Want to be content? Stay away from social media

You'll find you aren't irritated as often

WASHINGTON, D.C. - I have been moonlighting, running a clinical experiment on the effects of peer-group information networks on psychological well-being.

The control group I am working with is admittedly small. It’s actually only one person, so far – me. And the time frame is sub-optimal – about a month.

My team and I cut me off from what is technically called “online news industry gossip.” Then we closely monitored my state of mind and contentment metrics. I am happy to report that the preliminary findings, published here for the first time, support all of my preconceived notions: Too much “social” in one’s media consumption, and too much media in general, lowers contentment and heightens irritation.

In the past year, I have encountered more and more people who have sworn off of social media, especially Facebook. They say it makes them feel bad about themselves, more competitive, less accomplished, less perfect than others in their virtual communities.

I don’t use social media for socializing, so I couldn’t abstain for the sake of science.

What I did do was swear off looking at the sites that “cover” the “media” business. I couldn’t eliminate Twitter because I use it for my day job, but I tried not to peak at news business gossip and banter.

Before Web 2.0, the supply of published industry news – and gossip – was limited, as it was in all professions.  A handful of columnists and writers at big publications covered the news business, mostly television news.

These reporters, whose stuff appeared in general interest newspapers and magazines, mostly wrote about the biggest names and the top executives. Their  editors didn’t want stories about lowly producers and beat reporters.  Besides, paper and ink cost money.

That changed, of course, with the explosion of  web sites and social media. Routine promotions and job shuffling were covered like real news and gossip was treated like investigative reporting. The machinations of junior producers, social media editors, mid-level managers and industrious self-promoters were all reported with the same breathless, boosterish silliness. Twitter provided a 24/7 echo chamber.

We journalists were captured by the tricks we use on others – the flattery of seeing your name in print. We began to believe that we were kind of famous – and important, like the people we covered. We became more insiders than outsiders.  We are supposed to expose the self-promoters, not master the art.

But it was all fun. Until it wasn’t.

When I had management jobs, I thought it was important to follow all the industry news and gossip. But when I shed my shackles and returned to a writing job last year, I still kept up. And I noticed this incessant stream of bold-faced news was irritating me. I got cranky when I read about an undeserving ex-colleague’s promotion. 

I got mad when the Twitterista’s declared some tiny shred of news to be a SCOOP or mocked some rube that wasn’t as savvy as the rest of the in-crowd. I didn’t need to know so much about my so-called peer-group.

So I went cold turkey. And I feel much better, thank you. 

All this news was just noise. Information clutter. The chronicles of my profession were social, yes, but impersonal, communal but not intimate. I found it alienating. I haven’t missed it. I am in recovery and I’m sharing.

Now, journalists are notoriously well-balanced people. We have chips on both our shoulders. We are famously thin-skinned, voyeuristic, susceptible to schadenfreude, petty, and inclined to envy the success of others. I am certainly all of the above. Social media and the modern Web are not healthy places for my ilk.

But I suspect my growing discomfort with this social part of media is common.  

Among adults, some people who were once enthusiastic, even addicted users of Facebook, Twitter and online communities for work or play aren’t so enthusiastic anymore. They’ve overdosed. Distortions caused by virtual community – the lack of eye contact, intonation, and the way you can groom your online self – became less tolerable.

But I have watched this longer and more carefully for children, starting when mine were little. 

For years I have monitored and collected research about the effects of social media, video games, screen time, mobile phones and hyper-connectivity on child and adolescent development: attention span, information retention, social skills, anxiety and mental health. I could make a strong, empirical case that we should be worried. But I also know that I have cherry-picked the evidence.

But at least I can report that my little experiment had very positive results. And they’re easy to replicate.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Conservative Nebraska overturns death penalty]

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