Five Things I Learned from a 30-Day Media Fast

“We now live in a world where we eat content, drink content and breathe content, without giving a single thought to its composition or what kind of impact it has upon our lives.”
― Abhijit Naskar

Not long ago, I took a month-long media fast: time away from social media, online news, magazines, newspapers, TV and radio news. I’m thinking about doing it again. Here’s what happened, and what I learned:

What I did … and why

I was aware of — and bothered by — two things: (1) How much time I was spending on social media, surfing the internet, and watching TV (2) How agitated I was getting, especially from social media and television content that focused on politics and news.

I read a lot — books, magazines, and Internet articles — and it seems like my head is often swimming in stories, opinions, news flashes … most of which seem to focus on what is bad or wrong about our world, things I should be worried about, or trying to change.

So I went for a month with no magazines, no newspapers, no Internet surfing, no social media, and no television. Because of my work as a minister, and the social media connection I have through the church, I had to do this in a way that wouldn’t make me a recluse.

After soul-searching and talking with friends and family, I decided to allow for the following exceptions: (a) internet searches related to my preaching and teaching (b) once a week giving an update on social media and responding to any direct messages (c) watching an occasional movie on Netflix. The biggest change was quitting social media and Internet surfing/news reading.

Here’s what I learned:

LESSON ONE: this is hard to do … it was much easier (and tempting) to “cheat” than I expected. 

If you work on a computer, like I do, you’re just one click away from any social media site, news site, or your favorite blogger, etc. If you carry a smart phone, like I do, you’re one thumb press away … no matter where you are. If you’re waiting for someone or something, it’s right there. I had an app on my phone for USA Today magazine. I had to delete it, because it was too tempting for me to just open it up and start reading if I had a minute to spare.

LESSON TWO: I learned that I use media surfing as a way to unwind, and it has a physiological effect on me.

Does this mean media is an addiction of sorts for me? Have I been experiencing withdrawal? I’ll leave that to the experts. I found that I was sometimes restless in the evenings, when my habit had been to watch TV and check social media to wind down before going to bed. Many nights I have evening meetings at church, and I often want to do something to wind down before going to bed. With Youtube videos, news shows, and my favorite binge-watch Netflix reruns no longer an option, I found myself feeling a little out of sorts some nights. I got more into reading novels, and sometimes I just sat around in the living room playing with our dogs.

LESSON THREE: I found that I had more time. 

Social media, TV, and reading Internet articles are huge time sinks! When I gave them up I got a lot of time back. I wish I could say I picked up a new hobby, learned a foreign language, served the poor more, or something. It didn’t work that way. I did get more writing done on my book, and I also made progress on reading other books, so that was good. Time studies show that people radically under-estimate how much time they spend with media consumption. Without it, we’ve got free time!

Yes I know that there are lots of people out there who don’t spend much time reading, surfing, or watching TV. But I suspect that those who read this are more like me in this regard than not. Still, as the saying goes, your mileage may vary.

LESSON FOUR: I was more at peace, and I didn’t miss the media I was fasting from. 

This was the most important consequence. I found that disconnecting from the endless stream of political campaign news, outrage about the latest event or social issue, outrage about the outrage related to the latest event or social issue, the results from the latest study that reveals something we all should be worrying about … disconnecting from this constant stream of hype, spin, fear-mongering, and BS was a big relief. It was worth the hassle, and minute sense of deprivation that stepping away from this various forms of media might have caused.

Did I miss out on anything? Yes, there were a couple times when things were going on that I hadn’t heard about. I had to ask friends to bring me up to speed on what was going on. That was okay.

I decided to add one tweak to make sure I didn’t lose touch too much: I would go to the library once a week and scour through weekly news magazines to keep up to date on the “news.” But I only did that once the whole month. If I were to do this again, I think it would be important to do this regularly.

Knowing how to make use of online tools without being overloaded with too much information is, like it or not, an essential ingredient to personal success in the twenty-first century.

– Howard Rheingold

What happened next?

After doing the media fast, I started up again with Facebook and Twitter, Youtube, Netflix, and other websites I like to frequent. The idea was to go back to mass and social media use, but to be more moderate and intentional about it.

It worked for a while. At first I was doing all media a LOT less. When I started going back to Facebook, I realized how unhappy and agitated it makes me. I debated about giving it up altogether. Then the church decided to step up its social media presence, and I started to get sucked back into it again.

My life got busy. My book came out, I moved, I started pastoring a new church. Political drama seemed to escalate, and there was so much to “keep up on.” I never did reinstall the USA Today app on my phone, but Facebook and Twitter found their way back, and now Google news is just a swipe away from my phone’s home screen.

This past week I was gone on a self-directed spiritual retreat. For the first time since the “media fast month,” I was away from the daily drama … and I realized how much I had gotten sucked back in to mass and social media hype and drama.

Why can’t I just moderate? — limit my time online, not watch Netflix, or whatever? That leads me to the final thing I learned:

LESSON 5: It’s exceedingly hard for me to limit mass and social media consumption. Being a moderate user — whatever that means — seems unlikely.

I’m sure this says something about me … my addictive personality, moral weakness, or something like that. But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s just me. Many people in my life talk about having this same problem. We are reading, watching, surfing, listening more than is good for us … and we fail in our attempts to keep our media use moderated. This is no accident.

“God only knows how many thousands of very smart people are slaving away in office cubicles right now, adapting the latest insights of psychology and neuro-biology in their quest to keep us “engaged” in their media program or platform.”

They are trying, with all their might, to keep us using their stuff more and more, so they can grow bigger, sell more ads, and sell information about us. The only way to moderate is to fight against the tendencies they exploit. And most of us are really bad at it.

At least I am. When I’m faced with the choice between immersing myself in something deep –like reading a theological book, or studying Scripture — or spending time with mass/social media … the easy and “fun” thing too too often wins. The screens are bright and shiny, the reading is simple and entertaining, the social media gives us hits of dopamine that keeps us coming back for more. Meanwhile, other learning that requires more from us gets lost.

I’m not saying anything new here … others have been saying this for a long time. I’m just telling my story, because I had to learn it for myself in order to really accept that it was true for me.

That’s why I’m planning to back to my media fast.

Going “all in” with media consumption isn’t healthy or helpful, and trying to be a “moderate user” is a great ideal, but hard to pull off. Maybe the long term solution for mass and social media use is nothing? Next to nothing? Something very strictly controlled?

That’s what I’m going to do, starting now. I’ll use Buffer or some other social media scheduling app so I can post social media updates throughout the week, but not spend time surfing on the sites themselves. I’m getting rid of my Facebook and Twitter phone apps. I’ll stay away from the daily “noise” of headlines, articles, news shows, and the like. I’ll take time once a week to keep myself updated, going to the library and reading long form news stories. And I’ll use the time previously spent in those things with reading, reflecting, praying, and writing.

Enough about me … what about you?

My point in sharing all this is to let people in my life know what’s been happening with me … especially those who asked about this project, and people in my church. Beyond that, who cares what I have done with media consumption?

The point of writing this and making it public — and what I’ve been working towards in this article — is to turn this into a personal reflection for anyone reading:

What kind of media consumption — and how much of it — do you think is good for your own well-being?

How do you feel about your own media consumption?

Is it helping you to be a better person? Better Christian? Better citizen?

Is it helping you to be a happier person? More anxious person?

Food diets and media diets

We’re living in a time where there’s too much food, and too many unhealthy food options for us to just drift along without being intentional about what we eat. If we’re going to be healthy, we have to pay attention to our diet … and make deliberate choices about what to include, exclude, and limit.

The same is true with media. We need to make choices. This experiment has helped me see how important it is for me to set up a media diet for myself. Maybe it would be helpful for you to do that too?

I have no inclination to tell you what should or should not be in your media diet. That’s for you to decide. But it’s certainly a good thing to think about and ask yourself.