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Co-opting addictive media for good

April 17th, 2021

The dangers of social media and addictive technologies are well-documented. Reactions generally fall into two camps—accepting defeat or attempts at teetotalism. Both of these methods are flawed. But there’s a third approach: use the addictiveness for good.

Most don’t take the problem of addictive apps seriously, and freely spend their time on these platforms. As many other before me have noted, this creates real problems: millennials are more anxious and depressed than other generations. Not to mention the hit on productivity—no matter how you slice it, spending an hour on social media or video games is an hour lost.

A few try to limit or entirely stop their usage, using tools like Apple’s Screen Time, site-specific Chrome extensions, and even the nuclear option of deleting their accounts. This approach is effective for specific apps—I’ve managed to wean myself off of Facebook this way. But it’s a game of whack-a-mole. There’s a lot of addictive sites vying for your attention, and you’re especially susceptible if you’re not already involved with any other apps or sites. Personally, after quitting Facebook, I found myself using Instagram more and more. After cutting that out, YouTube suddenly became much more interesting.

Neither of these methods work, unless you have the superhuman willpower required to completely cut out addictive media. A third approach is required. Instead of giving in to platform defaults, we can curate our media feeds so the platforms only show us information that’s useful to us. Instead of fighting addictiveness, we should harness it for our own purposes. Not only will we spend our time more productively, we’ll have some protection against new addictive media taking over our free time.

Here are some of the specific things I’ve done to use addictive media for good:

  • I only subscribe to Reddit subreddits that have consistently high-quality content related to my interests. That means “empty calories” like r/nba or r/memes are out, while r/science and r/philosophy are in.
  • Similarly, I heavily curate my Twitter feed. I only follow users who consistently post high-quality tweets and never get into Twitter fights.
  • Many media apps aren’t amenable to this kind of curation, so I’ve blocked them entirely. In this mold are Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.
  • Finally, I subscribe to YouTube channels I find interesting, and use a Chrome extension that blocks everything except new videos from my subscriptions.
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