I want to share my thoughts and my journey with all the successes and failures in overcoming social media addiction. Here is what I gathered about smartphones, social media, news and gaming but also about how past thinkers saw boredom, distraction, entertainment and reflection. I think I connected enough dots for myself to set some goals concerning media consumption this year.
I will put some informative links at the end of this article as to not distract you from reading the whole post. This topic will be covered in several posts each with it’s own focus. As this is a very exhaustive topic I will focus only on one or two specific ideas for you think about.
The problem with smartphones, social media, news or gaming is actually very simple to grasp. The difficulty lies in breaking the habits. News, social media and most modern games feed you a steady trickle of tidbits of information and easy actions. This trickle is endless. It is the infinite scroll of Instagram, the constant stream of opinions and emotions on twitter, the little icon with just one more notification, the next level you want your character to reach in aa game or the barrage of news feeds, live tickers and opinion pieces keeping you constantly updated on things that seem so relevant to your life.
To make an analogy. Social media, news and gaming are like sugary treats. You could eat them all the time without feeling satiated but we all know how you would end up. Overweight with diabetes and all the accompanying ailments.
Two ways we process information
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman identified two ways humans process information. Fast and slow. Slow thinking can also be called deliberation. We really think about something, weigh it’s pros and cons and come to a well thought out decision. Slow thinking takes time and is not suitable for most of our daily activities. Fast thinking can also be called heuristic thinking. We are not really analyzing the problem at hand, looking at all the arguments and possible consequences. Instead we make a snap judgement. It works most of the time and it is fast. In fact we make most of our decisions like this.
Obviously we need both modes of thinking. Standing in line at Starbucks and deciding between a flat white or a chai latte? Fast thinking or the people in line behind you will be very angry. Taking that new job out of town? Slow thinking seems prudent. Let’s go back to our hunter/gatherer ancestors. Seeing something moving in the grass? Fast thinking tells our ancestor friend to better leave lest it be a poisonous snake. Of course nine out ten it is just rustling leaves but our ancestor really does not want to spend the time to find out for sure. On the other hand setting up camp will involve checking the landscape, planning possible escape routes, surveying for food and water sources and using our social skills to find a camp site suitable for the whole band.
Modern media mostly triggers Fast Thinking
Scrolling through your feeds will often only engage fast thinking. Some outrageous bit of of news triggers a short and mostly emotional response. We all have reacted to some tweet and later thought that our response maybe was a bit premature. Of course you could read a tweet and use slow thinking to really analyze it’s content and to formulate a proper response (or decide that it does not warrant an answer at all). But there are an unlimited number of tweets and notifications still waiting for you.
There is a second problem though. Slow thinking is exhausting. It requires effort and most importantly it requires effort in advance. Learning something new can be fun but until you have some mastery in it will be frustrating and exhausting at times. Fast thinking yields immediate results. We read some news item, we instantly have an opinion or feel informed (in fact we have mostly just confirmed our prior beliefs anyway) and we might immediately react with a comment, tweet or like/dislike. The same goes for games. Once you learned the mechanics it is fast thinking most of the time.
We slowly unlearn Slow Thinking
The problem with the constant use of fast thinking is that this mode of thinking exhausts us too. We just don’t realize it until it happened. Remember the feeling of restlessness, nervousness or this feeling of being tired but also wired up after scrolling through reddit for two hours? Because fast thinking is a very vigilant process. It’s goal is to produce quick decisions to guide us through daily life. To protect us from dangers, to allow us to immediately check out a potential new food source or to allow instant social communication.
But all these tidbits of information in our feeds are not immediately relevant to our life. That is the step where you need to be very honest. Do you really need to check reddit, scroll through Instagram or read the daily news? Take your time. Slow think about it. I bet your answer is a belated “no”. But we still spend energy on fast thinking through all of these images, feeds, news and game levels. And we are mentally exhausted from it. Some people feel it their bodies.
Even worse our minds become frazzled. We overuse our fast thinking and neglect our slow thinking. We unlearn to stop and to think something through. We need immediate feedback because that is all that social media can offer. We can’t withstand ambiguity any more, not knowing for sure, not having all the information available at once. And I mean available in the sense of having worked through the information not just consuming it. Our minds have entered a state of constant alertness for new information. We simply lack the time or “leisure” to think about something slowly.
Synergy is key
But we need time and slow thinking to work through the decisions we made with fast thinking. We need to remember and evaluate those decisions so we can give mental feedback to our fast thinking system. It is a bit like tennis. When you play you think very fast. You are not consciously analyzing the other player or the ball you just immediately react. But that is only possible because we have analyzed the game beforehand. We have slowly learned the fast decisions we need to counter our opponent’s moves. Pro players would watch their own games on video to slow think through all their moves and try to teach their fast thinking new and better reactions through training.
The same goes for any news item, twitter feed or other bit of information we come across. We need to evaluate it and our own reactions to make our fast thinking better at dealing with the immediate world but also to give our slow thinking real world information it needs to make sense of the world. Constant updates and endless feeds inhibit this process.
The great benefit of Boredom
It is fascinating that we scroll through social media because we are bored when in fact we are anything but bored. For most of human history boredom was either something to be endured (sometimes for a greater good) or something actually pleasant or useful. The former view was mostly shared by eremites or monks who sought out boredom and solitude to get closer to God. Is that not a great goal? The latter was espoused by intellectuals, thinkers, philosophers or artists. For them boredom was the first stage of creativity. The wellspring of ideas. For others again boredom was simply part of life. Something that occurred when one thing was done and the other not yet there. Some might even called it leisure.
Imagine Isaac Newton sitting under a tree being bored when the apple fell down and inspired him to develop the theory of gravity. How many Newtons are being distracted by Twitter today not noticing the things around them that might inspire something great. Boredom is uncomfortable but it also allows new things to enter our minds. It frees up our thinking for inspirations or allows us to notice things we might ignore otherwise.
But because boredom is initially an uncomfortable sensation we are quick to distract ourselves from it with feeds, images, news or games. We feel we do something, learn something, achieve something or stay informed when in fact we merely distract or entertain ourselves. Cutting off the possibility of new inspirations. We do not even need our own inspirations because that is what social media is for with it’s endless rounds of recommendations to “inspire” you to watch more videos, click more tweets or play more games.
If you think you use social media, news or games too much, if your mind feels frazzled and if you have difficulties focusing you now know why. You mind is overstimulated. You are distracting yourself. I sure do. You also know the solution. Don’t just distract and entertain yourself. Endure boredom and let inspiration come.
It is going to be hard. We are no longer used to it. It seems ironic that with the rise of social media people are also more interested in mindfulness, yoga or meditation. As if deep down we already know this. 2021 is for me the year in which I want to break free from these bad habits. I want you to follow me on this journey. I want to make it public to hold myself accountable. Next time I will talk about the steps I want to take.
If you have any thoughts, experiences or ideas about this topic I’d love to hear them in the comments. You can take your time.
- My goals for 2021
- Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow
- Peter Toohey: Boredom: A Lively History
- The Data Detox Kit
- The Social Dilemma
- Google Trends “mindfulness“
- Avoid news by Rolf Dobelli (also a TED talk)
- The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist (also a TED talk)