Throughout most of high school, I was not very active on the internet. I didn’t pass time on Youtube or Netflix, did not have a Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter or Instagram. I didn’t even use a messaging platform. And honestly, I wasn’t looking to get started. I was a pretty busy guy: between sports, music, school, friends and family, my days were packed.
But then things changed.
In starting university, my previously packed days became more and more free. There were no more choir rehearsals, piano lessons, karate classes, 8:30am-3:30pm school days. I was also away from home, sitting alone in my dorm room.
It started small, watching music videos and clips from the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon on Youtube, then it was a Spotify subscription, then Facebook, then Netflix, then Instagram. By my third year of university, I was averaging 5 hours per day on digital media.
Fast forward two years. My digital media consumption is tightly regulated — no more Netflix or Facebook, 30 min of Youtube per week maximum. I still use Instagram and Spotify but only in certain windows of the day.
But coming off digital media–a two year process that was not without significant struggle, and seeing the immense benefits it has afforded me–has forced me to reflect on how I got hooked on it in the first place.
- Feeling drained.
In the late 1980s, Drs. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, two psychology researchers at the University of Rochester psychologists tried to understand what people need in order to feel motivated to do something. One of their ideas was the Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT).
BPNT says that psychological well-being and optimal functioning requires feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When also talking about this, Ali Abdaal summarizes autonomy as “feeling like you have control over your goals, your day, and whether what you do is important”. Competence means feeling like you are good at what you do. And relatedness is how connected you feel to the people around you.
In university, I did not necessarily see how some of the things I was learning were necessarily relevant or important to me. And therefore the goals I was setting to do well in school weren’t necessarily ones that I felt I had control over. Comparing myself constantly to others caused me to lose my sense of competence. And to be quite honest, I don’t think I ever really found my people while I was there.
As such, the allure of digital people became more enticing.
2. Easy access.
In high school most things were done with paper and pen (or pencil; we had options lmao). In university, everything migrated online. First there was Learnlink, then Avenue to Learn, then Microsoft Teams. But no matter how many upgrades any one of these clunky user interfaces, they could never compete with the frictionless billion-dollar algorithms that comprise modern social media.
Assignments that should have taken 30min took 3hrs. And wanting to stay a straight A student, those added hours were subtracted from sleep.
3. Lacking sleep.
It is a negative cycle. Drowsiness caused by staying up to play catch up for time wasted on digital media depletes one's will-power to stay away from these same distractors the next day. It is what it is.
The detrimental feed-back loops extend beyond this. By not doing work due to increased time on digital media, we feel less competent. By watching people do cool stuff online, our own goals can sometimes be undermined (or at least challenged, and maybe that is healthy to a degree, but I digress). Lastly, being online means that we aren’t connecting with one another in person.
4. Not challenging yourself the right way.
Do you remember the last time you chose to step out of your comfort zone? Do you remember the last time you felt like you were growing?
I think the three reasons that I mention above caused me to fall into the snares of digital media addiction. But the fact that I felt like my life was stagnant was what prevented me from clawing out.
The fact of the matter was, I realized very early on that my digital media habits were not good for me. But every time I tried to stop trying to get off digital media, I had nothing to replace it with. Aimlessly browsing the internet was by far the most interesting thing I was doing. Yeah, being in school was hard, extracurriculars were demanding but they were challenges I had experienced and succeeded at before.
I wasn’t growing, I wasn’t trying new things. One could even argue that I was being exposed to the most variety and insight through the platforms that were causing me so much 'life-ache'.
What I have come to realize is that it is actually so easy to entertain yourself. Try taking an acting class (if you enjoy watching Netflix), actually try searching for a sport or activity that you watch videos of on the internet.
Even though you will no longer have access to a world at your finger tips, you will get the opportunity to explore the world within yourself–and you should be more interesting (at least to yourself) than some influencer. And you may even make some new friends along the way.
“Do what you love” — so they say, but that means finding what you love–get started.