Our parents warned us the internet would break our brains. It broke theirs instead.
Illustrated | iStock, Wikimedia Commons November 25, 2020 Sign Up for Our free email newsletters 10 things you need to know today Today’s best articles Today’s top cartoons The good news newsletter The week’s best photojournalism Daily business briefing Daily gossip newsletter Parenting newsletter Solving COVID newsletter The week’s big question NEW
My college dorm was the first place I had reliable home internet access, and that was in part because my mom shared all the late 1990s and early 2000s parenting fears about the internet breaking our brains.
These worries were an extension of prior concerns about television: Don’t sit so close! You’ll hurt your eyes looking at a screen that long. How many hours today? That stuff rots your mind. You’re getting manipulated by ads. Go outside. Go see your friends. No, you can’t see an R-rated movie — those images will be in your brain forever. No, we’re not watching that on a school night. No, you can’t have one in your room! Advertisement
With the internet, there was an extra element of suspicion: Don’t use your real name or post a picture of yourself. Pedophiles could be literally anywhere! Don’t go to sites you don’t know. Porn could be literally anywhere! Don’t believe everything you read, especially if it’s not from a reputable source. Lies could be literally anywhere!
Two decades later, so many boomers that warned millennials to be careful on the internet seem to have forgotten all their own warnings. Their brains are broken, and that destruction is threatening to break our relationships, too.
The brain-breaking effects of the internet are by now well-documented. Author Nicholas Carr was a Pulitzer finalist in 2011 for his exploration of the subject in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which remains a landmark work on this phenomenon. “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory,” Carr wrote in an Atlantic article that inspired the book. “My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.” The internet, Carr said, “is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”
That article came out in 2008, when Twitter was just two years old, a silly place where you pointlessly announced your breakfast, and Instagram didn’t exist. Facebook felt innocuous — Carr didn’t even mention it in a story about the destructive mental effects of “the Net,” an unthinkable choice today. The risks our brains faced then, real though they were, look laughably meager now. Advertisement
The attention span degradation Carr described has massively accelerated in the dozen years since his Atlantic story published, time in which social media and smartphone use has become ubiquitous. Our habitual distraction is debilitating; “addiction” is often neither too strong a word nor entirely metaphorical.
But it’s not only that: The brokenness I’m describing is more than distraction. Carr focused on the medium over the message. “[I]n the long run, a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act,” he said in his book. I don’t disagree, but what we’re seeing now is that the content itself cannot be discounted as a potent force of mental disorder and relational discord.
There is so much content on the internet, and so much of it is bad. It is blasting in your face relentlessly. To navigate it well — to discern truth and lies, to parse one’s own emotional and reflexive responses, to summon the mental energy to pay attention to credibility and incentives and the small, almost indescribable cues that might indicate whether a piece of content is to be trusted — is very difficult. It is especially difficult for those who have low digital literacy because they did not grow up using the internet.
Time and again I’ve had some variation of the following conversation with my mother, whom I am worried is drifting from garden-variety low-information folk libertarianism into whatever nonsense she happens upon in the weird dregs of YouTube.
Me: This is really sketchy; I don’t think you should read it.
Her: What’s sketchy about it?
Me: I can’t even tell you if you can’t see it. It’s a bunch of little things. It’s … like look at that logo. You can’t trust that.
Her: But why? Try to explain it to me.
Me: Just look at the logo! Look at the way it looks!
Then she sends the sketchy thing to another boomer, who immediately accepts it as gospel, and I know I’ve failed, but I don’t know how I can better communicate what I see. I don’t know how a few texts from me can compete, from hundreds of miles away, with YouTube video after YouTube video, each worse than the last, no matter how much YouTube claims to have fixed its algorithm. I don’t know how 20 minutes on the phone a couple times a week can carry more weight than her daily grind of content consumption.
It’s not just the logo. It’s never just the logo. And it’s all so obvious to me and invisible to her as to be ineffable for both of us. I don’t know what to do.
This brain-breaking most often happens in connection to politics, particularly amid the sheer intensity of this year’s political scene. There is “a type of person who has become a trope of sorts in our national discussion about politics and disinformation: baby boomers with an attachment to polarizing social media,” Charlie Warzel wrote in a New York Times report Tuesday. Warzel focused on social media’s role in brain breaking — he spent several weeks in the “information hellscape” of two such boomers’ Facebook feeds — but the phenomenon isn’t confined to social media. It’s our entire media climate. That also includes cable news, which has perpetual motion and emotional manipulation in common with the internet. The brain brokenness this climate produces has become a trope with good reason.
Whenever I bring up the subject of broken boomer brains to my peers, the response is the same: My dad is just like that. My mom does that too. I’m begging my parents to stop watching Fox. I’m begging my parents to stop watching MSNBC. I would break their TV if I could. I would set up parental controls on their internet if I could. I tried to get my stepdad off Facebook — I ended up having to unfriend him on there instead. They’re always on Twitter. They’re always on YouTube. They’re always posting memes. They’re always texting links. We can’t have a conversation about politics anymore. They’re always dialed up to 11.
And then, the gutting conclusion, repeated to me four times just in the last 24 hours: Well, at least it’s not only my parents? At least there’s not something uniquely wrong with the people I love.
None of this is to suggest my generation’s brains are immune to internet breaking. But there are some important distinctions here — three in my observation — that give this a generational dimension.
The first (and this is based in data) is that younger generations are less likely to dose themselves daily with the poison of cable news, so that’s one less source of content blasting. For those who consume cable news on a regular basis, the immersion becomes nigh impossible to break. Consider this account from an unnamed reader to conservative writer Rod Dreher on the subject of boomers, like his father, who have made cable news consumption a structural component of their lives:
These guys get up at 6 a.m. and watch Fox & Friends until 8 a.m. They go to work and watch Outnumbered during their lunch break at 12 p.m. They get home from work at 6 p.m. and watch [Fox pundits] Tucker [Carlson], [Sean] Hannity, [Laura] Ingraham, etc. until 11 p.m. All the while, they’re on their phones or their laptops sharing memes with their buddies and arguing with strangers on social media. […] It’s ruining my dad’s life. He’s estranged from one of his brothers because they can’t stop talking about politics. His doctor said Fox was a major contributor to his heart attacks, but he won’t stop! And he’s not the only one. [via The American Conservative]
This story mentions Fox, but it happens with other channels, too — CNN and MSNBC on the left, and OANN for the fringier right. Brains don’t break in a single partisan direction. The medium is the same across the political spectrum.
And that brings me to the second generational distinction: the degree of innate understanding of the medium. I do not think my older family members understand the extent to which the content they encounter is tailored by algorithms to set their lizard brains on fire. Like the majority of their peers, as a 2019 survey showed, they probably don’t understand an algorithm is involved at all. They insist they do understand, but their behavior tells me they do not.
They drift with the algorithm. They’re statistically more likely to share misinformation and fail to identify content designed to take their money. They get on YouTube to watch a home improvement guide or some little history video about World War II, and three videos later they’re watching conspiracy theories about how COVID-19 is going to make us communists, and this transition apparently sets off no alarm bells in their heads. I sit them down and say you should never accept a recommendation from YouTube. Turn off auto-play. Only watch what you deliberately choose to watch. And they say, yes, yes, that’s a wise idea — and then they painstakingly click over to the conspiracy video four deep in the recommendations sidebar and deliberately choose to watch it.
I thought my own parents would be safe from all this because — thank God — they are not on any of the big three social media sites; they don’t have cable; and their tech skills are limited. As it turns out, that’s irrelevant. The internet is so user-friendly now it can break anyone’s brain! YouTube and a few political email lists are all it takes. And now that this content history is established, my mom’s search results are tailored accordingly. The brokenness is self-reinforcing.
The third distinction is real-life social networks, a distinction that has been grossly exacerbated by the isolation of the pandemic. The digital communication my friends and I have used to stay close these past nine months has been far from ideal, but it is much better than nothing. We can still talk. We can still “gather” to play games online and share joys and troubles.
Our parents have generally not managed that pandemic-time connectivity to their friends — if indeed they had close friends in the first place. A common thread in my discussions of broken boomer brains is a lack of intimate friendships and hobbyist communities. In the absence of that emotional connection and healthy recreational time use, this media engagement can become a bad substitute. The memes become the hobby. The Facebook bickering supplants the relationships. And it’s all moving so fast — tweet, video, meme, Tucker, tweet, video, meme, Maddow — the change goes unnoticed. The brain breaks.
I’ll close by again reiterating I do not mean this as a generational broadside. Boomers are not the only ones whose brains the internet is breaking. Though I do think the generational trope is significantly correct, I’m aware daily that my brain is also broken.
I am working to keep it from breaking further. I don’t have apps for email, Facebook, or Twitter on my phone. I try to stay off Twitter all weekend and eschew news and political content all day on Sunday. Each morning, I do my damnedest not to let looking at my phone be the first thing I do. I track my phone screen time and set caps on the time I can spend on political sites I frequent and social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat. I mute any friend whose Instagram story is political, because I know the tiny adrenaline rush it produces will help to train me to check Instagram more often than I should. I unsubscribe from everything I can. I am determined to use what I’ve learned about my broken brain to keep my children’s brains from being broken, too.
I am obliged to be on the internet all the time for my work, and I love it, but I hate it. More days than not I ignore my own best-laid plans to keep my brain as unbroken as I can. In a real sense, I took those early internet warnings to heart. What worries me so much is that too many of the very people who warned me seem to have forgotten their warnings entirely. They’re not fighting the break. It seems like they don’t even feel it anymore.
“Our parents’ generation, no less than ours, was totally unprepared for the advent of digital technology and mass media,” wrote the reader with the Fox News dad. “They’ve been sucked into their screens like the rest of us.” They weren’t physically abducted, as they feared we could be by a chatroom catfisher in 1999. But it can still feel like the people we know and love are gone.