Limit Screen Time and Social Media
“By conducting a media fast, turning off the television, radio and computer, we stop the influx of poison that keeps us buying and desiring more.”
– Skye Jethani
I haven’t watched television, listened to radio, or read a newspaper for over eight years.
The decision to cut these from my life was one of the best things that I have ever done for my mental health as well as my productivity.
How Much Time Are You Wasting?
It may not seem like much at the time, but that one hour television episode per night will end up costing you 3.3 years of your life. That is 3.3 years continuous, not including eating, sleeping, toileting, schooling, working or socialising. Just the total time spent watching a show.
The proof: First you take the number of hours spent on an activity (in this case 1) and divide it by 24 (the number of hours in a day). You take that number (0.0417) and multiply it by the average life expectancy (approximately 80 years). The result equals the number of years that you will spend on that particular activity, in this case 3.3.
The following table shows how continuous time is taken over a life-time if an individual spends 1 – 8 hours on a particular activity.
1 hour per day equates to 3.3 years continuous over a lifetime (1/24*80=3.3)
2 hours per day equates to 6.6 years continuous over a lifetime (2/24*80=6.6)
3 hours per day equates to 10 years continuous over a lifetime (3/24*80=10)
4 hours per day equates to 13.3 years continuous over a lifetime (4/24*80=13.3)
5 hours per day equates to 16.6 years continuous over a lifetime (5/24*80=16.6)
6 hours per day equates to 20 years continuous over a lifetime (1/24*80=20)
The average American spends between 4-5 hours per day watching television (or similar visual media). If you combined that time together and placed it back to back, it means that they will have sat in front of the television for approximately 15 years of their lives. I could think of many more useful things to do with my time.
People often complain about not having any time to exercise, read, meditate, cook, clean, learn, write, socialise or practice. I think that they do have the time, they just don’t prioritise it.
If the average American halved their television time, they would get 7.5 more years of life!
Imagine what you could accomplish with 7.5 more years added to your life. To be clear, this isn’t 7.5 years in which you have to eat, sleep, toilet or work. This is 7.5 years of complete focus.
Whenever I share this concept with people, they are initially shocked that they are spending so much of their lives watching television. It is all too easy to think that an hour each day doesn’t really matter. Perhaps it doesn’t matter on any one day, but when they are all added up, it really does.
These equations presume that we will continue to act the same as we do now for the rest of our lives, which of course is not true. However unless we take steps to drastically change our behaviours, they will become ingrained habits that will likely carry on for quite some time. The television show may change, the particular sport or video game may be replaced, but the behaviour in question will be basically the same. Remember to ‘Change Habits Slowly’ (chapter 3.5) when you begin the process of cutting down television time. It will be easy to cut it out for a day, but you are in this for the long haul.
1) Determine how much time on average you spend each day on the following activities: television, internet, social media, online and mobile gaming, news reports.
2) Determine how many years that amount of usage would take up if it was to occur simultaneously, using the process described above.
3) Dedicate a third of that time each day to some form of self-improvement. This could be any activity including: reading, writing, meditation, exercise, sport, learning a craft, practicing an instrument, exploring nature, self-care, or socialising.
4) Over time, continue to cut down on screen time at a comfortable pace.
Do You Really Benefit From Watching The News?
In order to gain and maintain viewership, news outlets must constantly report on what is happening around the world in the most engaging manner possible. They aim to make it seem like every report is vitally important to the viewer.
They do this by sensationalising what is occurring. Every scandal is the worst scandal ever. Every political rumor spells the start of World War Three. Every viral outbreak in a small village you have never heard of could be the start of the zombie apocalypse. The oceans are heating up, the forests are all but gone, crime and terrorism is rising, everything causes cancer and every politician is a corrupt liar, but they are at least better than the politicians from the countries that we are less than friendly with …
Because we live in a global, 24 hour news cycle, there is no end to available stories that news outlets can draw from. It is a sad truth that there is always something terrible happening somewhere. All the news outlets do is find out what is happening, and tell you about it, making sure to let you know just how bad this most recent occurrence will impact you.
So why don’t I watch the news?
Nothing on the news ever impacts me directly – and I would guess that it would be the same for you.
Consider the thousands of hours you have spent consuming news reports. How many times has that information come in handy? How many times has it prevented you from coming into harm, helped you to take action to better yourself or helped you in any way whatsoever? I can’t name a single instance.
If there is ever anything important happening, something that could impact my life, I am directly told about it by friends and family. So regardless of whether or not it makes it to the news, I already know about it. Furthermore, almost everything presented on the news is on such a large scale that I have no ability to influence it. What can my knowledge of war, financial crisis, globalisation, pollution or any number of woes do to actually change the situation? Likely nothing. The only thing that that knowledge will impact will be my mental state.
Please don’t confuse my position with a lack of care. I do care, perhaps even too much. I have a tendency to strongly empathise with the torments of those whose stories I come across, and ruminate over the many existential threats posed to our species and planet. However, the pain I feel does nothing to solve any of those problems. If another war breaks out, another natural disaster occurs, or more information about the destruction of natural habitats is released, I can’t do anything about it. As an individual I am hopelessly insignificant on a grand scale.
Knowing about these issues may make us fell important, but mere knowledge won’t change anything, it is our actions that count.
There are simply so many problems occurring all at once that it is too overwhelming, too depressing and quite frankly pointless to hold them all inside of us at one time.
Therefore I switch off from most of the issues of the world, leaving myself freer to focus on the humanitarian aspects that I am most passionate about and have the most ability to directly impact with my work. My personal focus is found within the content of this book, namely to help people overcome traumatic pasts, find their true selves, reduce the impact of mental illness, and subsequently to help break the cycle of abuse and trauma for the next generation.
Is my focus less noble than working towards peace, reducing climate change, or bringing in needed social changes? Perhaps, but I can always donate to the people and charities that are better suited to addressing those issues. This is not an ideal approach, but it is the one that I have found best ‘Guards My Mental State’ (chapter, 2.1), while still enabling myself to be making a positive change in the world.
I still keep up-to-date with the general happenings of the world, albeit in a much less frequent manner. I talk to informed friends and occasionally browse topical Subreddits.
Given the 24 hour news cycle, there is often race amongst news outlets to post new information as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of speculation and repetition. It is far more efficient to wait until the dust settles, and a fuller story emerges.
For the next month, don’t consume any news media. Don’t watch the news, read the paper, or listen to the radio. Turn off the political podcasts and ignore the current affair YouTube channels. Let a couple of close friends know that you are taking a break from the news cycle so that they can inform you of any major occurrence that occurs.
During the month, if you find yourself with a bunch of spare time, use that to read fiction, watch a movie or learn something new!
At the end of the month, consider the following questions:
- Did the world end without you knowing of it?
- Are you more or less stressed this month compared to last month?
- Did anything of real importance in your life occur that you friends didn’t inform you of?
- What did you do with the extra time and mental space this month?
- Does consuming the news benefit you in any positive way?
“The problem with social media is that it is great for your ego, but terrible for your sanity.”
– Adrena Sawyer
How Social Media Changes You
In order to understand the double edged sword that is social media, it is important to know a little about how the content of your social feed is chosen.
The first thing to realise is that you are not shown everything that your friends (or the pages you follow) pages post. In the past, you were shown everything. If someone posted it, you were shown it, in the chronological order that it was posted. Over time the social platforms realised that their users were becoming increasingly inundated with far too many posts, most of which were not interesting. In order to solve this problem, they created algorithms that are designed to filter each person’s feed so that they see things that personally interest them. This is the reason that you will see all of the posts of some people, and rarely the posts of others.
The algorithms track what you engage with, and show you more of the same, occasionally throwing in a random post to check if your interests have changed. By this method your social feed becomes less cluttered, and significantly more engaging. This engagement results in more time on the site, which the social platform can then profit off through targeted advertisements.
The end result is a completely catered social media experience that is optimised to be as engaging (addictive) as possible. Beyond the issues of time wasting described above, there are much darker consequences to the catered nature of social media.
Particularly with the creation of echo chambers.
The simple fact is that you are likely to engage with content that you already agree with. The social platform will inevitably show you more of the same content. If you extrapolate the impact of this over time, you will soon see how detrimental this process could be to maintaining a free mind.
If you are only ever exposed to the same kind of content, how can you form in-depth opinions?
The same kinds of content come to the same kinds of conclusions, reaffirming the same kinds of beliefs. This is a form of social media guided self-indoctrination into an extreme version of what you already believe.
If you are of a particular political standpoint, religion, moral belief or hold an opinion on any topic, you will only be shown content that reaffirms your viewpoint. You will start to see the entire world through the lens of your particular issue. The algorithm will show you posts from your friends and family that are about the topic you care about, and hide those that are about other topics. It will feel like the entire world is thinking as you do, because in your feed they are.
The real world is far more complex. It is folly to consider the nature of reality through one lens, but unfortunately, social media is designed to make us do just that. If you spend too much time on social media, and don’t objectively look for outside opinions to challenge your current belief system, you could be fooled into thinking that all of the world’s problems are caused by your issue. Despite what your social feed would suggest; race, religion, feminism, veganism, politics, gender, globalisation, conspiracy and class structure all impact the world, but no single one is at the center.
The problem with an echo chamber is that you are never exposed to new information. So unless you leave it, you will never grow. This applies to both the large scale issues of humanity, as well as your own personal interests and hobbies.
If you are never exposed to new things, you may never discover your greatest passion.
Advertisements work, and they work on you. But of course nobody likes to admit that they are susceptible to influence. If we took people at their word the advertisement industry would go bust - apparently nobody can be convinced of anything. Yet each year, companies spend millions of dollars to convince you to purchase their goods, or to sway your opinions.
If advertisements didn’t work, companies wouldn’t be spending so much of their money on them.
While it is true that a particular individual advertisement may not work, advertisements as a whole, do. Take a quick look around your house, and you will be hard pressed to see many things that were not the direct result of advertisements. Yes you could have chosen competing brands, but you didn’t. There is a reason that you chose the brands you did. The advertisements.
This matters because the advertisements are changing you, and not necessarily in ways you would want, or could even be aware of. They create and play on our fears, then they offer a solution to those fears in the form of their product. They tell a story of a better life, a happier life, a safer life, one of increasing abundance, decadence, and pleasure. A life that begins with their product.
Each ad that you consume adds a grain of sand to the concept of purchasing their product. While each grain itself may not have much impact, collectively they add up.
Since I stopped watching television, my consumption of advertisements has significantly reduced. This has resulted in a clearer mind, and less externally driven desires. I am no longer being tempted by a different life, or the trappings of a material possession. Because I desire less, I spend less. This leaves far more available time for me to spend on the things that I actually value, enabling me to ‘Live By My Values’ (chapter 5.2) far more.
Most important has been the improvements in my sense of self. With less external influence, I am better able to know myself. I am now far more certain of what I want from life, and I can subsequently make far better purchasing decisions. Decisions that are more in line with what I want; not what a corporation wants me to want.
Social media takes traditional advertisements and supercharges them. Marketers can now choose who they want to target based on specific demographics (age, gender, location, ethnicity, income levels, etc), interest levels, prior purchasing habits, and internet search history. With this information, specific advertisements can be shown to you, right when it is most likely that you will be influenced by them.
The advertisements you see on your social media feed are unique to you.
Companies do their best to make their content appear ‘native’ to the social media site (or webpage) that you are on. They want you to stop and consume the advert, not keep scrolling. So rather than the traditional approach of ‘buy now, half price’ they will instead post pictures of attractive people wearing their products, or of amateur looking video footage that just so happens to have their product in it.
They don’t want to jar you, rather to engage you. To do this, they first find out who to specifically target, then run multiple different versions of the same advert, track the engagement results to see which one works, and then continue to use the one that produces the best result.
While not as direct as traditional advertisements, this new form of advertisement is just as effective at nudging your behavior in a particular way. If you use social media, there is not much that can be done to avoid this from happening other than by reducing your time spent on the website. You could also try using a VPN, regularly deleting your internet cookies and put as little personal information on social media as possible, as well as refrain from engaging with brands and businesses online.
You will still receive advertisements, but they won’t be as targeted, and thus easier to spot.
For the next month, limit yourself to only checking social media twice daily, and only to respond to any notifications that you receive.
This is a good way to reduce your social media usage, while still receiving the social benefits of the platform. You will still be able to receive messages for any social events, and will still be able to communicate and share things with friends.
The only difference is that now you will only be exposed to the things that your friends actually wanted you to see enough to tag you.
At the end of the month, consider the following questions:
- Did the world end without you knowing of it?
- Are you more or less stressed this month compared to last month?
- Did anything of real importance to your life occur that your friends didn’t inform you of?
- What did you do with the extra time and mental space?
It is important to acknowledge that sometimes the way everybody is doing something may be flawed or not entirely healthy.
Perhaps future psychologists will be able to show beyond all doubt, that extended television, social media, and advertisement exposure is terrible for our mental states. Until then, I am trusting my personal experiences.
I cannot understate how good I feel, the less the time I spend in front of a screen.
Try it for yourself.
Continue The Conversation
How many years total will you spend in front of a screen?
Tweet @zacpphillips #screentime, with your thoughts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q) I have tried to cut down my screen time, but I struggled to do so. I think I may be addicted, particularly to social media. What can I do?
A) You may very well be addicted. This isn’t something to be ashamed of, in a way it is to be expected.
The social media platforms are designed to be as addictive as possible to keep you coming back to them, but unfortunately we didn’t realise this when we signed up.
I would suggest rereading ‘Change Habits Slowly’ (chapter 3.5) and applying the lessons found within towards cutting down social media usage. If you have already done this, and still need assistance, I would recommend speaking to a psychologist about it, or to an addiction specialist.
Q) How can you just turn off the news? Surely there is something valuable to be gained from consuming the information news provides?
A) There is value to being abreast of social affairs, and of being exposed to knowledge of all kinds.
For me it is a trade-off between my mental state and constant exposure to up to date news reporting. As always I, ‘Guard My Mental State At All Costs’ (chapter 2.1). I will check in and read about current affairs, but I do so on a limited basis, one that I choose and one that I can handle.
It is technically feasible to be plugged into the news cycle 24/7, however doing so would be ludicrous. The question we all have to answer is not ‘How can I consume as much news as possible, but rather, ‘How much news do I want in my life?’
My answer may simply be a lot less than yours.
Before watching a screen, ask yourself, ‘Will this add anything of value to my life?’, ‘How will my mental state be impacted?’, and ‘What else could I do with my time?’