Before a new medicine is available for public use, it’s tested to make sure it’s safe through a three-stage clinical trial process. New technologies hit the mainstream with no such testing; the public are the guinea pigs and any potential risks or side-effects only make themselves apparent once the damage has already begun.
For social media, the real consequences of its use have only started to become clear after nearly two decades — when it is all but fully integrated into the lives of nearly a quarter of the world’s population. Users are so dependent on it they can barely go a few minutes without checking Instagram or swiping Facebook, causing many to see it as a normal and essential part of their life while others denounce it as if it’s the devil itself.
Getting rid of social media altogether is as extreme as using it every minute of the day; but it is clear, however, that we need to do something about it. Even its creators are coming out and expressing grave concerns, like former Facebook exec Chamath Palihapitiya who recently admitted: “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works”.
So, rather than taking regular digital detoxes — the information-junkie equivalent to a hard drug addict’s desperate attempt to get clean — or adopting futile rules such as setting your phone to greyscale, what can be done to allow us to live healthily and harmoniously with social media?
1. Control what you consume
You can’t trust news outlets and social media platforms to only serve you content that’s valuable and good for you. And even if you filter your streams by only Liking certain Facebook pages or using Twitter lists, the information you consume is still tinged by advertisements, what’s trending, and the interests of others.
Using platforms according to their default set up leaves you at whim to their motives. Instead of providing you with what you want and sending you on your way, they hook you in with emotionally triggering content and detain you for as long as possible. In this way, they not only waste time by appealing to your superficial feelings and desires but promote a fleeting attention span that means you’re always looking for the next golden goodie — that you, crucially, never get.
Going old school and using an RSS feed or news aggregator like Feedly is one way to filter the information you consume. But using a read-it-later app like Pocket or Flipboard takes controlling your level of content to a whole new level — with the added advantage that you’re not tempted to get sucked down the rabbit hole.
2. Information is abundant, not scarce
We hoard articles, podcasts, photos, and other information like squirrels preparing for the winter. It’s as if we think a rainy day will come when the wifi is down and all we’ll want to do is continue consuming information.
This is digital hoarding (which is in some ways worse than the physical type as data is invisible and doesn’t take up so much space) and it is often worsened by the use of bookmarking tools like the aforementioned read-it-later apps. However, take control of the biological drive to hoard and get rid of the irrational belief that information is scarce rather than abundant, and they can be used in a healthy manner.
In today’s world, information is one thing we’re definitely not lacking. It’s accessible whenever and from wherever we want, and so it’s not necessary — even crazy — to pile up a personal store that leaves you with a year-long backlog. As Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired and author of The Inevitable points out: all information is in the Cloud, so you only need to keep what you’re going to use today; everything else can wait.
3. Don’t wait for the balance; create it
Because of the always-on modality of social media, if you want to live a balanced life and get anything meaningful done, it’s not enough to simply turn off push notifications and allow it to keep running in the background. You need to structure your days and fit it around you, rather than letting it eat away at your time and compensating as you go.
Social media is mostly focused around four activities: comparing, consuming, communicating, and documenting. These activities all have their time and place — okay, maybe we can do away with the first one. But when not properly scheduled in, they work against the activity that should be the primary receiver of your time: creating.
Of course, some of these activities overlap. But if you segregate your time based on the themes of consuming, communicating, documenting, or creating, you’ll cut out much of the faffing around, achieve deeper levels of focus, and get a lot more done in much less time.
Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Find him on Medium exploring remote working, technology, spirituality, meditation, and everything in between.