There is a part of the human brain that allows us to watch TV, movies, stage plays, read books, and understand simultaneously that what we are experiencing is not real, but is potentially full of truth, or at least entertainment value. I’m talking about the suspension of disbelief. We know Harrison Ford isn’t really an archaeologist, and he’s not really being chased by a bunch of angry tribesmen, who mysteriously can’t hit a barn with their spears. But we set that aside for two hours and allow ourselves to be entertained. We can watch fictional characters steal, shoot, stab, murder, rape, cheat on their spouses, lie to each other, blow stuff up, and even survive massive explosions. We don’t pass judgment. We just watch. Maybe smile or laugh. Eat another piece of popcorn.
I believe that same part of the brain is what participates in most social media. Our bodies sit at a computer, or tap away on a tablet or phone, but our moral and ethical sub-routines are disengaged.
The consequences of this are that much of what a person does online–whether it is playing games, trolling, gambling, or participating in private conversations in social media–fails to register or be filtered by the moral compass. You chat with someone privately, and you or they might say something completely inappropriate, like asking a married person for a date, or sexting, but it’s just words on a screen because the moral sense is not engaged. You play a first person shooting game, and blow other players away, and nothing about it feels wrong because it is virtual. What a person does online is not perceived as having real life consequences. But it does. Shooting other players in a game hardens people to each other. It puts up barriers. Gambling or playing games that cost money for tokens ruins a family’s finances, even if cash is not involved. And pretend intimate relationships violate the trust that a couple used to expect from each other. When you sext with someone, you invest the time and energy that would be better spent on your partner. But for that moment in the virtual world, there was a part of you that believed or experienced the sexual encounter. You were still unfaithful to your partner.
For many, the social media environment feels safe because they do not invest in the person they are chatting with online. It’s an escape. They don’t have to pay bills with that person, or settle their differences, or figure out what to do about a financial change of plans. It’s easy. But it’s just a cartoon. And because social media environments are so completely addictive, and because so many people get a flutter with any new perceived relationships, a lot of people get trapped by their own short-sightedness. They spend hours online with these cartoon friends, and let their real life relationships suffer. Some people even migrate these online relationships to telephone and Skype, and that’s when it gets even more dangerous. It’s more addictive, feels more real, but it still isn’t. That other person is still hundreds or thousands of miles away, and they are still not invested in you. If you vanish, they move on to someone else to get their online jollies.
Time itself is altered by these social media experiences. You think you’re online for ten minutes, but it was an hour. Or you plan to be chatting in Fitbit or Twitter for an hour, but suddenly it’s three hours past your bedtime. In the end, what have you got out of it? You’ll be tired at work tomorrow, your partner feels neglected, your kids feel abandoned, and you gained nothing. Those people you chatted with for three hours are not going to pay your bills. They are not going to get you soup when you’re sick, and they aren’t helping with the household chores or your kid’s homework. What you did was a waste of precious time.