"You Don't Have to" Series, Reducing Stress

You Don’t Have to: Read the Comments Section

The online comments section. More than ever it feels to me like a modern day black hole of arguments, negativity and non-productivity. Some sites are less frightening as others, but if I was going to make a belated New Years resolution, it would be to take a much needed break from reading online comments.

The most hazardous place is the YouTube comments section. Halfway through a video, a synapse of my brain fires, without consultation from the rest of its grey-matter colleagues, scrolls down to the comments to see what  ILovePancakes_487 has to say on the topic. The result? The rest of the brain dies just a little.

It’s a brain cell suicide mission. It also produces a worrisome mentality in which we’re slowly convinced that the average IQ of our global population is no higher than your average herd of livestock.

Why are we drawn to comments?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it’s just become a reflex for me. I read an article and my natural tendency is to scroll down and see what the every-day Joe from Wisconsin thinks about the new bike lanes, or the most recent political blunder (wherever that might be today).

If I put on my amateur psychology hat for a second, I would say that our brains are programmed to partially base our decisions and opinions on those of our peer group. How many stars did that hotel get? What reviews did others give this rain jacket I want to buy? It’s easier to make a choice on a dinner spot or hold an opinion on immigration reform if others help make it for you.

But only in the last decade or two has our peer group expanded to the global scale, and that means you get a WAY larger diversity of cultures, backgrounds, political stances and opinions.

We’re addicted to the stress the comments section creates

Dr. Joe Dispenza, in the book ‘Evolve your Brain’ says that we keep negative stimuli in our lives because the stress response they create reinforces our personal identity. “Simply put, most of us are addicted to the problems and conditions of our lives that produce stress. Whether a bad job or bad relationship, we hold our troubles close to us because they reinforce who we are as somebody; they feed our addictions to low-frequency emotions.”

This sounds about right. It truly is an addiction, and by seeing someone ranting about their dislike of carbon taxes, it gives me a tiny, caffeine-like jolt of adrenaline that makes me simultaneously angry and proud of my stance on the issue. This isn’t a healthy way to live.

So should websites just get rid comments section? 

At first I thought my answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ But after a bit of research on the subject, I want to clarify my stance. I shouldn’t say, ‘don’t read the comments,’ but instead be selective in what sites you choose to venture in to the comment section. You can refer to this scale as a starting point:

Here’s an interesting perspective from this article: “There’s a grave cost to assuming online interactivity is always awful. The burden is felt most acutely in denying opportunity to those for whom connecting to a community online may be the only way to get a foot in the door. Those underrepresented, unheard voices are the most valuable ones we lose when we throw the baby out with the bathwater and assume online comments are necessarily bad.”

However, there are in fact websites that decided they didn’t see the value of comment sections (relative to the amount of work need to keep them civil, I imagine) so they’ve been removing them altogether.

Or take a different approach: quit the news.

Ideally, I’d like to pair this comments detox with David Cain’s decision to quit the news entirely. It’s common that in order to maintain good citizen status, we feel an obligation to ‘stay informed.’ But as his article reminds us, most large news companies mainly exist to entertain. And given our negativity bias, that means stories about violence and heartbreak and crime get higher ratings that stories of success, kindness and reconciliation.

So David recommends that instead, find a few topics that you’re really interested in and learn a lot about them. Then you can effectively contribute to the issue, or make a change for the better. It seems a much better use of our time, even if we’re a little confused tomorrow morning at the water cooler.

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