too much information

The other day my son came walking upstairs where I was working, and I could tell he was agitated. He was sighing and pacing back and forth. Normally (especially this year) I would assume that something bad had happened during the Cubs game, but I knew they didn’t play until that night.

“What’s up, buddy?”

“Dad, is there going to be a nuclear war?”

I was more prepared to answer a question about why the Cubs can’t seem to get anyone out in the first inning this year. Logan had been on his tablet, and he read something about North Korea firing a test missile and that they were getting closer every day to having the ability to launch a nuclear weapon at the United States.

This is the world my son will grow up in – a world where a deranged idiot in North Korea has nuclear weapons and a world where, because of a ceaseless flow of information, he knows about, thinks about, and worries about a deranged idiot in North Korea with nuclear weapons.

I was reading recently that the Millennial generation is the most anxious generation in recent history. You can read an eye opening report on college students from 2014 here. More than 25% of college students have a diagnosed mental illness requiring treatment. Over 50% have felt overwhelming anxiety in the last year. Almost a third have felt debilitating depression. Over 8% have seriously considered suicide. These are truly alarming numbers. Something is clearly wrong. Where is all of this anxiety, fear, hopelessness, and depression coming from?

I’m not a psychologist. I don’t claim to know the answer. There are a lot of theories. Some have suggested the breakdown in family structure and stability as being a contributing factor. Some have pointed to changing economic realities – high debt mixed with a flat job market. Others have pointed to increased awareness and sensitivity to mental health as a factor. Some have just (lazily and unfairly) suggested that this generation is soft and needs to toughen up. It’s the “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” school of thought.

There is not one answer to the question of anxiety in our culture. But I wonder one large contributing factor to all of our anxiety is that in our modern, technologically saturated world we simply know too much.

One of the critical differences between this younger generation and previous generations is the amount of information at their finger tips at every moment of the day. Virtually all of us carry a super computer around in our pockets giving us more access to more information than any generation that has ever lived. This cannot be regarded as simply a benign influence on what it means for us to be human. This constant flow of information, I believe, is contributing to chronic anxiety for many people.

There is an interesting article in Psychology Today that I strongly recommend you read. The author argues that social media usage is a major factor in cultivating feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. In fact, it seems that the larger a person’s social media network is, the more anxiety they are prone to feel. When you add social media – where we can’t help but see ourselves in light of everyone else’s edited and filtered version of themselves – to the already angst-filled teenage years where we are unsure of ourselves and searching for an identity, you have a toxic mix. Signing up your 10-year-old for Facebook is like literally writing them a prescription for social anxiety and loneliness. In the words of the author, “Social media such as Facebook have become surrogates for seeking connectedness, and as a consequence our connections grow broader but shallower.” And he concludes, “It’s fair to say that use of social media by young people is not just a consequence of their social anxieties, but causes additional anxieties and stresses that are all grist for the modern day anxiety epidemic.” And no one is immune to this social media anxiety. When you see pictures of other families or friends enjoying their summer vacations going to fun or exotic places, isn’t there a part of you that begins to feel anxious or depressed that somehow you have wasted your summer? Or is that just me? If you are feeling anxiety, it seems one of the first things you should do is opt out of social media or at least severely limit your access to it.

I agree with everything the author of the article says about the relationship between social media and anxiety, but I do have a slightly different take on the relationship. And it has to do with crossword puzzles.

In 1985, Neil Postman wrote a book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death. Even though it is over 30 years old, I still believe this book is a must read for understanding the dynamics of our techno-entertainment culture. In the book, Postman makes a connection between the invention of the telegraph and the invention of trivia. The first crossword puzzle appeared around 1913, and it represented the dawning of a new type of diversion – the application of otherwise useless knowledge for entertainment. The telegraph had introduced new mountains of information into culture. The telegraph made it possible for a farm boy living in Nebraska to be informed about events in New York City or Paris. The world was suddenly much smaller. But this introduced a new challenge. Before the telegraph, information was locally relevant and meaningful. After the telegraph, information was much less locally relevant and thus less meaningful. Trivia became a way for people to put to use this new, otherwise useless information.

We are living in a similar moment, but the Internet is exponentially more significant than the telegraph. We are daily being pumped full of much more information than we need or can handle. Imagine walking into a coffee shop and seeing thought-bubbles containing the otherwise private thoughts of each customer hovering over every single head. Imagine how initially entertaining but eventually overwhelming and alarming it would be to have that much information. This is the situation every time you open up Twitter or Facebook. We are caught in an avalanche of new information – some of it immediately relevant to our lives, most of it not. Some of it silly. Some of it enlightening. Some of it disheartening.

And a lot of it is horrifying. We know all about terrorist bombings, nuclear weapons, campus protests, racial strife, food shortages, dictators, climate change, economics, and politics. And this isn’t even to mention all of the drama, heartache, and brokenness that we see on display in individuals’ lives when we get on social media. Every day on Twitter is like taking a trip through Revelation 6 if Revelation 6 also had cute dog pictures.

Then we are left wondering, “What do I do with all of this information?” So much of it is not immediately relevant to my life. I can’t really do anything about North Korea or dictators in Venezuela or the ramblings of President Trump on Twitter. I can’t even really do much about that Facebook friend who I barely know whose marriage is falling apart. Just as the crossword puzzle helped to provide an outlet for new information, social media itself provides an outlet for this new information. We go about the business of liking, favoriting, retweeting, sharing, replying – clicking buttons, choosing the perfect GIF, adopting the proper hashtag, expressing the appropriate level of outrage. All of these “interactions” almost start to feel imperative – like we have to respond in a certain way. Like our interactions actually have a certain agency, beyond simply making ourselves or others feel a certain way. But of course none of these interactions do much to actually change things. All we are left with is the residual feelings of anxiety or despair or powerlessness.

The serenity prayer famously says:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

But our new information age beckons us to worry about all the things we can’t change. We simply must be informed. We must be outraged. We must be anxious. What’s ironic is that all of this anxiety often goes along with neglecting those very things that we can change. Distant problems replace local needs.

Some will interpret this post as an invitation to ignorance. “So we shouldn’t know or care about North Korea?!” That’s not what I’m saying. I think that intelligent and responsible citizens should have a general knowledge of what is going on in the world and in their communities. But a little bit of ignorance is probably a healthy way to keep sane. And obsessing over things that you can’t change is not good for your mental health. It sounds heretical in our age, but we really don’t need to know everything (or share everything). Even in the Garden, God wanted to protect us from too much knowledge.

Lastly, being well informed does not necessarily have to lead to anxiety if we learn how to pray. Yes, we live in anxious times! But Jesus reminded us in Luke 12:25 that being anxious can’t add a single hour to our lives. Instead we should learn to trust God. Anxiety is a practical atheism that ends in despair. It is a blindness to the power and the care of a loving God. What did I tell Logan when he asked about North Korea? I told him the world is full of evil people and that Jesus has called us to pray and to trust that no matter what happens our God is in control and He will take care of our needs. I also told him to go outside, enjoy the beautiful day, and play baseball.

 

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