Why Facebook Is Making You Stupid

When I was growing up, there was endless debate about how watching TV made you stupid. The basic argument was that the mindless consumption of non-information made you lazy, and the constant channel surfing destroyed your ability to focus on one thing at a time.

The way most people surf the web today, however, makes channel-surfing seem like a deep intellectual activity. When we scroll through our Facebook news feed, we’re switching from one thought to the next in a matter of seconds. If you don’t already have ADD, this constant over-stimulation and task switching is a great way to develop it.

The saddest part is that almost none of the thoughts we’re switching between are worth reading. When you think about it, all of the interesting things that human beings are creating are being created in other media. People are writing, composing, producing great movies and TV shows, building new software, creating art and architecture, and none of it is on Facebook. The only reason people go on Facebook is to toss off some throw-away thought or pithy quip. Facebook collects all this mental garbage and displays it to you, with ads. It’s the sewer of human thought. It’s appropriate that it’s called a news “feed”, since when you sit down to read it, you’re just like a pig shoving its face into the trough to feed on whatever garbage the farmer doesn’t want.

“But wait!” I hear you protest “I have this one friend who always has really funny status updates!” or “I have friends who always post really interesting articles!”. I’m sure you do, just like I’m sure there are vitamins in the pig trough, and that interesting things occasionally get flushed down the toilet and wind up in the sewer. That doesn’t mean you should spend all your time there.

At least on TV, some of the shows are good. Some are educational, or some are critically acclaimed works of art. How often do you actually learn anything from your Facebook news feed? How often do you see something that genuinely makes you laugh, not just click “Like” or if you’re feeling generous, type “LOL”?

Sure, it happens once in a while, and this is the key to the addiction: variable reinforcement. It’s why rats will push a button 100 times even though they only get a a food pellet once, and the same reason gamblers keep playing even though they’ve been losing for hours – the anticipation of a reward is just as powerful as the reward itself.

So how can you break the cycle? I’m not really sure. I don’t recommend quitting Facebook completely. It’s still a useful way to stay in touch with friends. But I have noticed that I feel happier, calmer, and more focused on the days I don’t scroll through my Facebook news feed and I just check messages on my smart phone. Usually, the insipid and irrelevant status update at the top of the news feed is enough to remind me that I don’t want to scroll through 4 more pages of the same. But somedays I get bored and I start wading through the sewer looking for a hit of mental stimulation. And I always feel a little gross afterward, like I just ate too much junk food.

Because when you have attention-deficit disorder, like I do, you realize that attention is your most precious resource, and you must be very careful about where you spend it.

Or put another way “There’s lots of good food for thought out there. Don’t fill up on bread.”

And stay the hell out of the sewer.

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