The average American spends 10 hours per day consuming digital media1: Netflix, Facebook, Xbox, etc. We literally spend more of our free time on our devices than off of them. What if it turns out that digital media is the psychological equivalent to smoking: a seemingly harmless pastime that we will eventually learn has dire consequences?
It all seems harmless enough: video games allow us to escape into photorealistic fantasy worlds in which we can be the hero of an epic adventure, Netflix allows us to escape into any variety of compelling dramas for hours on end, and Facebook allows us to connect with people across the world in an instant.
But, what if digital media is a dangerous form of escapism for many of us? The ultimate coping mechanism. Whenever we feel uncomfortable in a social situation, we can scroll through our phone to avoid our discomfort. Whenever we’re feeling stressed, we can play video games for hours on end to distract ourselves. Whenever we feel lonely, we can post something on Facebook for an instant hit of social validation.
In the short term, these methods allow us to escape our stress, to escape our boredom, and to escape our loneliness- that must be a good thing, right?
The Avoidance Problem
What’s the best way to worsen stress and anxiety? Avoid it.
For example, if you are experiencing social anxiety, you might stay home instead of going to a party you were invited to. In the short-term this eliminates your social anxiety, it helps you cope. Yet, at the same time, this avoidance can make the underlying problem worse.
If you rely on avoiding social interaction to avoid your social anxiety you won’t experience the immediate pain of social anxiety, but you will feel the much deeper pain that comes from being unable to connect with people at all.
When we avoid problems, we make them worse. If we feel stressed about a homework assignment, we might procrastinate, but this only increases the stress we feel about the assignment. The better solution was to suck up the stress and do the assignment immediately.
Digital Media as Avoidance
So, we spend an average of 10 hours a day engaged with digital media: this allows us to escape our real-life problems, but is it possible that the more we do this, the more long-term stress and anxiety we cause ourselves?
When you’re stressed do you turn to digital media to cope? I know I do, and I wonder if this makes me feel better in the short-term, while worsening the underlying problem.
In high-school, I felt stressed because I didn’t have much of a social life; I spent hours a day playing Halo to avoid that stress. If I didn’t cope with my stress through escapism, I might have used the stress as a call to action, as a reason to meet new people.
When I was 19, I felt stressed because I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. Every day when I got home I would binge on That 70’s Show on Netflix for hours on end. Maybe if I didn’t use TV to escape my stress, I would have begun pursuing my passion much earlier.
Psychologists call this the pain of absence. When we avoid social interaction, work, or difficult situations, we experience a gnawing pain because we know we’re not dealing with the problem, and this pain worsens the more we avoid its root cause.
The alternative is to face the pain of presence. This is a much more acute pain, if you’re shy, approaching a stranger to have a conversation with them may be extremely stressful, but once you do it, you’ve taken a step towards solving the problem, and as a result, you will reduce your experience of the pernicious pain of absence.
It seems to me that we live in a culture that is designed to be extremely effective at helping us avoid the pain of presence, but the hidden cost of this is an overwhelming and ever-worsening pain of absence.
Of course, none of this is the ultimate truth, take my philosophizing with a grain of salt. This isn’t a diagnosis, but it might be something interesting to ponder and draw your own conclusions about. Maybe digital media improves our lives, but I’m curious if it might also have adverse effects.