The war for our attention may have been raging for well over a decade, but if you struggled to stay focused before 2020, it’s probably really bad now. Even if you haven’t lost track of time doomscrolling in the name of “staying on top of what’s going on” at least once this week, I'll bet you’ve zoned out on TikTok, spent your entire night playing video games, or binge-watched an endless supply of Netflix, YouTube, or Twitch streams, or, ahem…”adult content.”

And listen, nobody’s judging. Since the first wave of lockdowns we’ve been stuck in a vortex of collective ennui, peppered with panic and drizzled with a slow, oozy glaze of existential dread. (And if you haven’t dealt with this at all, congratulations! While the rest of us try not to self-destruct, please enjoy this cookie 🍪)

Over the last two years we’ve completely changed the way we coexist with one another at least once. We’ve lost loved ones, or watched those around us mourn. Some of us have had the rights to our own bodies challenged, or at least fought alongside them. (Some lost those rights before even realizing they were in jeopardy to begin with.) And we’ve been told to go back to work in a world that looks from every angle like it’s caving in and/or burning down all around us for completely preventable reasons, if we could just stop working long enough to prioritize them. We’re lonely, confused, scared, and insecure about the future.

In other words, we are kind of dealing with a lot right now, so why don't we all have a little bit of mindless screen-staring, as a treat.

I don’t need to tell you that it isn’t healthy to be as addicted as we are to our phones, TVs, games, etc. All I’m saying is that it makes sense that we’re so starved for stimulation of any and all kinds. We’re trying to take our minds off of the slog of disenfranchised grief [1], and these devices—and social media in particular—are specifically designed to be distracting.

We’re all grieving for ambiguous losses

Here in the United States, we prioritize individualism to a dangerous fault; we haven’t made a habit of publicly mourning much of anything in our dark collective history [2]. As a result, you’re more likely to hear an American complain about burnout from overwork weeks or months before making the connection to disenfranchised grief at all. “But what do I have to grieve for?” we might ask. “I haven’t lost anyone or anything. I’m okay, my family’s okay, I have a good job, I can afford to take vacations. Maybe I’m just really, really tired?”

And sure, it is possible for you to wake up, look up at your personal mountain of big scary problems that only seems to be getting larger each day, and think you’re just really, really tired each and every day, but I’d like you to take a deep breath and consider how you really feel about the damn mountain. For many of us, the word “loss” brings up images of tangibly traumatic episodes that would inevitably turn our lives upside-down — the death of someone you love, or a hurricane destroying your home. But “loss” can be abstract too.

Losing certainty for what the world might look like a year from now. Losing the sense of community that came from candid chats with neighbors in your local coffee shop. (Losing track of those neighbors entirely. Did they move? Are they okay?) Losing a sense of stability and forward movement. Losing interest in a job you used to like without fully understanding why.

And, feeling like you’re mourning for an experience that isn’t as serious or “real” as literal death, can discourage you from sharing that feeling with anyone [3]. My fellow introverts might not always enjoy it, but humans are social creatures for a reason; reaching out for support is a really powerful way to heal.

If you start to feel like that support isn’t available to you, you might even minimize your own feelings, isolating yourself even further in the process. It sounds somewhat like this:

  • Everyone else seems perfectly fine with this arrangement. They’ve all moved on and I haven’t.
  • My problems aren’t important enough to bring up right now.
  • I’m sure everyone else has worse things to worry about.
  • Maybe I’m overthinking.
  • Lemme just watch another season of The Ultimatum and see if I can tackle my enormous mountain of problems in the morning.

Vicarious trauma and the attention economy

Depending on the person (and the circumstances), “letting it go” by distracting yourself can work wonders. This is why so many people swear by the rebound as a post-breakup strategy; when a relationship with someone you felt closest to in the world suddenly ends and you’re left to grieve it alone, distracting yourself with a “stand-in” could be exactly what you need to remind yourself that other people exist, other bonds can be formed, and there is hope in your romantic future.

(Granted, friends and other loved ones can step in as your emotional support, too. And I just want to note that leading someone on—intentionally using them against their will or knowledge to pad your ego after a breakup—is a shady and gross thing to do 100% of the time. If you know you’re rebounding, for fuck’s sake, be transparent about it!)

When you lose someone you love (through death, or through one person just not feeling it anymore), not only do you have to process that loss, but you also have to do it alone without the support of somewhat you've probably grown to count on in tough times. And with all of that going on, you still have to get on with your life—go to work, pay rent, walk your dog—so sometimes, the type-A approach of distracting yourself to get back on track is the best possible option. But there’s a huge risk when the distraction is technology.

Are you using tech as a resource, or a crutch?

Phones, games, TV shows, etc., are great at providing distractions, and great at connecting us with social support when used with intention. BUT, remember that every single one of these things were designed to harvest eyeballs, clicks, and ad revenue, and in most cases, the mental health of users and audiences isn't even an afterthought in the design process. Most of our distractions have built-in double-edged swords when used excessively:

  • Social media: Connects you with your friends! And news of every horrible thing happening in the known universe!
  • Video games: Lets you decompress from the day (while keeping you inextricably glued to your screen, possibly ignoring physical needs in the process!)
  • Porn: All fun and games until you can’t get it up for normal-looking people anymore!

When we numb the pain of ambiguous loss, rather than processing it, by leaning into being “terminally online,” these relatively healthy distractions can eventually become crutches. We use the tech as a stand-in for the stand-in, perpetually entertaining ourselves in the face of what seems like an insurmountable obstacle.

So that’s your point, then? "Phones bad?"

Nope. Phones are good, actually; if swiping through 1,500 TikToks over the span of an hour helps you cope with the crushing weight of reality, far be it from me to waggle my finger at that. (And even if I did, last week I spent a whopping 15 hours watching a VTuber in a cute bunny outfit play video games. Pot. Kettle.)

Nor do I have a snappy listicle of tricks to make this all go away, either. If you feel like you’re in mourning, you’re right. If you feel like you’re desperately looking for a distraction from intense feelings that you can’t quite place, you’re right. And millions of people are right there with you, internally screaming. Together.

That’s my point; you feel how you feel for a reason, thousands of people are going through the same feelings in isolation, and I know we can talk about these things in the light of day more often. Externally screaming! Hopefully in a less toxic place than Twitter.

In the midst of...everything that's happening right now, it is not the worst thing in the world to entertain ourselves. Far from it. But we've got to know when we're just blowing off steam versus ignoring what's really going on under the hood.


References

[1] Albuquerque, S., Teixeira, A. M., & Rocha, J. C. (2021). COVID-19 and Disenfranchised Grief. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12, 638874. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.638874

[2] Birdsong, M. (2020). How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community. Hachette Go.

[3] O’Connor, M.-F. (2022). The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss. HarperOne.