We live in a world of perpetual consumption. We consume more food and more resources than any other generation in human history. In that process of overconsuming things, we ruin our body. However, our bodies aren’t the only thing that we’ve ruined; we’ve also fogged and burdened our brains with social and news media. The goal of this article is to make you understand the danger of these two forms of media and to provide some guidelines to reduce the overconsumption.
Every Ramadan, out of His Endless Mercy, Allah subuhanawuta’la grants us an excellent opportunity to become a better person.
Allah has designated this month solely for this reason, as He says: “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed upon those before you so that you may attain taqwa (God-consciousness).” (Al-Quran, 2:183)
Part of attaining taqwa requires you to abandon certain worldly pleasures, such as eating, drinking, and having intimacy during a fixed time. Alhamdulillah, a large group of Muslims stick to these guidelines and do fast the whole month.
There are, however, certain other pleasures that aren’t haram (prohibited) per se, but these pleasures aren’t helping you to increase your taqwa. As the title of my article suggests, I’m, indeed, talking about social and digital media consumption.
What these media do to your brain
To understand why the overconsumption of digital and social news media is harmful to you, we need first to understand the science behind it.
Dopamine is the pleasure neurotransmitter that emanates from your forebrain. This neurotransmitter is responsible for your “this-feels-good-I-want-more” feeling. So, whenever you feel compelled to eat another piece of cake, despite knowing that you’re full, know that dopamine does play a role in that desire.
However, dopamine isn’t restricted to your eating habits. It also governs how you engage with your computer or smartphone.
When we pull out our smartphones often or check our social and news feed 35’000 times a year (yes, an average person checks it so often), our brain releases a little bit of that dopamine in the forebrain. So be aware, every time you pull out your phone to check your social media or news feed, you’re activating dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for pleasure.
Before you decide that pleasure is a good thing, you need to know the difference between pleasure and happiness.
Pleasure is the feeling that this “feels good; I want more”. It’s usually short-lived and mostly experienced alone. The extremes of pleasure lead you to addiction. This explains, why sugar, cocaine and slot machines are addictive. They give you the short-lived pleasure, but going extreme with those things lead you to addiction.
However, happiness is the feeling of “this feels good I don’t want or need anymore.” So happiness is something that helps you to achieve contentment. It’s usually long-lived and experienced mostly in social setups or groups. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that plays a role in making you happy.
Can I have more of that, please? Understanding the Hedonic Treadmill
Also, as you’ve probably experienced, pleasure results in the desire for more pleasure, or what psychologist refer to as the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is the “adaption” to certain forms of pleasure that eventually cause you to seek even more intense and higher doses of pleasure. Dr Catherine A. Sanderson, a psychologist, gives an example of the hedonic treadmill effect:
“One reason why more money doesn’t bring us the lasting happiness we expect is that we adapt to our newfound wealth. Initially, it is great to have some extra money, but over time we simply adapt to this higher level of income or an unexpected windfall, and thus it no longer leads to greater happiness” (198-199).
This hedonic adaptation happens with your social and news media consumption too. The more often you check, the more you want to continue checking the feeds. Your brain wants more of that pleasure, and it’s never satiated. This explains why you check your Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/You-Name-It-Social-Media feeds so often, despite no urgency to check. Moreover, this eventually leads to social and news media addiction.
That’s not all. Dopamine process also inhibits us from finding periods of focus or reflection where we need to do the necessary deep thinking.
So how do we break from this vicious cycle?
Here is my suggestion:
While we strive to attain forgiveness, a purified heart and a greater awareness of Islam during the fasting time, I think there is one more thing we need to fast from: social and news media.
The Digital Fast
So, what is digital fasting? I’ve coined this term to describe “fasting”, i.e. abstaining from social and digital news media.
I’ve been doing this fast for more than a year now and feel amazing without those constant inputs and distractions. Now, you don’t need to fast as long as I do. All I suggest is to skip your social and news media consumption at least in the month of Ramadan.
So, if you are committed to doing this digital fast, then you are simply saying no to all social (things like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp.) and digital news media (i.e., CNN, BBC, Aljazeera, and your local news channel .)
We consume too much of these two, and most of us are not at all aware of their impact on our mind. The truth is, your mind is the most expensive real estate in the world. Consequently, you should be very careful about whom you let in and what you want to build on it.
So what better time to try this challenge than in the month of Ramadan? Allah’s making it easy for you to attain your personal goals by chaining up the shayateen and by granting you a temptation-free playing field to become a better Muslim.
Though I can provide you 100s of reasons why you should abstain from these media, in the interest of brevity, I’ll mention four. And all of them are backed by science and/or Islam.
Abstaining from these media or at least minimising its consumption is not only healthy for your mind and body but more importantly, it will save you from ruining your Dunya (present life) and Aakhira (afterlife).
Here are my four significant reasons:
1. Wasting Time
According to a report from Globalwebindex.com, an average person spends daily 2 hours and 11 minutes on social media alone.
As for digital news media, the estimates are around 40 mins a day. Therefore, in total, we spend more than 3 hours on digital and social media daily.
Now, I don’t need to preach to you why wasting time is terrible for your Dunya (present life) and Aakhira (afterlife). You are probably aware of its dangers. Recall, your legs won’t move on the day of Judgement until you are questioned about these five things.
It was narrated from Ibn Mas’ood that the Prophet (SAW) said: “The son of Adam will not be dismissed from before his Lord on the Day of Resurrection until he has been questioned about five things:
1. his life and how he spent it,
2. his youth and how he used it,
3. his wealth and how he earned it and
4. how he disposed of it, and
5. how he acted upon what he acquired of knowledge.”
(Narrated by al-Tirmidhi, 2422; classed as hasan by al-Albaani in Saheeh al-Tirmidhi, 1969)
This warning alone should be a major concern for any Muslim.
Nevertheless, the most significant danger of wasting time is that you’re also missing an opportunity to do a good deed at that time.
2. It’s bad for your mood (and brain)
In the last 4-5 years, scientists have been digging deep to see whether or not social media is helping or hurting us.
In the excellent book, The Power of Agency, the authors provide some startling statistics. Here it is, in their own words:
“Has the time come for warnings to accompany the use of media, particularly social media? Is there unhealthy or unsafe exposure or dangerous doses so to speak?
On the surface, this may sound preposterous, but as you read these research findings below, ask yourself if you might rethink your exposure to media and start controlling it for yourself.
- A study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that the closer you are to your (turned off) smartphone, the more it acts like mental kryptonite. Simply keeping it anywhere near you distracts you and can lessen your capacity to think.
- The more time people spent on Facebook, the worse they felt and the less satisfied they were with their lives, according to University of Michigan researchers in a 2013 article for PLOS ONE.
- People watching news coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing reported higher acute stress two to four weeks after the tragedy than people who had direct exposure to the events at or near the bombings, according to researchers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of United States of America (PNAS) journal.”
In the Upside of Stress Kelly McGonigal referenced the same study and put it this way:
“Stress caused by the news, as opposed to stress caused by your life, is unique in its ability to trigger a sense of hopelessness. Watching TV news after a natural disaster or terrorist attack has consistently been shown to increase the risk of developing depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. One shocking study found that people who watched six or more hours of news about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing were more likely to develop post-traumatic stress symptoms than people who were actually at the bombing and personally affected by it. It’s not just traditional news programs that instil fear and hopelessness; stories of tragedy, trauma, and threats dominate many forms of media. In fact, a 2014 study of US adults found that the single best predictor of people’s fear and anxiety was how much time they spent watching TV talk shows.”
Likewise, psychologist Dr Catherine A. Sandsberg cites countless studies in her book The Positive Shift that support the idea that the increased use of social and digital media also results in increased “rates of loneliness and depression.”
3. Hard to focus on the essential things
One of the biggest danger of spending time on social and digital media is that you continually find it harder to focus on anything.
Since you are distracted by all these inputs, you find it difficult to focus on the essential things in life.
And if you think, you can focus on essential things, despite being distracted by these media, then I want you to read this research from Clifford Nass, who was a computer science and communications professor at Stanford. He led many research studies in his lab. He was able to prove just how much our ability to focus is hindered by being distracted.
He would bring people in, and he would give them tasks, and he would say, “I want you to focus in on this for the next 15 or 20 minutes”. Guess what, most people just couldn’t stay on the given task.
After collecting the relevant data points, Nass would interview the participants, and they would tell him, “hey, no, I felt like I was really focused.” However, in reality, they just weren’t. They felt like they were more focused than their standard state of hyper distraction. Though, ultimately, the data points showed that they had a tough time filtering out the difference between relevant and irrelevant information.
Nass passed away in 2013. In one of his last public appearances, he gave a beautiful TED Talk. It’s full of gems about everything you need to know about the dangers of social media consumption and multitasking. Here’s the Talk:
4. Your solitude is lost
In Lead Yourself First, the authors define solitude as this: “It is the state of mind where the mind focuses on its own thoughts, free of distraction.” Put it in another way, solitude is freedom from the input from other minds.
The authors of this incredibly important book argue that we humans have lost this solitude due to the constant information we consume from social and news media. This avalanche of information leads our brain to process up to six times more than it did just in the 1980s. An extremely taxing and energy-consuming task for a less beneficial and less productive job.
Before this “information age” aka “input age”, we naturally found solitude anytime we were physically alone when we were walking from one place to another, or while standing in line.
Now with our hyper-connected digital devices, we have genuinely lost this solitude. Our brain is constantly bombarded with information and input, and we find hardly any free time to be with our own thoughts.
Losing your solitude is indeed a big deal. Because losing your solitude means, you are losing your ability to be creative, to be reflective and to think with clarity.
In 100s of verses (according to some scholars, close to 750 places in the Quran) Allah subuhanawuta’la encourages Muslims to think, study and to ponder over the creation and life itself. Are we doing justice to these verses? When was the last time you took time to think? To ponder over things?
Join the Club
Why don’t you consider doing a digital fast for at least the next seven days? Experiment with it and see how you feel. If you think, digital fast is not helping you to become a better person; then you can always go back to your old ways.
I hope you’ll take up this challenge to transform your life to the next level.
Insha Allah, in Part 2 of this article, I’ll talk about guidelines to reduce the overconsumption of this media.
Until then, wish you pleasant digital fasting 🙂