Focus & Digital Balance

Blogging about Digital Detox and unplugging, customizing our connectivity, new technologies, distraction management, and a healthy lifestyle in our hyperconnected world

Why can’t we switch off? Social Media is the new Junk Food

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Social Media is the new Junk Food—and it is even more powerful. To many people, social media has become as important as food and sex. While our desire for food and sex seems to have a clear reason, our need for social media and the digital is not that obvious. To make it more apparent, I will go into more detail in the following. Also, similar to too much (junk) food, too much (junk) information is not beneficial for our health and well-being. While there are already some solutions to help us to deal with this, we need more of those solutions—and we have to develop and use a new form of technology, technology that doesn’t exploit us, but that supports us.

The following blog post goes hand in hand with a spontaneous TEDx talk I gave at TEDxEutropolis 2013 – “Are we connected?”. You can watch it online here or read the whole argument in full length below. 

 

My Personal Experience

I first became aware of my life’s digital saturation fifteen years ago. I had been spending too much time online and decided to have a rest from computers. I escaped to Southern Africa, doing hands-on volunteer work and didn’t touch a computer for a year. It was a great experience, but was only a partial success. The benefits of our modern technology and my love for new gadgets were, in truth, too great. Some years ago, I found myself in the same situation, immersed in the digital world most of the day. But this time, it was not just me; everyone had succumbed. And today it’s even more pronounced. One has only to glance around the subway: how many have their digital devices in their hand? Look at yourself, what you do first thing this morning? What’s worse is we can’t seem to help it. But why can’t we help it? This time, with years of studying psychology, culture, and having worked with people addicted to drugs, I had a better idea of what was happening. But even without those experiences, I’m sure you can identify with the following comparison.

Social Media is the new Junk Food

Isn’t information and data some sort of nutrition to us? And aren’t there different sorts of nutrition and forms of processing? Some of which we value more, some of which we value less. Can’t it be the same with information and data we consume?

I really love Oreos and a Coke from time to time. I love the sugar rush and strong flavour. The same is probably true with my social and digital media consumption. I love to be in touch with people close to me, any time, and of course, to stay in touch with friends overseas. To be honest, I also enjoy the affirmation that I receive through Facebook “likes”. And then there is my Twitter feed, gamified and often personalized to me, that’s like chewing gum for the eyes and another kick for my brain.

I’m sure you know the feeling when checking your smartphone, thinking “I wish someone would just take this away from me!” It’s the same feeling and response I have when I can’t stop eating chips and flips.

But before we go into the psychological details, let’s take a step further back, have a look at how we got here, and see if there are even further similarities in this example.

Change in access to Food and access to Information

Over the last 50 years, we’ve made food cheap and widely available in the Western countries. We built an entire industry based on producing and delivering any type of food, anywhere, any time. We moved away from having just enough food to survive to having far to much food. A by-product of this was junk food. Only in the last ten years has it been realized that this was damaging to our health, and today we are more conscious of what we eat and of what we teach our children.

Something similar is happening with information and in the IT industry. In the last 20 years we have moved from information scarcity to information overload. And in the last five years, it isn’t just the information, but the way we access it that has changed. Next to the removal of many spatial and systematic barriers in our lives that happened with this, we’ve also created a whole industry along with a lot of junk information in this process.

And it’s happening more rapidly than with food. This development of information technology is exponential, and its products are more and more appalling, as they become individually tailored to us — and to our (human) vulnerabilities.

But why can’t we just switch off? The Psychology.

 

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Our human vulnerabilities are also the reason why we can’t just switch off. The psychological research—it doesn’t matter if you look into social, cognitive neuroscience or evolutionary psychology—on this issue is well established.

We love new information. Our survival has depended on it. We evolved around information. The mechanism for learning, produces dopamine, making us happy and encouraging us to repeat the experience. That’s why you’re here, why you’re reading this blog post and why it makes you curious about new ideas.

We are social creatures. We are wired for social inclusion, likely because our survival was so long so closely linked to the strength of our ties with others. Social exclusion is very powerful, and everybody knows how it feels to be the odd one. We need to be part of our peer group and we need affirmation. Recent Neuroscience research also indicates strong response from the brain’s reward system through positive social feedback on social media platforms through increased use of social media.

Further, due to the ways in which our devices and media are designed today, we quickly develop a very strong habit of checking and interacting with our devices. Sometimes when you check your smartphone, there is a reward, sometimes not. In psychology this is called intermittent reinforcement—it is one of the most effective way to form new behaviour and addictions.

Tech companies know about these vulnerabilities and they (ab)use them.

But why do we need to switch off?

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Many people ask rightly: but, apart of that I lose a bit of my agency, is this a problem? Why do I need to switch off? I seem to like it, so it can’t be bad? Yes, it’s a problem—and it’s bad. Because it’s a question of the right amount and balance as well as other, maybe more difficult, needs we have.

We need free space. Free space that we can fill out. I’m sure, many things come in your mind that you planned to do, yet didn’t, just because you got stuck in front of the screen again.

Also, psychological research shows that we need the following for our well-being:

We need solitude. We need time alone in order to be able to be together with others. You can also find this in the form of silence and stillness in religious practices, or in yoga and meditation.

Further, we need conversation, not just mere connection. There is an excellent TED talk by Sherry Turkle on the topic of solitude and conversation that showcases her research.

We also need time disconnected in order to recover. Work has become more and more flexible; we can work anywhere, anytime. But without proper disconnection from our work, we burn-out because we can’t really recharge our batteries.

… and there are many more instances—I can’t stress this enough as there are so many human and individual needs that go beyond what we can do with screens, where we need to have free space, to focus on our work, to be creative, to be with family and loved ones or just to be in the now.

Key: Balance, but…

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We need to exercise this, even it is as hard to do as it is to say. Like with food—everything we consume, we have to balance with exercise and exercise balance. It is fine to eat chocolate sweets and chips. However, it is not healthy to base your whole diet on that; you need to eat other things too. I’m telling you nothing new, I’m sure you know this already. However, I think the same is valid for digital and social media: it is fine to use Twitter, Facebook and the like from time to time. But we also have to find the correct usage and disconnect to practice conversation and solitude regularly.

For last year, I have been working on establishing ( OFFTIME ), a post-tech company that develops solutions for this issue: a.o. software to support people in customizing their connectivity, giving them free spaces to unplug from our hyperconnected world, just enough. With our solutions, you get an overview, get back in control and decide what is important right now: keep out all apps, phone calls and text messages that distract you and go back to concentrating on your work, or a chat with a friend, or simply a moment of peace and quiet. ( OFFTIME ) will look after everything else. That way, you can be more efficient and recharge your batteries properly.

This is just one solution. It fixes a broken system for now. But we should demand more.

The Future

The problem is already big – and it will continue to grow. We are just at the beginning. Most people now own around three devices. In 2020, you might have as many as 20 devices or screens around you, talking and interacting with you.

We have to move the public discussion from providing more and more access to the internet because of empowerment and democratization of knowledge, which connects more and more people—we are there, the ball is rolling and we will have complete connectedness soon enough—to the next level and in a new direction.

Also KPIs (key performance indicators) that permeate success in the tech industry like DAU (daily active users), maximizing online time or interactions, and other retention measurements can’t be the indication of success for us as humans and humanity.

Nor should top of the class IT students and developers spend their time anymore thinking and optimizing algorithms that make people click ads, as Jeff Hammerbacher once infamously (and rightly) stated when he left Facebook, or even increase this dependence by using our vulnerabilities.

How can the next level and a new direction look like?, you will ask.

Recognize our Vulnerability + a New Kind of Technology

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Up to now there has not been much public awareness about this issue, however things are changing recently with personal #unplug experiences popping up and spreading through the internet (Christoph Koch, Paul Miller, Baratunde Thurston etc.). Nevertheless, in the public debate, there is still no deep inquiry into the “whys” and how it could be different. It’s still stuck in a digital dualism, an online vs. offline perspective. But we should ask deeper questions: why are we where we are now, from a system but also from an individual and human viewpoint? Or in a more result-oriented fashion: how and where we want to use digital and social media? How can and should technology support our well-being, progress, and society?

BUT: A first big and important step towards a new level is to become more aware of and recognize our vulnerability and weakness in regards to how we respond to and use social and digital media. Let’s not put the burden on the individual. Yes, you might be able to have the discipline to resist checking your devices, but this self-control also costs you energy, mental energy that you will lack somewhere else. It’s still a choice you will have to make. Every single time. Why would you want to do this? Why don’t you want to use your psychological energy for other things, things that support your well-being in the long run?

A key thing from my perspective is that we have to have a broader public awareness about the connected issues and mechanics at work, like I described above, first. Because not only when we are aware of and recognize the underlying forces, we will be able to individually make more informed decisions and demand more, but we will also be able to develop and use a new form of technology: technology that doesn’t exploit us, but that supports us. 

Sincerely,
Alexander

 

‚ Thanks a lot Stephen for the bouncing early thoughts on this topic and Michael and Ben to clarify all the thoughts before the talk and after writing again! 

Icon like graphics by the Noun Project – Creative Commons – Attribution (CC BY 3.0) – Thinking/Dirk Rowe, Scale/Edward Boatman, and others. Graphic ‚Junk Food & Junk Information‘ CC-BY-3.0 by OFFTIME.