Is it time to unplug?

I remember teasing a friend a few years ago for being one of the only people I knew who still wore a watch everyday.
“I wear it so I won’t look at my phone to see the time and get sucked into emails and social media,” he explained, shrugging.
This was, of course, pre-Trump election days, when bad news was still coming at us, but wasn’t coming at us every 10 to 20 seconds on a constantly updating Twitter feed. Therefore, I dismissed his phone-avoidance as just another quirk.
But lately, I’ve been thinking more about that conversation and others — like the recent talk I had with a friend who told me they “just feel happier,” after taking a Twitter break for a day or two, and the conversation with a family member who said they sometimes cry after seeing too many “happy family” pictures on Facebook.
Camas School District Jeff Snell brought this point up at a recent “State of the Community” address, and joked that no one ever posts photos of their families dealing with hard times or looking like they’ve just wrestled a cat (he didn’t put it that way, but I’ve been literally wrestling my suddenly diabetic elderly cat lately, so I guess the imagery was in my head).
Snell wondered: What does this do to students who look at this onslaught of happy photos and wonder if they’re all alone in sometimes feeling blue or not entirely put together?
Research on social media’s link to stress is mixed. One interesting study, conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015, found that frequent social media users didn’t necessarily feel more stressed out, but that users — in particular, women users — who viewed others’ stress and pain throughout the day on social media sites were likely to experience something called “the cost of caring.”
“Those users who feel more stress are those whose use of digital tech is tied to higher levels of awareness of stressful events in others’ lives,” the researchers noted. “This finding … adds to the evidence that stress is contagious.”
Well, great. No wonder we all feel just a little more stressed out lately. It’s contagious!
Another report by the American Psychological Association (APA), disagreed with the Pew Research results, stating that their own research found that “constant users,” or those who check into social media accounts throughout the day were more likely to report feeling more stressed-out than those who checked social media only occasionally.
And if that weren’t enough to make you want to ditch your Facebook or Twitter apps, consider the news that came out this week regarding the weaponizing of social media to help swing our nation’s elections. In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Facebook heads admitted that their platform pumped Kremlin-linked propaganda out to 126 million people during the 2016 presidential election. Facebook and Twitter lawyers also said that the majority of the pre-election propaganda targeted then-candidate Hillary Clinton.
That APA study also found that, while about 65 percent of Americans say taking a “social media detox” is an important to their mental wellness, only about 28 percent say they’ve actually unplugged for any significant amount of time.
And, as it turns out, Superintendent Snell was right to worry about the youth — the APA study also reports that Millennials are far more likely to report high stress levels connected to technology than the Gen Xers who came before them, with nearly 50 percent of Millennials studied saying that they “feel disconnected from family because of technology.”
Disengaging is tough, though. And social media isn’t really meant to be a “sometimes” thing. Those feeds are meant to catch and keep our attention. If we were simply engaging with our closest family and friends — still just sharing photos of our cute puppies and Halloween decorations — that might be OK. But people believe what they read on Facebook and Twitter, and it influences their behavior. During the election, a Russian bot convinced more than 10,000 to attend a “grassroots” rally.
Maybe it’s time for all of us to rethink how we use social media? Do we want to keep using more and more technology just because it’s there?
I’ve decided to unplug from social media for a week. Maybe I can use the extra time to enjoy this gorgeous fall weather (and wrestle that diabetic cat into insulin bliss). I’ll let you know how it goes.

~ Kelly Moyer, managing editor

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