Over the weekend the New York Times published a profile of Erik Hagerman, a well-off former Nike executive who has retreated to a pig farm in Ohio and has engaged in a total news blackout. He doesn’t do social media, he doesn’t read newspapers, he literally listens to white noise in coffee shops so as to avoid overhearing people jabbering on about the latest outrages committed by the Trump administration. Instead of spending time getting agitated about the political scene, he’s restoring an area of land denuded by a mine.
Needless to say, people were upset about Hagerman’s choice, decrying his privilege, slamming him for retreating in the face of incipient fascism, yadda yadda yadda. The editor of his daily newspaper highlighted all the ways in which the news is incredibly important and all the various ills that Hagerman is missing out on by sticking his head in the sand. As someone who makes his living in the news business — you should subscribe to The Post, you can get six months free if you’re on Amazon Prime! — I too am somewhat vexed by his choice.
But, I have to be honest: I also kind of envy him.
There’s something to be said for unplugging in a real and systematic way. Manically scrolling through social media has a noted negative impact on your well being: A study published in the Harvard Business Review last year found that heavy users of Facebook felt worse. “These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year,” wrote Holly B. Shakya and Nicholas A. Christakis. “We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”
Smartphones are destroying our attention spans. Twitter’s retweet function allows for the quick spread and total dominance of “fake news.” Social media is wrecking the sleep patterns of an entire generation. Its use increases rates of depression.
Perhaps this is just a case for getting rid of social media, that wily incubator of nonsense. The New York Times’s Farhad Manjoo tried doing that recently, writing that he ditched Twitter for newsgathering purposes and instead got all of his reporting through dead-tree newspapers. While there is some dispute about the depth of his commitment to unplugging, his sense of the Parkland shooting is instructive: “There was a lot I was glad to miss. For instance, I didn’t see the false claims — possibly amplified by propaganda bots — that the killer was a leftist, an anarchist, a member of ISIS and perhaps just one of multiple shooters. I missed the Fox News report tying him to Syrian resistance groups even before his name had been released. I also didn’t see the claim circulated by many news outlets (including The New York Times) as well as by Senator Bernie Sanders and other liberals on Twitter that the massacre had been the 18th school shooting of the year, which wasn’t true.”
Still, repeated exposure to bad news has a deleterious effect on your mental health. And it can be habit-forming. As CNN’s AJ Willingham put it in a 2016 story about those who experience PTSD-like symptoms from all the bad news they see, “People who are affected may engage in obsessive consumption, such as watching and re-watching a traumatic video long after its message has been absorbed. While prescriptions of resilience often dominate a post-trauma narrative, those who are especially affected may isolate themselves, change their routines, make decisions based out of fear—essentially all of the things we are taught not to do when dealing with terrorism and other threats.”
Hagerman strikes me as the sort of person who understands what sort of person he is. Checking out of the day-to-day news cycle entirely for your mental health may be a somewhat extreme reaction, but it’s not a particularly unreasonable one: There simply isn’t much you, the ordinary news reader, can do to impact the day’s news, for better or worse. And it’s worth noting that Hagerman, by working to restore 45 acres of woods and lake, is doing far more to improve the world than someone who goes to a march before hitting up brunch for bottomless mimosas or shares the latest Andy Borowitz monstrosity on his Facebook page in order to drive home Just How Bad Things Are, Now.
We can’t all shut off the news and spend a fortune on land, of course. We’re not all so privileged. But sitting there and getting angry about someone who refuses to get angry strikes me as a rather magnificent confirmation of the wisdom of his choice.