Stop Hitting Yourself: Harmful digital behaviour and how to manage it

That’s “hit” as in page views. I know, it’s not funny if I have to explain it.

As I write this, I’ve just read How Not to Fall Apart by Maggy van Eijk. It’s a fast-paced, accessible, yet confronting account of life as a twenty-something with anxiety and depression. There’s a lot in here that I (thankfully) can’t relate to, like physical self-harm, alcoholism, and abuse. But much of the book resonates with me, including the chapters on workplace stress, panic attacks, and the thing I want to talk about in this post: the digital world.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the effects of digital technology on mental health. The reason being that it has hugely affected my mental health: I recently suffered a depressive episode that I attribute to harmful use of digital technology, and which lasted for several days.

We live in a digital world. Computers, smartphones, TV, movies, games, and social media are so pervasive in modern society that we now depend on them to work and socialise. We can’t avoid them – the best we can hope to do is manage their effects.

To that end: Here are my top six harmful digital behaviours, based on my own experience. I’ll explain what I’m doing, why it’s harmful, and what I think I (or you, in a similar situation) can do to reduce harm while keeping the benefits. There’s a lot of overlap between these behaviours – it’s quite possible to hit several at the same time – but each has its own traits that I want to talk about separately.

 

Screen time: Staring at glowing rectangles
screens
A screen full of screens!

A huge number of everyday tasks now involve looking at a screen. Most content is accessed through a screen and then viewed on a screen. As a result, I spend a lot of time looking at screens.

What am I doing?

Effectively, every moment I spend looking at a screen contributes to this. It’s just a matter of degree. Here’s a breakdown of my screen-based activities, in roughly descending order:

  • Most of my workday is spent looking at my dual monitors: Reading and writing emails, building spreadsheets, writing code, compiling reports.
  • My choices of entertainment are mostly screen-based: YouTube, TV, movies, gaming.
  • My communications, and those of my contacts, mostly happen via screens: Messaging, social media, email.
  • A host of other tasks happen on screens: Search, shopping, reading news, browsing photos, and (of course) writing this blog!
Why is this a problem?
  • I get headaches and sore eyes after a long session, often requiring me to go and lie down.
  • It’s slowly but surely affecting my eyesight. It’s a miracle that I haven’t had to get glasses yet, but I suspect I’m not far off!
  • Sitting too long hurts my lower back.
  • It affects my sleep – more on that in a moment.
What can I do about it?
  • Look for other ways to capture and share information at work. Take notes on a notepad rather than an electronic device. Go and talk to someone rather than emailing.
  • Choose content that you can consume without looking at a screen: Music, podcasts, audiobooks.
  • Go offline for your entertainment. Read a book, visit a museum, watch a live show.
  • Take some of your social life offline. Meet up with local friends in the real world. Make a phone call rather than messaging back and forth for hours.

 

Late nights: If you keep losing sleep…
late nights
Okay, I cheated by changing my timezone!

This is a pretty straightforward one. I know when to call it a day, but I have trouble accepting that the day’s over. Despite how obvious this may seem, it’s a problem that’s plagued me for as long as I can remember. I feel like I haven’t done enough with my day, or that I haven’t had enough fun, so I make a last-ditch attempt to save it – and usually end up making it worse.

What am I doing?

Basically anything mentioned elsewhere here, but late at night or early in the morning. The main culprits are:

  • Watching videos (see Overconsumption, below).
  • Long instant messaging conversations.
  • Playing games (see Gaming, below).
  • Writing the blog.
Why is this a problem?
  • The obvious one: I’m reducing the time available for sleep!
  • I need time to wind down for a while before I can sleep. Screen-based activities don’t help with this – they keep me alert while bombarding me with information.
  • Blue light from screens affects my ability to get to sleep and stay asleep (because biochemistry). Screen filter apps help, but don’t solve this for me.
  • Thinking about content keeps me awake at night. This is especially true of gaming: I’ll often plan my next move or my next game while lying in bed.
What can I do about it?
  • Accept that not every day can be fun and productive. Try again tomorrow!
  • Stop and think: Will this really turn my day around? Is it worth sacrificing the next day for? It’s a very high bar when you put it that way!
  • If the above fails, set a “shut down” alarm for when it’s time to start winding down. When it goes off, move to finish up what you’re doing, and don’t start anything new that isn’t compatible with winding down.
  • Develop a wind-down routine. Know what activities you can do without jolting yourself back into awakeness. For me this includes showering (I’m an evening showerer), reading, and slow-paced exercise like walking or yoga. After “shut down” time (and when you wake in the night), do only these things.

 

Overconsumption: The never-ending page
overconsumption
Infinite scrolling on Reddit’s r/all

There’s more content online than any one person can consume. (And you’ve chosen mine, for which I thank you!)  According to one current source, 300 hours of video is uploaded every minute on YouTube alone. You could keep yourself entertained forever.

What am I doing?

The trouble is, content providers try to feed you as much content (and thus advertising) as they can, through features that are, to put it bluntly, addicting. This leads me to things like:

  • Zombie scrolling: Sites have replaced paging with a single page that goes on forever, continuously adding more results to the bottom of the page. There’s always something just off the screen, so I keep scrolling to see what it is. Before I realise it, I’ve been through hundreds of results – way more than I would have guessed! I get this mostly on Reddit and Google Images.
  • Rabbit holes: Articles contain links to more articles, which are often useful or necessary to understand the first article. This means I open an ever-increasing number of tabs and read way more than I intended to. Wikipedia and TV Tropes are notorious for this.
  • “One more video”: At the end of a video or article, suggestions pop up with content I “might like”. Thanks to all the Big Data I’ve given them, these suggestions are usually quite good. Before I know it, I’m hooked on a channel or series and watch every one of their videos. YouTube and news sites are good at this.
Why is this a problem?

Besides contributing to screen time and late nights, overconsumption comes with its own harms:

  • Consuming many small pieces of content lowers my attention span and ability to concentrate. It’s a withdrawal response. I come to expect gratification within the length of a video or article (typically under 10 minutes) and become frustrated when I don’t get it. This means I’m less willing to persist with something for a longer time. Worse, this effect persists beyond the binge session and into real life. Writing a long post in the face of this is a challenge!
  • Because this content is always available, bite-sized, and quickly gratifying, I’m tempted to dip into it while I’m doing something else. Distraction becomes a habit. Oh, it won’t hurt to take a five-minute break, will it? [Two hours later…]
  • The deeper I go, the more likely I’ll run into something I really wish I hadn’t. See “Upsetting content”, below.
What can I do about it?
  • Because this is addictive behaviour, the best advice I can give is to seek therapy. (I plan to bring this up in my next session.)
  • Be aware of the tricks these sites use to push content. Learn to recognise them, and to catch yourself when you spot them. Before you scroll further or click that link, consider whether it’s worth it. Imagine you’re at the end of page 1. You’ve seen the best results – surely that’s enough?
  • Seek out longer, more meaningful pieces of content, like movies or long-form articles.

 

Upsetting content: I can’t unsee that!
cannotbeunseen
Image credit: knowyourmeme.com

There’s some nasty stuff on the internet. Sometimes I stumble on it by accident. Sometimes, because I’m morbidly curious, I actively seek it out. Either way, I end up wishing I hadn’t.

What am I doing?

Viewing content, usually images or video, that’s one or both of:

  • Disturbing: Anything relating to awful human experiences. Horror, violence, gore, injury, disease, surgery, disasters, etc.
  • Depressing: Stuff that shakes my faith in humanity or makes me wonder why I bother. This includes most of the “news”, strongly self-deprecating humour, petty arguments, hate, and displays of ignorance.
Why is this a problem?

While I get a brief high from satisfying my curiosity, it turns to a low when I start to think about what I’ve seen. There are a few aspects to this:

  • I’m especially sensitive to “triggering” content like blood, torture, self-harm, or suicide. Because of my own experience, images of earthquakes also get me. Any of these cause me to panic, shut down, and replay the scene in my head later.
  • More generally, disturbing and depressing content cause me to worry about things that I can’t control. What if I catch (or already have) that rare disease? Is the stock market about to crash? When is the next big earthquake going to hit? I don’t want to think about it.
  • The abundance of these kinds of content distorts my perspective on, and expectations of, the world. When what you see online is suffering and misery, it’s easy to think that’s what real life is like. Maybe I’m somehow special, sheltered, lucky, or otherwise “different”, for not experiencing this stuff myself. Should I feel guilty?
What can I do about it?
  • Know your triggers. Respect trigger warnings when you see them. If the warning matches your triggers, stop. (To my movie-going friends: this is why I vetoed A Star is Born. Sorry!)
  • If a site you regularly visit throws up upsetting content often, consider using it less. I’ve unsubscribed from meme pages to avoid those self-deprecating jokes.
  • If you’re actively looking for this stuff… Get some help 😕

 

Social Media: The Social Media Lemming redux
5 there's traps about
Oh no! More lemmings!

As I mentioned in my 2018 review, I’m still not in control of my social media usage. There’s a fine line between the useful social-life content and the harmful Infinite Content (see Overconsumption, above).

What am I doing?
  • Trying to get every update from my social networks. This comes down to the classic “fear of missing out” (FOMO): I think I’ll miss something important if I don’t read every single post.
  • Falling into overconsumption traps. That rabbit hole is always just a click away.
  • Trying to keep up in terms of content or achievements. I’ll often make comments or do things for the sake of it, because I haven’t been “active enough”. My ill-fated 5-workouts-a-week plan comes to mind.
  • Chasing arbitrary internet points. I spent a month farming “karma” on the SpongeBob memes subreddit. Complete waste of time. (For the record, I got 2,120 karma.)
Why is this a problem?
  • All of this contributes to the above harmful behaviours.
  • FOMO feels awful, and constantly seeking updates doesn’t even fix it. If anything, ignorance is bliss.
  • Seeing other people’s highlights creates unrealistic expectations for myself. Why haven’t I achieved that life goal yet? Am I somehow inferior, unlucky, lazy, “different”? Should I feel ashamed? It’s like upsetting content (see above), but flipped on me.
  • Trying to keep up is exhausting and distracts from my own priorities.
What can I do about it?
  • Use social media – don’t let it use you. Know how it benefits you, and stick to that. For me, that means sharing useful or humorous content, and connecting with people I’m likely to see in the real world.
  • Limit what you follow. If you find user123’s content genuinely inspiring, go ahead and follow them! But if you’re like me and want to do your own thing, just post that random-funny photo and move on. (If I unfollow you in the near future, don’t take it personally!)
  • Allow notifications only for things that immediately affect you, like personal messages. Check in on that YouTube channel when you have some downtime.
  • Whenever you get that pang of social media envy, remind yourself: You’re working towards something too. Do you really want to stop what you’re doing for a chance at what user123 has? Probably not. So there’s no point being jealous.

 

Gaming: “One more turn…”
one more turn
So infamous they wrote it into the game!

I’m proud to say that I haven’t played a videogame in six weeks, and I went without for six months straight at the start of last year. But I’m still going to include gaming here, because of all the things on this list, it’s had the greatest impact on me, and there’s always a chance I’ll fall back into it.

What am I doing?

Playing games for hours at a time, typically ones that require a lot of thinking. My big three in recent years have been Age of Empires II, Civilization IV, and Minecraft.

Why is this a problem?
  • It’s isolating. I’m sitting at home alone looking at a screen, and since I only play these games in singleplayer mode, there’s no social benefit.
  • It’s stressful. At any moment, an army might come at me, a “friendly” civilisation might declare war, or a creeper could explode in my face. There’s enough to think about already, even before you factor in the constant danger.
  • It’s addictive. These games offer a temporary highs of crushing an army, destroying a city, leveling up your equipment, and ultimately winning the game. There’s also gambling elements: The difficulty of a game depends heavily on random map generation, so starting a new game is like spinning a slot machine. Good civilisation matchup? Two corn farms and a gold mine? A village with Mending books? Jackpot! These games don’t even have insidious pay-to-win features, but they’re addictive enough without them!
What can I do about it?
  • Just don’t play. Do something else. This is the solution I’ve chosen for now, and it’s working okay!
  • Stay off YouTube gaming channels. This is usually what draws me back into a game.
  • If you do play, don’t just play singleplayer. Play with friends; join a community; create your own content.
  • If the addiction part above resonates with you, get some help.

 

☀️☀️☀️

 

So that’s where I currently stand in the struggle with digital technology. I’ve made progress in recent times, and there are many common behaviours I don’t engage in (like binge-watching Netflix). And I’m sure I’ll look back on this later and find I have a whole different set of problems (like binge-watching Netflix?). Right now, though, I feel like I’m not in control, and it’s something I need to keep working on.

I hope you find this useful. I know there’s plenty more ground to cover here – again, this list is based on my personal experience, and yours will vary. But whatever digital habits you may have, I hope this template helps you recognise how they affect you and what you can do about them.

How do you navigate the digital world? What are your harmful behaviours, and how can you kick them? Got any suggestions to help with mine? Let me know!

Time to log off and stop looking at the screen. But first, I need share this to Facebook and Reddit!


Summer Sounds: I couldn’t pick just one song…

…so I picked one for each of the six behaviours I listed here!

Screen time: Yellowcard – Telescope. “I’ve been sitting here, staring at this screen, wondering what I’ll write…” True story. I took a lot of screen time writing this post.

Late nights: The Postal Service – Sleeping in. “Don’t wake me, I plan on sleeping in.” Because I stayed up too late writing this. Thankfully I don’t have work tomorrow.

Overconsumption: Arcade Fire – Infinite Content. “Infinite content. We’re infinitely content.” The internet in a nutshell.

Upsetting content: Birds of Tokyo – Catastrophe. “Headline that terrify; more news to paralyse.” A cynical (but honest) take on the news.

Social media: Hoobastank – Don’t Look Away. “Everything on the screen is just another version of the person that I want you to see. Don’t act like you don’t do the same thing too.” Enough said.

Gaming: Stephen Rippy – Shamburger. The first track on the Age of Empires II soundtrack. I spent so long on AoE2 that this might be the piece of music I’ve heard the most in my lifetime!

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2 thoughts on “Stop Hitting Yourself: Harmful digital behaviour and how to manage it

  1. Another thought provoking blog and again, I see myself in you! I also can’t handle ‘disturbing’ stuff – books, movies, news items etc. Like you, I replay them over & over in my head and it leaves me with a feeling that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of people in the world are decent & honest & there’s a lot of really good positive stuff going on, but only the bad stuff makes ‘good’ news/movies/books. The best way to deal with it in my experience is, as you mentioned, take the ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach. I listen to more FM, so no in depth or comprehensive news stories there, I only watch fantasy or action movies because they are not real life, same with books, etc. Being of an older generation, I’m not into gaming. I know the young ones love it but seriously, it’s a total waste of your life and you have nothing tangible to show for all those hours you spend gaming, trolling through the internet etc. Get out & go for a walk, or just sit outside & look around & listen to the birds, wind etc. Join a club or sport. Learn something new, have a go at painting or drawing or knitting or anything creative, listen to music, the options are endless. The point I’m trying to make is, do something REAL. Give your eyes a break from screens & your mind a rest from information overload and fast paced stressful screen based stuff. As you said, use digital platforms for things you actually need because the reality is that everyone needs it to a degree these days, but you don’t need to know everything or be connected or communicating all the time. Don’t let it BE your life, just a small part of it. Trust me, you’ll be fine, and your mind will thank you for it! As for comparing yourself to others & their achievements & milestones, DONT. You are you, unique & special. Do what makes YOU happy. Live your life your way, do things in your own time, at your own pace, when you are ready & it feels right. Life doesn’t have a set script, & doing or not doing things just to please others or fit the ‘norm’ will lead to an unhappy life. Some days will be boring or unproductive, others will be fun & productive, that’s life. You don’t have to achieve something every day, nothing terrible is going to happen. You are young, you have a lot more time than you probably feel you have, trust me, I’ve been there. Take the time to just ‘smell the roses’, feel the sun on your face, or the rain, the smells & sounds, the taste of nice food, just enjoy BEING. It’s good for your mind & soul and brings valuable balance into your life.

    Like

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