Is Social Media Making Us Dumb?

Is Social Media Making Us Dumb?

Reader Comments (47)

  1. now i have realized how was i trapped in this virtual world without even known that I have been trapped. Yes I have been wasting my precious time just to make myself connected.

    As well said this even cannot be shutdown as it has its own merits, will now analyze myself so that I am utilizing my time and not wasting it. Great Post @Sonia 🙂

  2. Fantastic, Sonia! For the past couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot of research in this topic. You can find a lot of examples through history about negative reactions to new media. Samuel Coleridge said that the reading of novels led to “… the entire destruction of the powers of the mind… it produces no improvement of the intellect, but fills the mind with a mawkish and morbid sensibility, which is directly hostile to the cultivation, invigoration, and enlargement of the nobler faculties of understanding.” An article in the American Annals of Education from 1835 talks about the gluttony of reading: “Thousands of young people spend their time in perpetual reading, or rather in devouring books. It is true, the food is light; but it occupies the mental faculties, for the time, in fruitless efforts, and operates to exclude food of a better quality.” Change “books” for social media and what’s changed? 🙂

    In the 50’s and 60’s it was TV and Sesame Street that were dulling kids’ minds and making kids unfocused. Even with the rise of ADD diagnoses, the actual “attention span” hasn’t measurably decreased (at least not in any research I’ve found). One problem is that what we think of as “attention” is actually a very complicated intersection of a number of processes, which involve top-down attention, bottom-up attention, cognitive load, selective attention, selective perception or selective intensity, etc. Or basically how we select what we focus on based on our preferences, desires, needs, etc.

    (Also, just to make people feel better, the whole 8-second fish attention span is also completely bogus!)

    We get worried when things change, but just as scientists find that our brains are rewired with new technology, they also find that the brain quickly implements adaptive mechanisms. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s job, kind of like how the brains of stroke victims adapt to take over functions located in damaged areas. A lot of shoddy science reporting makes this phenomenon out to be something bad (which it can be in certain cases), but is nevertheless a very normal biological function.

    Anyway, loved the post!

    • Thanks Amy!

      I was thinking this morning about why we never get the utopias that new technologies predict. I think maybe we do get them, and don’t appreciate them.

      I’m not a utopian about social media & the internet, but I think we can be wise about how we approach it in order to make the most of the benefits.

  3. It allows for shallowness (and so does any church picnic), but it does not require shallowness.

    This, I think, is key. I’ve been sucked into meaningless arguments countless times on social media, to the point where I made the rule (of which I try to keep as best I can) to not engage in “flame wars”.

    On a side note, I think you’d be interested to read this crazy article I read just last night, on a similar perspective toward social media:

    The Web We Have to Save

    • wow, really interesting.

      I think that like the rest of us, Derakhshan needs to watch what’s working to figure out which way to go next — but the time he spent in jail magnifies the gap, making that especially stark. Looking forward to seeing where he ends up …

  4. I’ve avoided getting a smart phone for just this reason. I realize I’ll have to get one eventually, but I don’t want to turn into one of those people who’s always on them. Plus, it helps me separate work life from personal life if I don’t have constant access to email.

    As it is, the more time I spend on, say, Pinterest, where the entertainment comes in a nonstop stream of rapid-fire bites, it seems like the harder it is for me to concentrate on one thing for a longer period of time (without taking little “distraction breaks”). But I’ve started reading books again in the last few weeks, and somehow, it’s more relaxing than spending an evening scrolling through a social media feed.

  5. I too have been online since the doorway to the world looked like “c:>” instead of cute little pictographs. What amazes me now is that so many people are wasting so much time on things that do nothing to make them better equipped to get by in the world. Or maybe I just don’t get how the games might do that, or I don’t understand why the Kardashians are so interesting. But I too have been sucked into useless drama, although I’m a lot better at backspacing my way out of it nowadays.

    In the end I think social media is doing a bit of both – some are getting smarter and some are getting dumber. I’m fortunate to have a lifestyle that demands regular interaction with nature, whether I feel like disengaging the matrix or not. I think that helps to maintain some sense of “place” in the real world.

    • I think the social web has become very empowering for ignorant people — which is not necessarily a good thing.

      Social Media Ents #ftw! 🙂

      Totally agree that regular connection with nature is a wonderful reset button.

  6. It is certainly a distraction! It’s funny how addicting it really is. Every time you hear the ringing of a notification or that slight buzz you want to immediately grab you phone and see what it is. I now work in 25 to 30 minute blocks and during that time I do not allow myself to check any messages. At first, the temptation to check as the notifications come pouring in is crazy. Until you start doing things like this you don’t realize how addicting it really is.

    • Agree! I have most notifications turned off, and when I’m writing, I often put the phone in another room.

      The ability to focus seems to be like a muscle — it can be strengthened, or you can let it atrophy.

  7. I am taking my comments in a different direction regarding social media.

    Several months ago I eliminated social media from my activities and have found life to be more enjoyable. There seems to be a perception with millions of folks around this world who seem to think that if it’s on the internet, it must be true and accurate. Civility and decency seems to be on a rapid decline when it comes to the interaction with others online. I got tired of reading about and dealing with this garbage and having it come into my life.

    Each of these things can be seen daily on forums like Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, main stream news media and others. We see the politicians using social media to assist them in their campaigns, while at the same time maligning the reputations of opponents. They spread distortions, lies and half truths. And many of their readers, sadly to say, buy into what is being said. No politician is above doing this regardless of the side of the aisle he/she sits on. Mainstream media provides their slant / agenda on issues and do not fully investigate the issues through sound journalism practices.

    Then there are the folks who post thoughts and opinions on these social media forums on just about any topic; whether underwater basket weaving to whether it’s PC to pick your nose while driving. We will see this on sites like Yahoo. Other folks take the liberty to rip people to shreds because they have differing thoughts or opinions on these topics.

    I have found social media to be a place where many folks say things to others that they would not normally say in a face to face discussion without starting an altercation. The anonymity of the Internet via social media seems give people undeserving license to be uncivil to others. A sense of decency has gone to the wayside in our world. Then we wonder why the PC police are all over the place; whether dealing with politics, college campuses, newspapers, racial and gender issues, etc.

    If we get right down the facts on these issues, social media is showing all of us there is decay in our society for things that were once valued; intelligence, civility, courtesy and decency. The problem is getting worse by the day. All you need to do is look around a doctor’s waiting room, restaurant and even while driving to see people with their noses buried into the screen of their cell phone seeing this take place.

    Modern technology is a wonderful thing nowadays if properly used. If improperly used it can eventually lead to our demise via auto accidents, decay in social values,lost intelligence and being misinformed.

  8. Balance is always difficult for me when it comes to blogging and family. I constantly have to remind myself about what it truly important! I don’t want to be social media dumb 😉 And social media is a big part of blogging. It can be sooo time-consuming!

  9. Sonia, my #1 tip is to have a project you can tinker on when boredom strikes.

    While you’re standing in the checkout line can you outline a blog post, collect images that inspire, or research quotes that prove your point?

    When I decide to cure boredom with fun creativity I find myself a lot happier.

    Also, it helps me to choose the right online communities to pour myself into. I ignore Facebook, but I’m prolific in the Authority Forums. Why? Because wasting time with others who are working on the same things keep me focused on making progress with the stuff that matters.

    Makes sense?

    • I’ve found being conscious about which communities you belong to is absolutely key. Even within Facebook or Twitter, your experience depends so much on your settings — who you’re connected with, how closely you’re connected, on Facebook which groups & pages you follow. I’m part of a very active & passionate group on FB and sadly it’s made me back away, because there’s always so much going on there that it becomes a time vortex. (I totally need a social media TARDIS to recover some of that time …)

  10. “But the world is the world. The economy is the economy.”
    Dealing with actual reality is frequently something we try to minimize and this is easy to avoid with emersion in social media that presents a world and economy to suit our individual perceptions. Problem is that sooner or later the world and the economy will rise up and force up into the real world with to frequent unintended consequences from not paying attention.
    “If you don’t find value on the social web, don’t participate. If you have other rich and meaningful communities in your life, spend your time there.”
    Managing our own behaviors while minimizing the influence of others (especially those with only minimal intimacy) can lead to better decisions. However, the magnetism of social media is strong. Finding acceptance is a strong incentive and too easily obtained in make believe worlds provided by many games.
    Social media itself is not making us dumb. It is more of an individual decision whether conscious or unconscious. It was summed up pretty well a few years ago by Forrest Gump;, “stupid is as stupid does”

  11. Great article. Yes it can be overwhelming. I schedule social media time after I have done my most important work in my business. Reading books, meditate and connect with people in real life is even better:-)

  12. Balance is essential. I’ve committed to taking one day away from all media each week. This includes television. It is amazing how interesting and entertaining the world can be when you reduce the distractions of social media and focus on just one thing at a time.

  13. Hi Sonia,

    Focus, or should we say lack of focus, is a serious, serious issue. It’s harder and harder to find employee’s who can master the skill of focusing on a single task.

    The phone is going off with texts, social posts and who know’s what else.

    The distractions at one time were so numerous in a previous company I had to create a policy that had real consequences.

    Is it dumbing us down? By the standards you set forth I would have to say that it is. Are there benefits as well? Of course there are.

    As others have commented, it’s a matter of discipline and focus. When I need intense time to think the phone just gets turned off. Problem solved, lol…

    I appreciate the section of your article on creative thinking. It’s the one skill being lost and the one skill we may need the most!

    Have an awesome week Sonia.

    ~ Don Purdum

  14. Thanks for a timely article, Sonia!

    At the moment, I’m writing my master’s thesis on cyberbullying, which requires both self-discipline and deep work.

    I’ve deleted the Facebook app from my phone and tried to stick to pen and paper for the most part. I don’t know about you, but pen and paper work better for me, at least during the earlier stages of writing (a blank screen tends to bring out the perfectionist in me, and stops me from exploring my ideas).

    So, to sum up I work in 30-50 minute time slots (the egg timer is my new best friend). Before I turn on my computer, I make sure I know why I turn it on in the first place. That practice has helped me become more focused and aware of my intentions. I check my social media accounts maybe once or twice a week, but I am more inclined to take part in special forums and groups on Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger. That’s where I get a lot of value, so that’s where I’ll hang out! 🙂

    Again, thanks for a thoughtful and well-written article!

    • Best of luck with the thesis!

      I’m a big fan of pen and paper, although I don’t write draft that way any more. But I work through ideas with a notebook & fountain pen.

      • Sonia;
        I am 58 years old; an antique compared to many of you. I don’t engage with Facebook, Twitter, or any of those other things. You see, I’m a 19th century man, a blacksmith in my youth and a sawmill worker now – a natural single tasker. I use the internet to accomplish my purpose of initial research into a subject, then I return to books to take it further. I might watch 5 hours of TV annually, if that much. I do enjoy email as a way of keeping in touch with certain people in my life.

        Like yourself, I have long been concerned about the dumbing down of Americans, and, despite long years of thought about it, I know of no panacea to alleviate it for the majority. All we can do to avoid the same fate – those of us who are cognizant of it – is to try to single-task our way to excellence at something. Focus comes from practice, and begins with eliminating distractions so as to facilitate thought. I play classical music softly to drown out background noise, and I do my best thinking early in the morning, before the roosters crow, when others are sleeping. It’s quite peaceful. Perhaps your other readers do similar things to facilitate their process ? I suspect they do. We Ents tend to be very much alike when it comes to our solitude.

        I have always enjoyed your writing, but this article especially so. Please don’t ever stop sharing. I wish you peace, and I thank you for your words.

  15. Sonia, this article is so timely for me right now. I have a love/hate relationship with social media and its distractions, as well as the changes to the way we interact with others, overall. It is all too easy to get sucked into the time warp of Facebook, for example, and find you’ve wasted countless hours doing nothing worthwhile.

    I have also wondered if the fact that so many seem to believe everything they read on Facebook, take to heart every meme they see, is damaging our collective psyches. I’ve made a conscious effort to place boundaries on my time online, though, like you, I’ve built some valuable relationships there. It definitely cuts both ways.

    I don’t think any online experience is as rich as doing things in the “real world.” The trick is finding the right balance.
    Great post!

    • Try the tip about having defined times for your social media — it helped me *hugely*.

      I know what you mean about the folks who seem to swallow every meme without a second thought. It’s a little … scary.

  16. I once read your article how you deleted facebook page after evidence based metrics and almost took it as gospel. I think you might need to do an addendum on that article and mention that “social media is not for every industry”. In mine, we have flourished on social media, free traffic and good conversions. Even a single conversion from free traffic is worth celebrating for.

    I read lots of copyblogger articles and love them.

    • Thanks Greg!

      I bet you would get a lot out of the CopybloggerFM podcast that will run next week (one week from tomorrow) — Pamela W. and I talk a bit about how to approach the advice or models that you find from other businesses.

  17. Thanks for these insights. I thought I was old-fashioned! SM is the perfect instrument for trivialising anything under the sun, and it’s already an epidemic. I feel isolated and alienated from this world, but feel no desire to jump on to the bandwagon. I’d rather curl up in bed with a book!

  18. In my opinion it’s always a matter of how, how much and what else. It’s like with almost anything else. Think sugar. How do you eat your sugar? How much sugar do you eat? What else do you eat/do?

    I eat sugar as part of fruits I eat. I limit sugar consumption to a few sweets a day. I eat a lot of vegetables beside that and move a lot.

    It’s similar with social media. I schedule social media time like any other task. I limit social media consumption to an hour or so usually. I use social media as a messaging tool (instead of mail for example). I write a lot and read books beside that. I limit my screen time in general. I don’t use a smartphone at all. I meditate twice daily.

    Use social media but don’t get addicted and let it use you.

  19. Probably one of the most common-sense and insightful articles I’ve read recently. Thank you — Copyblogger always gives us the good stuff. I appreciate it!

  20. Excellent article. Nowadays it’s so difficult to disconnect. We are always on, waiting for a new mail, a new comment… If I disconnect myself from the internet, I’m always anxious, afraid to be missing something.

    I’m trying to discipline myself. I go to the gym, I read paper books, I draw, I turn off all my devices… It works for a few days, but quickly I come back to the same… I think it has to do a lot with your mindset. I’m still looking for new strategies that work for me. Thanks for sharing this helpful advices.

    • Good luck! I’ve had the best luck focusing on relatively small habits and then building on that.

      You might try one of the focus apps, there are a lot of them, that block the distracting sites for certain periods every day. That way you’re not relying on limited will power to reach your goals.

  21. It’s no coincidence that I decided to observe Lent this year by significantly decreasing my use of social media, and this article published today. I believe in divine intervention! I feel like social media has become a distraction, both personally and professionally for myself and it’s time to re-wire my brain and how I use social media. I love this line you wrote: “We can control what we do, how we connect, what we choose to adopt or not. But the world is the world.” Social media has its place, but we all have a choice about how we spend our time and the boundaries we set in the social sphere. Thank you for this article – I needed it today!

  22. It always comes back to moderation. Whether we are talking about eating, drinking, sex, or social media, we as a society need to find a balance. There were a lot of valid points in this article and I am most concerned about our youth today when it comes to NOT having balance.

    I think our challenge is to help our adolescents today realize that the world doesn’t revolve around their phones. They need to look up and experience the world first hand. Better role-modeling from us adults sure would help … don’t you think?

  23. Hi,

    I am not a fan of Fox “news” but there’s one particular segment I watch when I can. It’s Watter’s World.

    He asks, college students often, basic political and historical questions.

    It amazes me the number of college students that do not know the name of the current Vice President of the U.S. or who the first President of the U.S. was.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg. It gets worse.

    The answers are Joe Biden as Vice and George Washington as the first President for those too busy on Social Media to know or bother to care.

    However, in their defense these same people know that Aunt Sara drank too much at the party last night and actually did put a lampshade on her head. OMG.

    Long live Donald Trump Sonia Simone. In a Democracy the people get the leadership they deserve and in this case that’s scary.

    BTW did anybody catch Kanye West’s latest rant. Peace Out.


  24. Hi Sonia.
    Having gone right back to basic’s in the blogging world i discovered you & the Copyblogger crew through some basic research.

    What a great post, basic yet highly informative
    It is easy to get sucked in to the Social Media circus ,yet for me i became aware of this & realised that these distractions are tools at our fingertips & should be viewed as such…….they are the machine…..WE are the operator.

    The 10 suggestions you outlined flow nicely together, time structure,self awareness, self education…..all great points…..especially number 10

    Don’t take for granted what you are told , try & find out for yourself…..i didn’t learn this until i was 40 year’s old….( 51 now )

    A big thank you to you & the Copyblogger crew who i have studied intensely now for the past 6 weeks…..Bye for now

    Darren Thompson…

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