Cutting Back on Media Consumption
I haven't been in a good place mentally or emotionally the past several weeks. In most of my free time I played video games or watched TV and had no desire to do much of anything else. Aside from alternating feelings of anxiousness and guilt, I felt mostly numb.
Earlier this week I decided I needed to drastically cut back on the amount of social, news, and entertainment media (including video games) I was consuming. In my free time, I decided to finish reading The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, the wonderful biography of a man I have considered a role model and mentor since childhood. I have also focused more on personal prayer and scripture study.
The improvement in my mental and emotional state within just a few days has been remarkable. I've also been sleeping better. And as I have learned some things about the remarkable Fred Rogers, I have learned some things about myself.
One thing I have always known about myself, but am becoming more perceptive of with respect to its impact on my mental and emotional state, is that I am extremely sensitive to the influence of electronic media. Perhaps more sensitive than most. I have always had the ability to recall and replay visual and especially auditory media in my mind with a high degree of detail and accuracy. I have an excellent music memory. Recently, I was reminded of a music album I had listened to on cassette tape a great deal in my childhood, but never since. As I remembered this album, I could recall music from the album with startling detail in my mind. I recently rediscovered this particular album on Apple Music and, as I listened to it for the first time in decades, it sounded just as it had in my mind.
To varying degrees, we are all influenced by media. I don't think most of us realize just how much.
Earlier in my career, a previous employer gave each employee a card on which the following was written:
Watch your thoughts, they become words; Watch your words, they become actions; Watch your actions, they become habits; Watch your habits, they become character; Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
The media we consume has the power to influence what we think and, therefore, our behavior, our character, and our destiny.
Fred Rogers understood this. He saw the tremendous potential of television to be a powerful influence for good – or for evil – in human society. He figured out a way to use television to help and educate young children in a marvelous way. Ironically – or perhaps not so ironically – although he created one of the most popular and beloved children's television shows of all time, which aired for 30 minutes each weekday for decades, Rogers himself rarely watched television. According to his biography, as a young man he'd watch The Alfred Hitchcock Hour once a week – but only the beginning where Hitchcock would speak directly to the audience, then he'd turn the TV off. At one point he also removed the radio from his car. Later, as he and his wife Joanne were raising their two sons, they limited their television time to one hour a day.
Today, we are swimming in more media – and more mediums for its delivery – than ever before. And I feel like most of us are drowning in it without even realizing it. It's influencing our thoughts and behaviors in ways we don't fully perceive.
Just this past week, there was a horrific school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee. It's been one of the top stories on every national and local news outlet the entire week. It has been sensationalized in news and social media – rehashing every morbid detail, frequently displaying the pictures of those who were killed. But even more disturbing, putting front and center the name and picture of the shooter who was eventually killed by police, diving into their background and motives, showing text messages the killer sent just before the shooting, showing security and police body camera footage. Naturally, this incident has also been prominent on popular social media networks and has been politicized on all sides. The modern news and social media cycle has become shifting from one outrageous, sensationalized incident to another with no reprieve. It's about capturing as much attention as possible for as long as possible because that's how news outlets and social media “influencers” make money.
Fred Rogers was deeply concerned about the media trends he was seeing in his own day. I can only imagine how horrified he would be with the current state of things. There are still good people trying to do good things through media, but they have long been the exception, not the rule.
I believe our collective obsession with sensational, exploitative, and addictive social, news, and entertainment media is having a detrimental impact on our emotional and mental health and is warping our perspective and sense of reality as a society.
In the face of this, I feel that I need to drastically limit or even eliminate some of the electronic media to which I have become accustomed, perhaps even addicted.
I have already been making significant strides in this direction in recent years. It's time to take the next dramatic step.
Video Games. I am going to completely quit video games except for social purposes with people I know in real life. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, my brothers and I enjoyed playing the game Valheim together. It was a time for us to socialize virtually and collaborate on something fun together. I will use that example as my standard going forward. I will not play video games by myself again.
News and Social Media. I will set aside a 30 minute time slot per day to catch up on news and social media. I will not check them outside of that time slot. I have developed a habit of repeatedly checking them throughout the day, and that needs to stop. For me, social media includes Facebook, Twitter, Mastodon, and Discord. One-on-one or small group messaging like texting, Signal, etc. is okay, as that is more personal and intentional interaction with people. But I will still try to limit how often I check anything outside of SMS texts.
Entertainment Media. I will limit watching videos for entertainment to two hours per week. That means no more binge-watching favorite shows like The Mandalorian or Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. (In fact, I'm concerned that I've become desensitized to violent content and may stop watching those kinds of shows altogether, but that's for another blog post.) I will need to be intentional with how I use that two hours for entertainment videos. I will not limit educational or religious videos (especially since I'm starting school in two weeks), but will try to be aware of when I am watching these excessively as a distraction or to “kill time”. I already don't use TikTok or Instagram, and I will stop watching YouTube shorts, period. They are a time suck and mostly garbage. I will not impose limits on listening to music. I often listen to music while I work, as it helps me focus. And good and uplifting music is healing to my soul. I don't listen to the radio often. But when I do, news and current events programs will be limited to 30 minutes. No limits on music.
Replacement Activities. It's not enough to just cut back, I need to find good replacement activities to fill the time the cutbacks will free up. I plan to read a lot more books – alternating between fiction and non-fiction. I also feel like I need to get back into music and practice and play an instrument regularly. Another thing I learned about Fred Rogers is his deep love for writing, playing, and sharing music and using it as an outlet for dealing with and expressing feelings and emotions. Many years ago I was studying to be a music teacher. Music was an important part of my life. I've lost that, and I need to get it back. I also think I need more real-life social activity, so I am going to look for ways to cultivate that. Have the neighbors over, make friends, etc.
It is my hope that limiting and being more intentional about the media I consume will help me be more stable mentally and emotionally, have a healthier perspective on life, and feel better about myself and others.