The Distractions of Social Media and Procrastination

Social media distractionsIt would be nigh impossible to discuss the topic of procrastination without delving deeply into the phenomenon of distraction.  It is the fuel and energy that provides procrastination with such a powerful force in contemporary culture.  Just as it would be difficult to examine procrastination in the absence of a discussion on distraction, it would be nearly impossible to look at distraction today without analyzing the effects of the technological revolution.

While advances in technology have provided many benefits especially in the areas of the health sciences, it can have deleterious consequences in our personal and communal lives.  The advent of video games, online gaming, social media, texting, and their ilk have had profound effects on how we relate— and in some cases how we fail to relate— to each other and the world around us. These advances in the technology of entertainment have provided new avenues of distraction and thus procrastination. And although distraction is as old as the many desires that clamor for human attention, the particular forms, which distraction now take, were not known to previous generations.

In Ceri M. Sim’s paper on self-regulation coaching she notes, “It is no wonder that academic activities lose out over more alluring and readily available pursuits such as online gaming, social networking, and mobile phone text messaging that can bring immediate satisfaction all day long (Hedin, 2012).  One research study found that student Facebook users were more prone to distraction and claimed that it prevented them from getting on with their work (Kirschner & Karpinski, 2010).”

Social media venues such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, to name a few, exploit the real human need to communicate, connect, and commune with others and offer an addictive substitute that can have a pernicious influence on the user, even beyond the enticement of another distraction. They are all designed so that the user seeks more “likes” and comments from friends and associates.  These media become an alternative universe that can provide instant gratification and affirmation of one’s opinions and lifestyles.  There is also an inherently narcissistic quality present in these distractive media where individual spend countless hours checking their Facebook timelines for updates, taking selfies and posting them to Facebook, Twitter and other media. And although these social media may be used as a drug to change mood and lessen anxiety, they in fact often only heighten feelings of anxiety and stress as one views everyday tasks and responsibilities as burdensome and onerous.

In other words, these virtual distractions lead one into a semi-fantasy world of self-aggrandizement, pseudo-connections, and ultimately isolation leading to the neglect of real relationships with our neighbor and even with our God. In this context, tasks of being a Christian, a student, a worker, a husband, a wife, a father, or a mother, are neglected and considered secondary.

In his doctoral dissertation entitled, “Interventions for Procrastination,” Paul Himmelberg writes, “It is interesting and revealing that the term ‘ought’ has crept into this discussion. ‘Ought’ of course implies an element of obligation as well as a sense of impending judgment. If the task is not done there will be unpleasant consequences. Note that in this framework the task easily becomes a burden seemingly imposed from the outside. It loses its value as a worthwhile pursuit and becomes an albatross, a weight around one’s neck. Hence another facet of procrastination is a sense of being burdened, of having unwanted tasks.”

Everyday tasks and responsibilities themselves come to be viewed as a distraction rather than goals to be accomplished and duties to be performed.  This “alternate universe” impacts all aspects of individual life.  How often I’ve witnessed face-to-face conversations interrupted by the buzzing of a cell phone.  Even during church services, many priests have had to remind the faithful to shut off their cell phone during the divine services.

In an earlier post, I wrote about distraction in the context of prayer, “Distressing distraction in prayer, which sometimes develops into extensive conversations with ourselves, means that we are praying with our minds, but not with our hearts.” Such an observation may be extrapolated to all of our daily activities in which we are prone to distraction and procrastination. An underlying problem with the online distractions I mention in this post is that they entertain and engage the mind, especially fantasy, and not the heart.  Dr. Himmelberg makes an insightful point concerning tasks and their loss of value.  Value is a matter of the heart and not the mind.  This is precisely where traditional Christianity can offer a way out. When we read the Gospel for the purpose of fulfilling the commandments of Christ, love for neighbor, in real human connections and relationships with fallen people who don’t always give us a “like,” our hearts are opened and become receptive to the grace of God. Such hearts can then turn to God and avoid distractions, because such believers (and doers) realize that the “pearl of great price” is within their grasp. With a real connection, a real relationship, a real communion, virtual substitutes lose their attractiveness.

The neptic fathers understood so well the difference between the distractions of the mind and the ultimate longing of their heart. They struggled to keep their minds within their hearts, which meant avoiding, ignoring, and even fighting against distractions.  Obviously, these holy fathers did not struggle with the technological distractions we have available to us today. However, they had their own distractions which could tug on their heart in a similarly powerful way.  By forcing themselves to concentrate on the words of the Jesus Prayer while fulfilling their prayer rule or accomplishing their daily, mundane tasks they were engaging the heart properly and shying away from any procrastination to seek first the Kingdom of God.

Of course, this takes spiritual discipline and cooperation with the grace of God.  However, we have to be willing to do our part lest these distractions and our procrastination lead to the tragic consequences of job loss, divorce, alienation from children, and self-isolation in this life, and even more tragic consequences in the age to come. The first good step is to recognize that these distractions are preventing us from accomplishing real life goals, engaging in genuine human relationships, and most tragic of all, communing with God Himself. Once the problem is recognized, we can then with the grace and mercy of God, do something about it.