How to stay sane in an age of digital media

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Just kidding.

Did this fake headline grasp your attention? You may have even been inclined to believe it.

We live in an age of digital technology and social media. In our world, real, face-to-face conversations, in which multiple people are actively listening to each other, are far too rare. Without these types of conversations, it is no wonder that people have trouble understanding each other properly. It can often seem like those with whom we disagree  are a bunch of ignorant morons who are living in a fantasy. In the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, the problems associated with digital media have only been amplified. Nevertheless, we must strive to make the best of the situation, because this is the world that we live in, and it looks like the media, along with its influence, is here to stay. I must make it clear that there are also enormous benefits to modern technology and digital media. If this pandemic hit even 15 years ago, I am not sure that the world would be able to continue as it is currently.

It is pretty clear that the media distorts information, and can manipulate people to present events as they see fit. Our opinions are becoming increasingly polarized, in part due to the media’s influence. There are countless problems with the media, technology, and the internet. So what should we do about it? Instead of ruminating any longer over the negative, I want to focus on the positive, and propose a few ways that could help us to avoid falling into the trap that too many people fall into in today’s social and political climate. I have taken the time to summarize many big ideas down to just 8 suggestions.

  1. Read books and longer essays, not short, mainstream news articles. Similarly, listen to podcasts and longer, more in-depth conversions, in lieu of short, televised news clips.

It is common for people to watch bits and pieces of the news on TV, and to read small sections, or headlines, of articles online. These pieces are often oversimplifications of more complex matters. Sometimes, they are even misleading, and have little to do with the actual story. The business model of many of these types of news organizations favors sensationalism. The more people that read or watch their content, the more money they make. Thus, these media will often produce short forms of clips with the intention of grabbing viewers’ attention. Since more outrageous content is more likely to attract viewers, media companies promote exciting and thrilling content, at the frequent expense of its accuracy. Listening to longer conversations will allow you to gain a better understanding of the myriad perspectives on any given topic. Likewise, reading longer essays and books will allow you to get into the mind of any given thinker, and to truly explore differing narratives.

  1. Read and listen to content offering diverse perspectives and opinions. For instance, if you have one opinion on any given problem, read the work of authors with the opposite opinion.

In other words, avoid confirmation bias. Cognitive dissonance is a state of having conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. As a simple example, take someone who smokes, with the knowledge that smoking is harmful. This smoker can quit smoking, change their mind about smoking being harmful, or seek out studies that suggest that smoking is not harmful, while simultaneously ignoring the evidence that it is. This last option represents confirmation bias. In our lives, we often surround ourselves with people who have similar opinions as us. We also read newspapers and watch news channels that align with our own beliefs. We are effectively seeking out the information that reaffirms our beliefs, engaging in confirmation bias. Platforms such as Facebook and YouTube even feed us information that we are more likely to interact with, enforcing both confirmation biases and sensationalist, often inaccurate content. By making the conscious effort to diversify our information intake, we can try to understand a more nuanced big picture, and avoid living under our own personal information rock. Keep an open mind.

  1. Take everything you read or watch with a grain of salt.

Chances are you have already been told not to believe everything that you read on the internet, or not to believe everything you see on TV. While it is a great idea to be open to new ideas, we should be cautious of skewed, biased, or even false information that is out there. People have great leeway in writing whatever they want, and not everyone has an informed opinion. Do not be so quick to accept the information thrown at you. Even if this information is coming from an expert, avoid the appeal to authority; just because someone is an alleged expert in a field, does not mean that their arguments are sound. This suggestion is not limited to short bits of information, it also applies to longer books and podcasts. When you come across new information, I would highly recommend conducting your own research. If you are open-minded enough to consider these suggestions, then I trust that you can come to your own conclusions to comprehend the nuances of any given issue. Pay attention to the facts. As I will soon discuss, with rise in social media’s influence, it is hard to discern fact from fiction. Try to be aware of the media’s algorithms that often feed you deceiving information. Stay skeptical.

  1. Be independent: don’t affiliate yourself with any organization that will skew your work in any particular direction, or not accept your work if it deviates too far from their ideological standpoint.

Write and think on your own terms, and not on anyone else’s. I believe that people are not as polarized as it might seem. Most people are not autonomous employees; they work for larger companies with a greater agenda to increase revenue. Employees often tailor their perspectives to fit the mold of their employer, which is often driven by a business model favouring sensationalism. As a result, employees appear to be more radical than they may be in reality. Nobody should be forced to follow the instructions or framework of anyone else without the opportunity to ask questions. This is undoubtedly more difficult for those who are paid employees of a company. However, you can always stand up for yourself in a respectful manner, and voice your opinion, instead of blindly going with the flow, and following the mainstream herd. Always be true to yourself. Never let anyone order you what to do, allow others to make decisions under your name, or do something that you do not agree with. This is far too often the beginning of a very slippery slope. This is especially true in the case of digital media. As I keep reiterating, the media wants to feed us information that is more likely to captivate our attention. We are thus fed differing realities, as people with different opinions are driven to opposite extremes. It is no wonder that we cannot even agree on facts. One person’s reality is another person’s fake news or conspiracy theory. In order to shift towards the right direction, we must start having open and honest conversations with those with whom we disagree. This process starts by distancing ourselves from organizations that try to polarize us, and by letting ourselves be independent. Be bipartisan.

  1. Do not jump on the bandwagon. 

You may see 10 close friends share the same article on social media. Just because an article is popular, does not mean that it is accurate. Always be cautious, and think for yourself as to whether a particular popular opinion is justified or not. This goes hand-in-hand with being independent, and engaging with diverse perspectives. Similar to how Google and Facebook try to show you content that you are more likely to interact with to increase your time spent on those outlets, news organizations often show you headlines that make you more likely to read their articles in order to increase readership and maximize revenue. While avoiding the bandwagon, we should beware of “clickbait” and catchy headlines intended to grab our attention. As we have established, these types of content are often biased and skewed. Always think twice before sharing content, even if it appears to be a virtuous cause that is gaining people’s attention. Chances are, your friends have not read the full story either. All it takes is a catchy headline and a friend’s “like” to click share, like, upvote, or repost. I have found that people leaning towards one side of a spectrum tend to only criticize the other side. It may be difficult, but try to be critical of those on your side, as well. I hear many arguments over whether the far left or the far right is a greater threat, and you can guess who is arguing either standpoint. I think that it would be far more productive for moderate people to criticize their own side, and to distance themselves from the extremes. Make sure that you are on the right track yourself, before you jump on the bandwagon to condemn someone else.

  1. Take a break from social media, and when possible, your smart phones.

Social media platforms exploit our evolved social psychology. This has been a consistent, yet muted theme throughout these suggestions. Our evolutionary ancestors did not have social media. They lived in relatively small social groups, and could not exchange information on a large scale. Today, we have loads of information at our fingertips. We could ask Alexa, Siri, or Google virtually any question and they can provide a detailed answer within seconds. Needless to say that our psychology is adapted for social conditions that are drastically different from our current environments. I know you are getting tired of this, but the media shows us information that we, the consumers, want to see. What we choose to see is a product of our evolved preferences. Thus, our evolved preferences drive the market, as well as our social media. Our cell phone notifications elicit a dopamine release in our brains, acting as a source of positive reinforcement. Humans value social connection, as forming social bonds has historically helped us survive (and reproduce). Social media is acting as an artificial replacement for real, personal, face-to-face social interactions. It has perpetuated fake social hierarchies, unrealistic social competition, and idealistic social standards that our evolution has not prepared us for. Our hardwired social responses are being artificially manipulated and reinforced. This may have something to do with teenagers reporting a dramatic decline in mental health over the years. Moreover, people often do not think before posting on social media. The content we read is likely full of emotional reasoning. It is easy to believe that something we read is true because we feel like it must be true. Avoiding social media may help us to avoid falling into this trap, and to start thinking logically.

7. Value people, over ideas. Have some humility. 

Organizations can be too obsessed with their reputation to care about their employees or small customers. I think that prioritizing employees and customers can ultimately benefit a company’s reputation. I think that one reason that I am writing about polarization and social media in the first place is because we often get too caught up by ideas, and lose sight of what is really important. A lack of concern for personal well-being can be catastrophic, and can take a great toll on people’s mental and physical health. We should strive to listen to one another, and to think about what our values ought to be. When problems arise, it is easy for some of us to think of the worst case scenario, and to see no way out. We should always try to talk to people who are objective, and uninvolved in the matter, to listen to a rational, outside perspective, and to not let ourselves lose sight of the big picture in light of a particular idea. Each of us is only one person. It is important for us to see beyond ourselves. In extreme cases, people are severely injured or murdered over an idea during protests. Punching someone in the face who disagrees with you is not going to help further your cause. On the other hand, it might help to have a conversation.

8.  Finally, use humor and satire whenever appropriate.

Do not be sarcastic all of the time, as people may lose the ability to discern when you are serious and when you are not (people have had this problem with me). Nevertheless, it is important to lighten up the mood when everything appears to be some serious existential catastrophe. The news is serious, as are the scary implications of digital media and technology in our contemporary world. We must remain optimistic in light of all this heavy stuff. We have to try our best not to go catastrophic, or at the very least, make a joke of it all. Organizations and media have been causing me some distress, especially during this pandemic. One thing that has helped me is the use of satire, and the ability to find the humour and brightness in all of it. Many of our problems are much smaller than they appear in the grand scheme of things. Our health is important. Family is important. What some schmuck says on the internet is of utmost importance. In the words of Dr. Gad Saad “Don’t take everything so seriously. Crack a smile. Activate your inner child.” Stay optimistic. There is also an upside to all of these issues.

To conclude, I want to stress that the internet is a double-edged sword. While it has perpetuated many challenges that we must face, it has also allowed us to achieve amazing things. There is plenty of funny, good-hearted, motivational, and self-help content out on the internet for us to enjoy and take advantage of. Hopefully, we can make the most of our virtual world, and stay relatively sane.

About the Author
I was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, and am currently studying at McMaster University in Hamilton.
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