Being Deliberate About the Social Media and News We Consume

Healthy content can nourish our mind and spirit.

Like food, content can be healthy, unhealthy, and somewhere in between. We can consume too much. Quality makes a difference.

We consume content with news, social media and anything else we watch or read. And like food, content can nourish us and make us stronger, and it can damage us in ways that we don’t see.

Protect your attention and time by being deliberate about the content you consume.

How to...

Figure Out How Content is Impacting You

Tip 1: Notice if the content you consume is triggering worry, FOMO, or unhelpful feelings

Keep in mind that unpleasant feelings are not the same as unhelpful feelings.

Unpleasant feelings, say sadness when reading about a tragedy, or anger when reading about a new policy are normal. They are based in empathy.

Unhelpful feelings, say feeling FOMO, are also normal. But, they aren't tied to helping us be more informed or more compassionate. Most of the time, they don't serve a meaningful purpose, they just make us feel badly.

When you're consuming content, you can stop and check in with your body. What are you feeling? Where are you feeling it? What emotion does that physical sensation represent? It helps to label what you're feeling as you consume content, to help you decide what you read and watch.

How to...

Be deliberate with the amount of time consuming content

Tip 1: Know that your time and attention are worth money, and companies have become excellent at getting it.

The competition for your attention is fierce. How long you want to be consuming content isn't the point--the point is to "capture eyeballs" and "harvest our attention."

Sound creepy? To us, too.

Don't get us wrong--technology adds a lot to our lives. Many of our apps make our lives easier, better, and more fun. The internet has made information and high-quality learning available to people all over the planet, often for no money.

And, there are a lot of tricks that keep us online, longer. There's the obvious ones, like clickbait and auto-playing videos, there are the sneakier ones that are harder to notice, like infinite scrolling, and there are the invisible ones deployed through artificial intelligence. You probably experience it when you pick up your phone for a five minute break and after scrolling… scrolling… realized that 20 minutes have passed.

Is it harsh to say that these tactics exploit our attention? We don't think so.

Our hope is to help technology and consumers (all of us--humanity) find a happy balance: Sustainable profits for businesses and commitment to help humanity thrive*.

* Or at least a commitment to stop damaging humanity.

Tip 2: Consciously decide how much time you are willing to spend on content

Between social media, TV, and browsing, the average American spends over seven hours every day consuming content.

If you don't know how much time you spend consuming content, you could try tracking your time for a few days. Most phones will tell you how much time you've spent in apps or on a browser. And a quick search will help you find tools to track your time on a computer. You might be surprised at the cumulative hours that go into consumption.

Decide how much time you're willing to spend==make it a deliberate choice.

Tip 3: Turn off most notifications

Turning off most notifications is the simplest way to quiet your phone or your browser.

There are two things to know about how notifications impact us.

First, every notification interrupts your attention. It's called context switching. The dings and bells take our attention away from what we were doing. If you find it hard to focus, this might play a role.

​The second is that notifications literally give us a dose of dopamine, the same chemical released in brains when they're on cocaine and slot machines. When people say they are addicted to their phones, they could literally be addicted.

Some notifications are helpful, like reminders to take medicine or get to an appointment. But most notifications do more damage than they're worth.

Let yourself consciously decide when you want to use the apps that notify you.

Turning off notifications is pretty simple, here's how to do it:

  • On most Android devices: When you receive a notification, press and hold it for a couple of seconds and you'll see a small gear show up. Tap that to turn off notifications.... Or if you have a few minutes, go to settings and you'll see options to turn off notifications.

  • On iPhones: Go to settings and select notifications. Turn off the ones that interfere with your time and attention.

Tip 4: Remove temptations

Here are a handful of simple ideas:

1. If you don’t need to be contacted at a moment’s notice, leave your phone in a different room, or at least out of site. Seeing your phone literally reduces your concentration. If you're doing something that requires focus, say work, a hobby, exercise, or a conversation, know that your devices have outsized influence.

2. Remove apps and links that don't add meaningful value to your life. Knowing what adds meaningful value can be a tough question, and the answer is unique to you. When you use the app, how do you feel? If you feel meh, or even blue or anxious, then consider whether this app is benefitting you.

3. Make passwords complicated and turn off the password auto-store. That tiny bit of friction (effort) can help bypass the app autopilot we sometimes succumb to.


Be deliberate with what we consume on social media

Tip 1: Let go of the idea that social media technology is neutral technology.

Something we hear from social media businesses is that platforms are "neutral." At first, it seems reasonable--after all, the technology is run by software and computers.

Think about this: Your time and attention are giant sources of income. These technologies are designed to keep you online as long as possible.

And the things that keep people online longer are mixed. Sometimes the content is a hilarious puppy meme or an Oscar-worthy music video. And sometimes the content is fake and so unbelievable that it's fascinating must-see, even if it leaves us angry or disgusted.

Artificial intelligence can't tell what's built ethically or honestly, and what's built to deceive people. All it knows is whether the content keeps people online longer.

There are good parts and bad parts. But it's not neutral.

The good news? There are hundreds of startup businesses working on building "technology for good." They're focusing on helping people live better lives, addressing environmental sustainability, and building a better society.

Tip 2: Check in with yourself and see how you feel when you're on social media

Have you thought about what it is that gets you to use your social media tools? Is it pulling you in because it's fun? (If so, awesome.) Or is it something else? See if you have a sense of what draws you to use it.

Generally, most of us enjoy the first ten to twenty minutes we spend on most social media. But, on average, we spend a lot more time than that. And we actually become unhappy with our time online.

Here are a couple of ideas for you to understand how it's impacting you:

1. Check in at about ten minutes and take stock of your body. Do you feel any stress or blues? Or are you digging it? Then, when you turn it off, note what triggered you to stop scrolling. How are you feeling now? Try for yourself a few times.

2. When you pick it up, can you remember to ask yourself why you're using it, right now? This one is harder to remember, but it can help you understand your patterns.

Tip 3: There's no requirement for truth or ethics on social media

News media and journalists have a code of ethics for what they report. They are bound to seek truth, minimize harm, and be accountable and transparent.

Social media is not bound by a responsibility to be honest or follow journalistic ethics. This is part of US law, section 230 of the Communications Decency act of 1996 gives "immunity" for platforms posting other peoples' content.

By law, internet platforms have little responsibility for the content they show.

Tip 4: Know that much of what we see in social media is not created by real people

Content is being created every day meant to confuse and anger us.

And a mind-boggling amount of content is not created by real people.

This content is created by other governments, by groups with political agendas, and by people looking to make money at humanity's expense. So, if you are on social media and question what on earth is happening with people? It might help to know that bots (basically software pretending to be real people) create a lot of content, especially on controversial topics.

Social media is full of content built with one purpose: to degrade trust in democracies and institutions. They are designed to sway opinion.

Use abundant skepticism with what you read online.

Of course, there's still a lot of nastiness and mean-spirit from real humans, too. Posts of family members and old friends can show us sides we never knew about. And maybe wish we still didn't know about.

How to...

Be deliberate in how we consume the news. 

Tip 1: How much is enough? When does "more" become too much?

Almost every day is a big news day.

Informed and educated citizens are key to helping democracy thrive. It is important for us to keep up with the news.

Our challenge is deciding how much is enough?

Here are a few things to consider:

1. Do you really need breaking news? Think about what value it provides. If you really enjoy it, great. But if you are constantly checking new sites, then consider what's driving that. Can you designate times to check news, maybe only once or twice a day?

2. When a topic really grips you, and you want to keep learning more, observe what you're thinking and feeling. Maybe set a timer for how much time you want to spend, before you spend it. When the timer goes off, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Was this time well spent? If yes, great. If not, also great--knowing helps inform how and what you choose.

Tip 2: A special note about cable news

Cable news is a business built on the always-on 24x7 news cycle. Even regular news stories become SO BIG and SO CONTROVERSIAL.

Even when it's on in the background, it impacts us. Hearing the same stories with different twists and different levels of emotion (often escalating) exhausts our brains. It exhausts us. It makes us anxious.

Try it for yourself: If you watch a lot of cable news, check in with yourself. What are you thinking and feeling as you watch it?

And if you have it on in the background, what happens when you turn it off? If you enjoy the background noise, public television is a good option.

Tip 3: Fake news

Fake news is getting really ophisticated.

Read more about how to minimize its impact on you.

Resources and Citations

  1. "Four ways in which a person can respond to someone else when something happens, including good events such as a raise at work: (1) Active-constructive responding--an enthusiastic response: "That's great; I bet you'll receive many more raises."; (2) Active-destructive responding--a response that points out the potential downside: "Are they going to expect more of you now?"; (3) Passive constructive responding--a muted response: "That's nice dear."; Passive-destructive responding-- a response that conveys disinterest: "It rained all day here." ... Couples who use active-constructive responding have good marriages. The other responses, if they dominate are associated with marital dissatisfaction. Although this research has only been done in the context of marriage, it may well generalize to other relationships." Sadock, Benjamin J., et al. Kaplan and Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry. United States, Wolters Kluwer Health, 2014.
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