You are what you read

It’s important to maintain a healthy information diet

This is not an article hating on pizza. Pizza is and always will be a god among foods.

Everyone knows that consuming large amounts of junk food is bad for your health. What about junk media?

There are countless articles about our tendency to obsessively consume media and the various ways media companies exploit it. Facebook, Google, and countless other corporations have a vested interest in keeping us hooked to our screens mindlessly consuming whatever content they push through our feeds.

In the United States alone the entertainment and media industry was worth 573.57 billion U.S. dollars in 2014 and is expected to grow to over 720 billion U.S. dollars by 2020, according to Statista. That’s huge.

Whether it’s news, Instagram posts, vlogs, Youtube videos, or podcasts, there is a startling abundance of content out there for us to consume. There are also people who profit greatly from us consuming that content in an addictive fashion.

This is very bad.

There are many risks to consuming online content in a mindless, uncritical fashion. We might unknowingly spread propaganda placed by foreign actors. We might read numerous articles that contribute to our depression and negative self-image. We might procrastinate or neglect important parts of our lives under the facade of staying informed.

Also, when you ingest more content online you inevitably expose yourself to more advertising, which adds to mental cutter. Advertising is quite literally mind control. The more you expose yourself to, the less in control of your thoughts you are.

In my experience, reducing my consumption of media had significant benefits to my mood, productivity, and overall well-being. I believe everyone can benefit from a healthier information diet. In order to share my experience in changing mine and the tools I’ve used to do so, let’s go back in time to 2016.

I treat digital content the same way I treat food: don’t eat too much and only eat the right kind

Throughout the 2016 presidential primaries and for a few months after the election I was a hardcore news junky. I spent at least two hours each night watching TYT, reading Politico, and even sometimes descending into the pits of Breitbart and Infowars just to keep my news diet more “balanced.” (I’m not proud of this but it’s the truth.) Whenever I needed a break from hard news I would watch The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight to lighten the mood a bit.

Needless to say, this made me confused, overwhelmed, and a little bit neurotic. I could spout off analysis about even the most minor issues and conflicts. I wore my political awareness as a badge of honor.

I was unhappy, though. My life was dominated by political events. It was all I could think about because I spent too much time trying to keep up with what powerful people were doing. My efforts to have a varied stockpile of ideas and opinions led me to eventually burn out completely from the news. You might call it a content overdose.

This February I went almost the entire month without reading any news. Some days I wouldn’t even go on Twitter or Medium because reading or watching anything would inevitably end with me plummeting down the rabbit hole.

It was just about the happiest month of my life.

Detoxing from the news created an unintended shift from being dominated by external events, thoughts, and opinions, to me feeling an enhanced sense of control over my life.

The ideas in the content you consume become the content of your thoughts. If you consume junk content then you will have junk thoughts. Before, my thoughts were dominated by news because I spent so much time filling my brain with it. Changing my content consumption habits fundamentally changed my thought processes.

Lately I’ve been tuning back into the news. I’m much better at moderating what I consume, though, and I rarely spend more than 30 minutes throughout the day reading or watching news.

The best technique I’ve devised for maintaining a healthy information diet is to treat digital content the same way I treat food: don’t eat too much and only eat the right kind.

When I stopped snacking excessively and shifted to a more plant-based diet my physical health improved. Similarly, when I stopped excessively consuming content and only engaged with quality life-enriching content, my metal health improved.

Social media is the main source of information for many people. As the world is increasingly digitized and younger generations grow up in the highly-connected world, Twitter, Facebook, Google, and the other media giants are the new gatekeepers of the media we consume.

The problem with social media is that, as technologists like Tristan Harris have pointed out, the platforms we use have been carefully crafted to capture and manipulate our attention in order to maximize their profits. This extends beyond social media apps themselves to the design and basic functionality of our devices.

Most people don’t think about this because they are too busy liking and sharing posts on Facebook. Tech companies exploit our fundamental psychology for their personal economic benefit with no regard for how they effect our lives.

This is why, in addition to generally cutting down on my media consumption, I’ve developed some tricks specifically for limiting my exposure to detrimental content on social media:

  1. Consumption caps — when I go on Twitter or Instagram I limit myself to 15 or 5 posts, respectively. I don’t count ads or sponsored content in this. Regardless of what I see, this satisfies my compulsive media cravings and prevents these apps from eating up too much of my day.
  2. Follow purges — On a monthly basis I look at the list of accounts I follow on social media and purge garbage from the list. This gives me more control over what appears in my feed. It also feels very liberating, almost like I’m casting off dead weight.
  3. Quiet times — I don’t go on social media for the first hour of the day or while I’m eating. This allows me to start each day on my own terms and truly enjoy my meals. This is especially important when I’m eating with friends and family.

These techniques have not only allowed me to be more productive. I’ve also been able to spend more time nurturing meaningful relationships. Strangely enough, as I’ve reduced my use of social media my social life has vastly improved.

This is because most of my connections on social media have little to no presence in my day-to-day life. I can easily reach all of the people who matter to me via texting or the Facebook messenger app that allows me to bypass the newsfeed. I’m not antisocial, I just believe strongly in the value of carefully curating the people with whom you spend your time.

Some people can maintain a healthy social life on social media. If you’re one of those people, keep doing your thing. I’m not one of those people. Twitter’s usefulness for me is mostly in promoting my writing. Facebook is most useful for me as a contact manager for its messenger function. Instagram can sometimes be a source of creative inspiration, but it’s usually just a black hole for productivity.

The problem of junk media goes far beyond technological manipulation. As long as people can benefit economically from pushing junk content through your newsfeed they will.

As a struggling freelance writer I’ve come across countless jobs to produce trash content for websites that only want ad revenue. They could give a damn whether or not you actually enjoy or benefit from what they’re publishing. The same goes for videographers and graphic designers.

As long as we keep clicking the content they will keep producing it.

If we all change our media diets, the market will have no choice but to change with us. We can not only help ourselves, but change the entire world if we just become a little more conscious about what content we consume and how we consume it.

As always, thanks for reading. A little applause goes a long way in telling me whether or not I’m writing what you want to read 😉

I’d like to shout out for providing free beautiful stock photos. I can almost always find what I’m looking for on there, and as a mostly unemployed writer, I appreciate them offering such a great service for free.

If you want to stay up to date on what’s happening in my life, please follow me on Twitter @jeremycummings3 or on Instagram Now turn off your smartphone/computer and go enjoy the weekend!