To overcome the ills of digital media, we must first overcome our own deficits. That requires understanding how and why we relinquish our attention.

Increasingly, technology hijacks human thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Social media are precision-built machines that prey on bias and brain chemistry, spreading misinformation and commandeering attention beyond all reason. We are simultaneously its unwitting perpetrators and its victims. Everyone is vulnerable, according to Tristan Harris, Executive Director of Time Well Spent.

Leaving Social Media Behind

To advertise is to disturb the peace. To weaponize information is to declare war. This philosophy is partially a reflection of the ethos of my home state, Vermont, as beautiful as it is independent. It is one of only four states prohibiting billboards.

Nearly a decade ago I left social media forever. A millennial though I am, I have no regrets. While I may miss out on the breadth of networking enjoyed by my peers, my quality of life is arguably better than it would otherwise be. In the absence of a never-ending conveyor belt of empty likes, fake news, and advertising, I’m free to pursue positive alternatives IRL.

At the time of my departure, social media wasn’t exactly the black hole of human excrement that it has become. I left as an act of defiance against incessant advertising. My attention just isn’t for sale. While everyone has a default advertising filter, mine is explicit and conscious. If you appear to actively seek my attention, I note this behavior and assume you’re unworthy of it. Your brand is tarnished by the mere act of trying to steal my time. Social media was an early casualty. The worst of fake news, memes, and misinformation was simply filtered out as a consequence of this process.

Not everyone can quit social media and stick to it. But we need to develop greater awareness and better filters to guard against manipulation and the dopamine feedback loop.

Brain Hacking

Brain hacking is an effort to keep us hooked on devices and online services. Designers can use techniques adapted from gambling to trick you into continuously using. Every time you use is another chance that you may be rewarded with a like, a smiley, or whatever the kids are jonesing for these days. A hacked brain becomes an easy target for further manipulation. Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable.

Technology companies bear some responsibility. After all, they engineer products and services against us. But we do have some power to influence which content propagates and the terms under which we see it.

Ignore the Nonsense

Time Well Spent has a number of nifty ideas to take control of your time and attention. It begins with disabling distractions. Turn off notifications. Clean up and remove unnecessary apps. If you’re brave, close your social media accounts. Cancel cable. Go for a walk. Read a book. Find an offline hobby. Do anything to avoid those entities explicitly competing for your attention.

Stop Sharing So Much

Don’t share ads, fake news, or memes, even if they’re funny. Stop sharing real news about fake news that lacks analysis and context. Carefully consider content. Make sure it’s meaningful and thought-provoking. When you do share, try using offline methods or email. Think globally. Share small. And just stop it with the likes, pokes, streaking, and the rest. If you have something to say, use words.

Now put down the mobile device and get out there.