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Addicted to Distractions? Time for a Media Fast

March 5, 2024

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“We are distracted from distraction by distraction”—these words from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding” are an apt description of life in our media-soaked, always-connected twenty-first-century culture. How often do we have time without distractions, when we can focus on just what is before us, to allow our thoughts to bubble up in our minds, to recognize our emotions and what they are responding to? And if we don’t have undistracted time, what does it do to us?

Years ago, when I was teaching freshman composition at a college in Southern California, I decided to do an impromptu activity with my class as we were reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (a classic book, by the way) as part of a unit about media. I took all my students outside and had them arrange themselves on a grassy slope near our classroom. It was a beautiful day, the epitome of SoCal weather, sunny and deliciously warm but not hot; we could just see the ocean from our location. I had the class sit here for fifteen minutes, not speaking to each other, not taking notes or reading, just sitting quietly. At the end of the allotted quarter-hour, I took the class back inside and they each wrote a short reflection on what the experience was like. 

Many of the students had thoughtful reflections on what it was like to sit quietly and allow their minds to wander, but there was one that I’ll never forget.

One young man found the experience extremely distressing. As he sat quietly, he found that he could not help thinking about all the things that were going wrong in his life—thoughts that he otherwise pushed away by activity or drowned out by listening to music. (Indeed, I’d noticed that he wore headphones up to the moment of arriving at class.) Being consciously aware of the things that he was troubled by, with no way to block those thoughts out, was, he said, horrible. He was clearly shaken by the experience. 

And this was only a quarter of an hour, on a sunny hillside with a view of the sea. 

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

This student was using music as his means of perpetual distraction; this was just at the start of the iPhone era, and almost none of that group of students had smartphones. Only a few years later, smartphones had become ubiquitous and the dominant means of perpetual personal distraction shifted to scrolling through social media. Now my students had a way of avoiding their own thoughts that took even less effort than choosing a playlist and was considerably more effective as a distractor. And they genuinely had a lot on their minds that made those distractions very tempting indeed: financial difficulties, familial problems, personal relationship conflicts, uncertainty about the future, questions about their own identity and place in the world.

The human propensity for seeking distraction is not new. The seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” 

What is distinctive about twenty-first-century Western culture is, first, the way that, in the form of electronic media, we have immediate, personal access to a 24/7 supply of distractions funneled to us wherever we might be, and second, that these distractions are finely tuned to be addictive. Ted Gioia addresses this in his “The State of the Culture 2024” essay. Read the whole article: it’s worth your time. He points out that our culture is shifting to a new and dangerous phase: 

The fastest growing sector of the culture economy is distraction. Or call it scrolling or swiping or wasting time or whatever you want. But it’s not art or entertainment, just ceaseless activity.

The key is that each stimulus only lasts a few seconds, and must be repeated.

It’s a huge business, and will soon be larger than arts and entertainment combined. Everything is getting turned into TikTok—an aptly named platform for a business based on stimuli that must be repeated after only a few ticks of the clock. . . . 

This is more than just the hot trend of 2024. It can last forever—because it’s based on body chemistry, not fashion or aesthetics.

Our brain rewards these brief bursts of distraction. The neurochemical dopamine is released, and this makes us feel good—so we want to repeat the stimulus.

It is an addictive cycle: as Gioia explains, “Instead of movies, users get served up an endless sequence of 15-second videos. Instead of symphonies, listeners hear bite-sized melodies, usually accompanied by one of these tiny videos—just enough for a dopamine hit, and no more.” He goes on to point out the grim results: “The more addicts rely on these stimuli, the less pleasure they receive. At a certain point, this cycle creates anhedonia—the complete absence of enjoyment in an experience supposedly pursued for pleasure.” 

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The fact that the structure of social media in particular is addictive, and that its addictive qualities are, if not actively intended, certainly accepted by the companies which profit from them, should indeed give us pause. It is well worth asking, with regard to any particular mode of media consumption, whether we are getting something worthwhile from it, or whether we’re getting drawn in by the addictive cycle of distraction. It’s important to reflect on this, precisely because it can be tempting to either give up in despair, or to reflexively condemn all modern media and our culture in general. But we should resist both extremes. There’s a tremendous amount of genuinely good, interesting, insightful, and life-enriching material to be found in media, and there’s a lot that is, if not terribly deep, harmless and wholesome. It is not a bad thing that I might, on taking a break from writing an essay, smile at a cute cat picture. 

The primary question, I feel, is this: Does my use of media provide something positive in my life (however small) that I actively choose to engage with, or does it serve primarily or predominantly as a distraction or an addiction? Do I, indeed can I, allow myself to experience my own thoughts and feelings, or do I use (or permit) media to push aside my thoughts and mute my feelings so that I can avoid recognizing them?

Reading the reflection from that anxious young man in my class, who found it almost unbearable to spend fifteen minutes of silence with his thoughts, brought home to me how difficult it is for people in our modern culture to untangle themselves from the web of distractions. How are we to think about the most important questions in our lives, questions of eternal import, if we don’t have time to think at all? 

Are you hesitant to try it? It’s worth asking yourself why.

From that day onward, I made it a regular part of my teaching to give my students assignments that help them to reflect on their use of media. These activities can be life-changing, and I’ve seen them bear much fruit, whether with undergraduates, graduate students, or my writers in the Word on Fire Institute’s Writing Community. One of these activities is simply to spend time sitting in silence, which I’ve written about here. The central one, however, is what I call the “Media Fast.” 

The “Media Fast” is a small, limited, and potent activity. The most rewarding version—and also the more exacting one, which I would assign to my students—is to do a 24-hour stretch of abstaining from the use of all electronic media. That includes television, podcasts, YouTube, texting, cell phone calls, social media, streaming music, radio, and video and smartphone games. (Of course, there’s an exception for computer and phone use that is required for your job, or for emergencies: but it is a good activity in itself to think about whether you really need to use your phone or not.) You may wish to alert your friends and family that you’re going to be off-line for a day, so that they don’t worry. When I assign this to my students, it has the stipulation that if you break your fast, you must start the 24-hour period over again. 

The most important part of the activity comes after you’ve finished the fast: to reflect on what it was like. Was it easy? Was it hard? What was your emotional state? How did you relate to other people during this time? Did it reveal anything to you about your relationship with media or your own level of comfort with your own thoughts? 

Are you hesitant to try it? It’s worth asking yourself why. 

Perhaps you think it will be too easy or unnecessary—or that you’re already aware of the issues you have with social media, and you don’t need a media fast to discover them. That may be the case, but I’ve seen that it often surprises the participants, sometimes in very positive ways. 

Are you perhaps worried about what it will reveal about your habits of succumbing to distraction, and you don’t want to face it? That’s worth discovering in itself. Be brave. 

Are you afraid you won’t be able to complete it? Remember that this is an activity whose value is in what you learn by doing it. My ‘assignment’ is a starting point, not a rigid set of rules. If 24 hours is too much, try 12 hours—or 8 hours, or 6 hours. If you can’t manage a full fast from all electronic media, select just one: stay off Instagram for 24 hours, or choose not to listen to any podcasts or music on your drive to work. 

If you can, try to enlist a friend or family member into the fast, so that you can do it together, and then compare notes afterwards. 

I freely acknowledge that the media fast is usually an unsettling experience, and sometimes a distressing one—but in many years now of doing this activity with students, I have found that it is also an exceptionally fruitful and rewarding activity. Give it a try; I venture to say that you’ll be glad you did.