How to Avoid Anger Overload in the Digital Age

by Brett McCracken May 21, 2020

recent poll found that 84 percent of Americans say they are angrier today compared with a generation ago. Another poll found Americans to be angrier in 2018 than at any other point in the last decade. We probably don’t need polls to tell us we live in an age of anger overload. We feel it palpably when we turn on the news or open our Facebook feeds and see an abundance of red-faced “angry” emojis. 

Much of the anger is warranted. When we come across stories of suffering children at detention centers or legislatures cheering late-term abortions, we should be angry. When we read a story about sexual abuse or see someone making dehumanizing or racist comments on Twitter, our blood should boil. When we come across these things, anger is an appropriate emotion to feel. 

But should we come across all these things? 

Are humans situated in specific contexts meant to bear the weight of a world’s worth of grief and outrage? And what does this mean specifically for local churches, where the complex contours of specific, in-the-flesh community can get lost or neglected in the cacophonous onslaught of abstract, distant grievances from all corners of the globe?

Angst-Inducing Placelessness

One problem the digital age poses for the local church is that it draws the attention of individual Christians constantly outward, but in often unproductive and relentlessly fragmented ways. People in our churches spend their mental energy every week keeping tabs on the latest Twitter outrage or distant calamity, with little energy left to pour into the lives and issues right in front of them.

To be sure, awareness of the broader world can be a great thing in the Christian life—a motivator for global missions, charitable giving, broadened perspectives, and a healthy sense of connectedness to the global body of Christ. But without carefully regulating our exposure to media, we can easily attend to the “out there” more than the “right here”—creating an imbalance that leads to chronic stress, angst, and sometimes a dangerous numbness. 

The hyper-connection and over-awareness of a space-conquered world renders us fragmented and disconnected from place—the local contexts where we can know and be known, and effect change, to the greatest degree. As French Protestant theologian Jacques Ellul states in The Technological Society, “The paradox is characteristic of our times, that to the abstract conquest of Space by Man (capitalized) corresponds the limitation of place for men (in small letters).”

Our broader exposure to space, coupled with a diminished connection to place, leaves us feeling over-stimulated but under-activated. On any given day we are left inflamed by whatever grievances the internet has exposed us to, yet impotent to do much, if anything, about it. The endless conveyor belt of content puts more things on our radar in a day than people a century ago would encounter in a year—often about places we’ve never heard about and issues we didn’t even know were issues. 

Imbalanced Information-Action Ratio

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, media critic Neil Postman talks about how our access to information and news from all over the world “gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.” This is the legacy of the telegraph, he says: “By generating an abundance of irrelevant information, it dramatically altered what may be called the information-action ratio.” 

Historically, Postman observes, information was deemed valuable insofar as it could lead to action. But the telegraph and later technologies rendered that relationship abstract and remote: “For the first time in human history, people were faced with the problem of information glut, which means that simultaneously they were faced with the problem of a diminished social and political potency.”

Social media epitomizes this problem. Our feeds constantly inform us of far-removed news about which we have little context and even less recourse to action: political protests in Venezuela, a union strike in Paris, a snake found in a toilet in Florida, and so on. We can easily spend hours a day attending to headlines about matters that will never affect us (and which we can never alter), debates about things we know little about, and problems we cannot solve. 

With social media, we may sense that our participation is meaningful action, that it is doing something. But more often than not we’re only adding to the noise and fueling the rage machine—and often compromising our Christian witness in the process. There’s a reason Scripture advises, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (Prov. 21:23), and that we should be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). The problem, of course, is that today’s media economy is fueled by “quick to speak” rants, mobs, and pile-ons that create traffic spikes and trending topics. 

To resist this temptation is one of the most challenging yet subversive things a wise 21st-century Christian can do. 

Responding to Anger Overload

How might prudent Christians navigate this world of anger overload? I have three suggestions. 

First, try to prioritize actionable information. Audit your information environment. How much of it can actually enhance your local, tangible, actionable life? Christians especially should note whether they are spending more time investing in remote digital controversies than in the concrete contexts of their neighborhood and the flesh-and-blood saints in their church. Instead of passively consuming indiscriminate information that rushes to you via social media and cable news, consider being more proactive and selective. Instead of “default on” for these buzzing purveyors of anger-inducing grievances, try “default off.” Start with the real places and real people around you: What are theirconcerns, struggles, needs? Spend more time with knowable faces across the table from you than with unknowable avatars across the world from you. Let your real contexts be a guide for the sort of relevant and actionable information you then seek out online. 

Second, consider the value of silence and unmediated space. Fight the temptation to fill every moment of your life with media. It may be a revolutionary thought today, but you can actually stand in line at Starbucks without pulling out your phone and scanning social media. You can commute to work without listening to talk radio. You can go for a jog without listening to a podcast. You can spend your breaks, transitions, and other “in between times” in silence, alone with your thoughts. Even better: in prayer, in reflection, in awe, in gratitude. You don’t have to fill every spare moment with something “informative” or “useful.” You can just be still and silent. If we just removed all the time we spend online in these “in between” moments of life, we’d instantly have much less to trigger our stress and anger.

Third, and most importantly, try to cultivate a Christian spirit of “holy calm” in a world of ever-present anger. “The real strength of the good soldier of Jesus Christ,” Jonathan Edwards wrote nearly 300 years ago, “is simply the steadfast maintenance of a holy calmness . . . sustained amidst all the storms, injuries, wrong behavior, and unexpected acts and events in this evil and unreasonable world. The Scripture seems to intimate that true fortitude consists chiefly of this: ‘He that is slow to anger, is better than the mighty; and he that rules his spirit, than he that takes a city’ (Prov. 16:32).” In a world that constantly dares us to rant and rave about all manner of things, Christ-followers should instead “keep calm and carry on,” staying diligent in discipleship, committed to community, faithful in worship, and focused in mission.

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition blog and is used with permission.