Screen time

Once again, I’ve somehow gone two weeks without a blog post here. And you know what? I feel pretty good about that. Over the last month or so I’ve been setting more and more restrictive limits on my screen time, a result of which is that my laptop has spent most of the last week powered down and laying on my bedroom floor. Out of sight, out of mind.

But let me back up…

Physical and emotional pain

A few months ago, I was spending a lazy afternoon reviewing some of the more recent research regarding the brain and dreams, as well as generally taking note of the current state of science as it pertains to the “hard problem of consciousness.” You know, like ya do.

It was during this perusal that I stumbled upon a study from 2015 which seemed to suggest, among other things, that the brain has trouble differentiating between physical pain and emotional pain. Further, it’s arguable that when a person experiences pain, the experience doesn’t end with the individual, but rather the pain spreads itself outward along social connections.

There’s a fair summary of this and similar research to be found in this Forbes article from last year. A quote:

Although the brain does not process emotional pain and physical pain identically, research on neural pathways suggests there is substantial overlap between the experience of physical and social pain. The cascading events that occur and regions activated in our brains – and therefore our reactions to the acute pain – appear to be similar.

So that’s neat.

Even more neat, though, is that our brains also appear to be hard-wired to seek out and prioritize emotionally-painful information when trying to make sense of the world—a phenomenon called “negativity bias.” Here’s a quote from the abstract of a 2008 study on that…

There is ample empirical evidence for an asymmetry in the way that adults use positive versus negative information to make sense of their world; specifically, across an array of psychological situations and tasks, adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.

This study was brought up in a 2018 article published in Time titled “You Asked: Is It Bad for You to Read the News Constantly?” Here’s a fun quote from that piece…

More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result, the survey shows. Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report “constantly” monitoring their social media feeds—which often exposes them to the latest news headlines, whether they like it or not.

Given the tech trends over the last three years, I’m willing to bet those figures are way below today’s averages.

Regardless, though, my major takeaways from all of this meandering online were that…

  1. The effects of emotional pain on the human brain are similar to the effects of physical pain.
  2. Our brains are more likely to seek out and absorb emotionally-painful information.
  3. The extremely-online world around us makes finding emotionally-painful information really easy.

With these points in mind, I decided to reduce the amount of news and information I consumed. I set limits on which news sites I would visit, prioritizing local news over national or world news, and I also set specific times of day to check in with them. I look at the news once in the morning while having my coffee, and once in the mid-afternoon after I’ve had my lunch.

Problem solved, right?

Anti-social media

It’s almost a cliché now to criticize social networking apps like Twitter and Facebook for being terrible hives of scum and villainy, but they’re actually worse than you think. Not only can they be safely lumped together under the “easy sources of emotionally-painful information” umbrella, they’re also intentionally designed to be addictive.

Here’s a BBC article from 2018, wherein they talk with the fellow who invented “infinite scrolling”…

Infinite scroll allows users to endlessly swipe down through content without clicking.

“If you don’t give your brain time to catch up with your impulses,” Mr Raskin said, “you just keep scrolling.”

He said the innovation kept users looking at their phones far longer than necessary.

Looking for more? Here’s an article from Business Insider published last year, which claims that social media apps like Instragram are deliberately built so that the human brain experiences them like addictive painkillers. A quote…

“Three criteria are required to form a habit: sufficient motivation, an action, and a trigger,” says Mezyk. The three-pronged approach, which is now standard among app developers, is based on the Fogg Behavior model, established by Stanford professor B.J. Fogg.

A certain feeling or motivation is a prerequisite for opening an app at all. This could be, for example, the anticipation we feel when our mobile phone vibrates but it can also be the fear of missing something.

In addition to motivation, an action is necessary that pulls us into the behavioral loop — such as clicking on the app or tapping a “Like” button. The hurdle should be as low as possible.

Whether an action takes place also depends on the trigger. It’s the trigger that pulls us into the app, like our phone vibrating or the screen lighting up with a new message.

After I had pared down my news consumption, I figured the next step in improving my digital health would be to begin to set limits on my use of social media. Now, to be fair, I don’t do a whole lot of posting on apps like Twitter, but I do spend a pretty good chunk of time scrolling through my timelines and seeing what other people post.

“I should probably do something about that,” I thought.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. I attended an online lecture about digital privacy and online habits, much of which pointed to some of the material I wrote about above. Specifically, the lecturer brought up the brain’s “mixing up” of emotional and physical pain, and the fact that in order to drive engagement, social media platforms are actually built to prioritize “incendiary content.”

Here’s an article which appeared in Nature last year, titled “Angry by design: toxic communication and technical architectures“. Here’s a quote…

Based on engagement, Facebook’s Feed drives views but also privileges incendiary content, setting up a stimulus–response loop that promotes outrage expression. YouTube’s recommendation system is a key interface for content consumption, yet this same design has been criticized for leading users towards more extreme content. Across both platforms, design is central and influential, proving to be a productive lens for understanding toxic communication.

And another…

Just as the design of urban space influences the practices within it (Jacobs, 1992; Birenboim, 2018), the design of platforms, apps and technical environments shapes our behavior in digital space. This design is not a neutral environment that simply appears, but is instead planned, prototyped, and developed with particular intentions in mind.

Anyway, I sat through the hour-long lecture, thought once again that I should probably do something about my social media consumption, then went to have myself a sit in the bathroom.

I pulled out my phone, fired up Twitter, and started doom-scrolling.

Delete, delete, delete

Once I realized what I was doing, I deleted all of the social media apps from my phone, then set some hard and fast limits on when I would visit their respective sites on my laptop. I mean, theoretically I’m trying to run a business here and promote this blog as well as my consultation services, so completely ridding myself of social media probably just isn’t going to happen. That said, I can easily get away with being on these much, much less frequently.

I also un-installed a number of “time-wasting” programs from my laptop, including a game or two I tend to play a bit too much.

And, and…I decided to kind of do a “cold turkey” thing this past week and kept my laptop mostly off, and my phone mostly sitting on its charger inside while I spent the week reading out on my porch whenever possible.

The result of all this digital sanitization? I’ve been a lot happier and more productive this past couple of weeks than I’ve been in months. And yeah, you wouldn’t know it from the sound of the crickets on this blog, but trust me. I’ve been knocking a lot of things off my to-do list, and felt much better while doing it.

Might I suggest you try the same?

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