How Social Media Deceives Us

Does using social media make us dumber?

That’s a question author Nicholas Carr posed in his wonderful book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains in 2011.

Unfortunately, the book has not aged well. I don’t mean the information is not important or is outdated. I mean we’re now even dumber. Continually pursuing knowledge on the web and scrolling through our social media feeds has made us intellectually inferior or just plain stupid.

We don’t need to memorize the meaning of new words; we can look them up. We don’t need to look at a map and figure out where to drive; we let Google tell us.

Carr explains how this cultural shift has created bad habits. Our brains are filling up with more knowledge as we surf and use social media, but the data is falling out the back of our brains at an alarming rate—and it’s getting worse.

We consume more data and we retain less and less.

“The brain’s capacity is not limited,” Carr wrote in a new introduction to his book. “The passageway from perception to understanding is narrow. It takes patience and concentration to evaluate new information—to gauge the accuracy, to weigh its relevance and worth, to put it into context—and the internet, by design, subverts patience and concentration.”

Author John Eldredge has called this “the constant barrage of the trivial.” He notes in his amazing book Get Your Life Back: Everyday Practices for a World Gone Mad that higher brain functions such as perception and empathy toward others develop in the brain at a slow pace. Carr estimates that about half of our waking life today is spent staring at screens. It’s no wonder we’re all a little less engaged with each other. We’re frantic about clicking all day, but as Carr notes, we now spend only six minutes per day reading books.

What Is Knowledge?

A question worth asking is, Why do we even care?

We live in an age when no task is ever fully completed. We don’t revel anymore. There’s always another website or link to share. Every click leads to another click. We’re continually accumulating superficial knowledge we’ll never use.

It creates a constant state of superficiality.

Does all this surface knowledge make us smarter? Not really. More information leads to more noise. It’s swirling all around us. Whatever we’re experiencing—tech obsession, morbid obesity, drug use, marital woes—the solution we have picked of mindlessly using social media is not working.

In Greek, there are two words for knowledge. I’ll spare you the actual Greek terms, but cutting to the chase, one word for know means an accumulation of knowledge. We know our own email address and phone number. We know the names of our kids, the gerbil, the dog, and the cat. Some of us would like to forget we have a cat, but that’s another story.

The second type of know is far more interesting. The Greek word for this type of knowing implies intimate knowledge. I’m not talking about facts and figures. It means knowing things about people we love, learning at a deeper level.

Sadly, social media always involves the first kind of knowing. Every new post creates more noise and more preoccupation. “Being busy does not always mean real work,” wrote Thomas Edison. This from a guy who never even used Instagram!

We like the clicks. We think the furious flutter of liking posts is the same as productivity. The curious question for the age is, Why in the world do we like social media so much? The great deception is that we’re not getting smarter after all.

Why Do We Spend So Much Time on Social Media?

Like all bad habits, we honestly don’t know why we use social media so often. It’s a reckless abandon to wasted time.

By going online in a mindless state or visiting the same old social media apps, we develop a habit of shallow repetition. We check TikTok even when we know it’s mindless drivel. We visit Twitter and come up for air many hours later.

The perceived value of an activity or task should drive what we do.

It should motivate our behavior.

With social media, it doesn’t seem to work that way. We gravitate toward valueless activities and tasks because they are easier. The lack of any value drives what we do. Maybe that’s the point: driving nowhere.

Time is short and everything we do matters. Living with intention means going far beyond mere self-development and mindfulness about our inner emotions and thoughts. The tasks we do each day should match up with our underlying purpose. Visiting that favorite Pinterest page is not wrong; spending another three hours looking at tree ornaments sure is. It’s probably not even the holidays.

Our time on social media should be intentional so that we can quickly complete our tasks and then move back into the real world where we can make a difference.

Vapid scrolling won’t provide fulfillment, so developing better social media habits makes sense. More intentional social media habits also addresses a serious workplace problem: we’re not really working when we’re scrolling. According to one study by Kronos Incorporated, many of us engage in what they call fake work. Half of what we do each day doesn’t advance the mission or purpose of the company.

When we free up more time for things that matter in life, we live with a greater sense of joy and purpose. We don’t have to worry about success or pursuing more knowledge or more facts.

How do we find wonder at work? It’s not on the web. IDC estimates the average office worker spends about 30 percent of their time searching for information on the web. That’s two and a half hours per day.

Sadly, we’re not talking about purposeful improvement here. We’re talking about what productivity expert Cal Newport calls the hyperactive hivemind. In a conversation I had with him recently, he explained how being online encourages rabbit trails. It might be our job to do web research, so we dive in on Google and later discover we’ve wasted countless hours surfing. We justify this type of browsing because the initial task seems valid. We let technology dictate what we do, why, and when.

“We need to start by figuring out what is important and then strategically deploy technology in very specific ways,” he suggested.

He then explained how being intentional with activities like social media starts with figuring out what is restorative and meaningful.

We tend to do this backward. We start a doom scroll on Instagram and let the technology dictate to us what is meaningful.

“Once you know what you will use technology for, you can work backward and use it on your own terms,” he says. “Some of us need to be really drastic. We need to stop seeing technology as a psychological pacifier and a distraction.”

When we use social media, we often fill our brains with useless information that leads to a false sense of productivity. Our brains hurt a little when we do this, but we can’t stop. But are we completing any goals? Is that knowledge accumulation working? Is the salve helping or are we slaves? I’d argue that constant social media use is creating hapless minions who don’t know what we’re talking about half the time.

You know what a minion looks like, right? A yellow blob without a brain.

Excerpt from my book The 7-Minute Productivity Solution.

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