The Distraction Drug

My parents limited my media diet as a child. I was allowed one hour of PBS on weekdays, an hour of cartoons on the weekends, and Disney VHS tapes on occasion. I never had a game console and the only computer games I played were educational in nature—math, science, geography, and art. For the most part, I spent my free time reading in my day bed and riding my bike with friends.

There’s no denying that technology has become nearly as pervasive as the air we breathe, and I can’t help nut observe the indelible impact it’s having on those around me. There’s little way to judge, at this stage, whether these permanent changes will be positive or detrimental in the long run.

On one hand, the advancement of technology is a tremendous gift. Such progress leads to safer cars, more effective medication, and some incredibly fun gadgets. This headway often leads to increased convenience, pleasure, and opportunity.

Despite the many upsides to tech gains, I can’t help but wonder whether they are being properly handled, by both the creator and the consumer.

Most American under the age of 30 are active on social media: Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder, and surely dozens more I’ve never heard of. These are all great tools for connection, yet it seems that each has been overrun with the unruly ivy of advertisement. It can be hard to see through the static and find those true connections, with people we love and brands we trust. So, we scroll and scroll and scroll until we’re reminded—once more—that there is nothing worthwhile.

We’re gifted with moments of silence throughout the day—uncomfortable moments where, perhaps, we’re unsure what we’re supposed to think, feel, or do. Somewhere along the line, it’s as if that choice of discomfort was sucked out of us. With computers, laptops, cellphones, and tablets at every turn, it’s easy for anyone to escape those uncomfortable feelings. It’s easy to forget that the wandering mind is a one-man expedition to new lands, new ways of thinking, and a new self.

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is the better.”

–George Orwell, 1984

In every moment of every day, we have the choice to pursue either the convenient and pleasurable option (a like, a laugh, or a hookup) or disentanglement from society’s expectations. I think that a balance of both can be healthy, yet also believe that focusing too heavily on “happiness” can be gravely problematic. Freedom is self-discovery, and thereby self-acceptance.

The same sites and services that offer you continuous hits of instant gratification are paid by advertisers to keep you hooked. Perhaps the advertisers are offering products and services that you are legitimately interested in. But what if they’re not? What if the salaried psychologists, social scientists, neurologist, and user interface designers are slowly presenting new ideas, intending to eventually manipulate your perception just enough for you to click their link and key in your credit card info? It seems a bit far-reaching. But, perhaps it’s not.

“Television is by nature the dominator drug par excellence. Control of content, uniformity of content, repeatability of content make it inevitably a tool of coercion, brainwashing, and manipulation.”

–Terence McKenna

In modern America, the desire for entertainment and distraction is insatiable. The average American watches five hours and four minutes of television per day. 50% of households have subscription services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. Teens spend up to nine hours a day on social media platforms; the average person spends two hours on social media each day. That translates to five years and four months over the course of one’s life scrolling through the highlight reel of friends’ and strangers’ lives.

I am all for entertainment and breaks from focusing thinking, but more and more I am realizing that we must be intention with these fleeting moments. We only have so many. I enjoy well-written television shows such as Westworld and Battlestar Galactica, but I average about three episodes per week. I enjoy catching up with friends on Facebook, but often struggled to resists it’s draw, so I eliminated the distraction and replaced it with this little house of musings. The only apps on my phone are calling, texting, notes, and internet; anything done on my mobile device is intentional.

The stepping back was initially a challenge, something I wanted desperately but could help resisting. With time, it’s become so much easier. It feels as if I have reclaimed my life. Though I’ve never binge-watched a television series or spent hours browsing social media, the intentional decision to say “no” has been powerful.

That firm “no” has been an opportunity to say “yes” to other things: coffee with friends, trying new recipes, a slew of sci-fi short stories, a backyard garden, graduate school research, reading books I’ve been meaning to read for years, and so much more. I feel more present, with myself and everyone around me.

“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”

–Charles Darwin

I don’t want to paint media consumption as some terrible and evil habit to be overcome. Rather, I implore you to view these forms of distraction as a drug. Drugs are prescribed to promote health, alleviate pain, and generally improve well-being. Similarly, media should be consumed only to the extent that it prompt joy, stomps out sadness, and offered connections and tools which you can apply to improve your life.

When people abuse drugs—taking more than necessary or consuming without proper consideration—things can easily go awry. The high may be enjoyable for a time but may be outlasted by the consequences, some of which can be life-altering.

2 thoughts on “The Distraction Drug

  1. Such a great post.
    I wonder if our attitudes towards social media (yours and mine) are because of how limited out childhood was.
    Back then, I thought it was the worst that I had to spend most of my day either reading, or staring at the wall. But today, I see it as something that helped strengthen me and my mental health.
    “It’s easy to forget that the wandering mind is a one-man expedition to new lands, new ways of thinking, and a new self.” You captured it so well.
    I know of people whose childhood was filled with plenty of TV/ computer/ games/ tablets, etc. They are unable to handle a quiet moment. They have no idea what to do with themselves when they can’t stare at a screen. Even more so, they lack the ability to … control their emotions. Because they do not reflect on their thoughts/ actions/ emotions, they do not know what is really going on, or how to handle it without anger and/ or their “drug”.


    1. You make such a great point! I hadn’t really thought of it before, but it makes sense that having a lot of quite time as a child would create a sense of comfort with boredom and affinity for creating entertainment when there’s nothing around to provide it for us. You’ve given me so much to think about–thank you for that.

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