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SAWANT: How being 'chronically online' has diminished our ability to think critically

Column: Sincerely Rue

When we are transfixed by comments people make on social media, we are quick to attack them instead of considering important things like context and intent.  – Photo by Daria Nepriakhina / Unsplash

The internet has done a revolutionary job of connecting people across the globe. Access to new ideas contributes significantly to society and our humanity by opening our minds to lifestyles very different from our own and ways of thinking we would have never entertained.

Oftentimes, we can use this knowledge in person, sharing the things we have learned with others or using our new knowledge to take on better-informed positions in our day-to-day conversations, political elections and relevant social commentary.

In this way, it is easy to see how the power of the internet and its effects on our minds and thought patterns are a vital component of the dissemination of individual thought, as well as the evolution of our culture and ourselves.

Yet, like anything else in life, too much of a good thing can be … not so good.

Time spent excessively online is also referred to as being "chronically online." Such a state is characterized by a skewed sense of reality and a false sense of moral superiority or even entitlement to force their opinions on others' content for the sole purpose of morally policing them.

It is no surprise that this is what the internet has come to, given the onslaught of social justice warriors and others who believe they know better than anyone else solely due to how much time they have spent on the internet.

For example, almost a year ago, a tweet went viral where the user wrote: "My husband and I wake up every morning and bring our coffee out to our garden and sit and talk for hours. Every morning. It never gets old and we never run out of things to talk to. Love him so much." Sounds sweet and wholesome, right?

In fact, the tweet got a lot of hate, with people replying to the user asking if they even have jobs, that it must be nice to be rich, that their happiness will not last and that it was quite insensitive of them to post such a tweet when many other people are in unhappy relationships or are single, not by choice.

There was nothing inherently problematic about the post itself. The user simply shared a part of their life that they cherish, which attracted a blitz of negativity that was not warranted — given that the original post was not meant to be caustic and certainly not purposely offensive to individuals in unhappy relationships.

With increased sharing and social commentary brought about by many social media platforms, people are exposed to the personal stories, opinions, thoughts and feelings of thousands of other people, often in minutes. If you really think about it, this is not normal.

It reduces human experiences to snack-sized tidbits. This mass consumption of other people's trauma, unique thoughts and innermost feelings on a very fleeting, impersonal level has led to a false sense of obligation to adhere to some ambiguous moral code that is not obvious and extremely different for everyone.

In reality, it is impossible to say something that will sit well with every single person who will read it. On the internet, it is easy for people to villainize others for voicing opinions they may not agree with or based on assumptions they jump to on their own. As I mentioned, the things we often share on the internet come with such little context to support it that people take what they want from it.

Such chronic online activity also stems from the internet reducing the accountability individuals would be required to take, if any, if this kind of discourse happened in person. People feel increasingly comfortable with saying things they would not normally say when they have the safety of a physical screen and some level of anonymity on their side.

No one would say to another person's face that their happiness will not last or that they are not allowed to be happy if they shared something that brought them joy. So what is it about the internet that causes people to be comfortable enough to do it online?

In obvious ways, the internet has increased the entitlement of regular people to something problematic and harmful. This makes sense, given how much of our discourse now occurs online rather than face-to-face.

Where human interaction leaves room for empathy and discretion, the internet does not. For these reasons, people must be mindful of their words and not let the increasing permanence of online sharing distort our human understanding of reality.

Rujuta Sawant is a Rutgers Business School senior majoring in business analytics and information technology and minoring in political science. Her column, "Sincerely Rue," runs on alternate Sundays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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