. Given the uncertain and bad effects of COVID19, it seems that our primal stress responses of “fight, flight, and fear” have found a contemporary and convenient platform.

Social media’s possible harmful impact can’t be easily dismissed given its saturation in our everyday lives. Large-scale and credible psychological studies have shown that negative thinking and exposure to negative thinking can and does increase people’s chances of developing a diagnosable mental illness. The spouses of people of depression, for example, are more likely to also get depression. It follows that if we look at significant amounts of material characterised by anxiousness and sadness, there are likely to be consequences. If we are constantly immersed in something, some of us can drown.

Moreover, while scientists are still determining COVID 19’s precise level of contagion, it’s known that our emotions can be contagious. The concept of ‘emotional contagion’ (EC) holds that, through mimicry and empathy, we sometimes feed off the emotions of others.  While we ultimately control our own realities through self-awareness, it’s actually the case – because of our social interdependence and its current logical transformation into ‘social media interdependence’ – that happiness can be “infectious” and that sadness, fear, and anxiety can “drag you down”. 

In fairness, social media is also currently providing the community with fast-paced, official and objective information about COVID 19, personal protection measures that should be taken, and public health initiatives by authorities. The Government’s corona app is, for example, a case study in excellent public health. communications This is not to be dismissed and it’s the other side of the ledger.

However, what’s different here is that people partly seek such information through choice and personal agency, eg, they look for specific information to educate and empower themselves. There’s also no denying the extraordinary ‘Corona comedy’ that toilet paper tussles, beer analogies, and silly face masks are generating, and it’s steadying effect.

But, it’s undeniable that if we are simply scrolling and not really engaging in ‘conscious computing’, the constant and huge tide of negativity is approaching Tsunami proportions, and threatening to smash us into the rocks of bleakness and bitterness.

It was interesting to note that some media outlets this week asked followers to post “good news” or “random acts of kindness” on their Twitter and Facebook feeds. Good on them for, at least intuitively, restoring some emotional balance and for basically highlighting the objective fact that somehow life is going on. 

Granted, life’s very different. Granted, there is genuine stuff – both health and economy related – to worry about if not get obsessive or overwhelmed. But, out here in the suburbs rather than on-line, so many of our daily and decent human interactions continue to very healthily take place every day – even as restrictions on movement and the scary and sad number of sick people goes up.

For every piece of stupidity in aisle 11 that can be seen on YouTube, or every mean-spirited or ill-informed exchange in Facebook comments, there’s somebody in real life who is doing more to look after their elderly grandparent, or having a joke with a workmate about bludging while “working at home”, or sharing around their supply of loo rolls, or just quietly going about their day and looking forward to an inevitable return to some normality.

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