Imagine you went to your friend’s house and discovered he’d locked up his fridge.
“I’ve been eating way too much junk food lately,” he confesses as he talks about taking a much-needed break. You’re happy for him since there’s plenty of healthy food in the kitchen to eat.
Two weeks later you drop by again, just in time to see him unlock the fridge.
“Feeling much better now!” he says, as he peers into the fridge with a smile, ready to eat.
How many of you would stop to wonder: Wait, you took a break because you’ve been eating too much junk food, and now you’re back to the same source?
Replace the fridge with what you consider as the most addictive social media platform, and you have an analogy about digital diet.
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Instead of poking holes in the analogy (“So much of the food in a fridge would expire after 2 weeks!”), let’s delve into the concept. Just like how what we eat either nourishes, sustains or damages our body (think spinach versus rice versus processed sugar), what we consume digitally does the same to our minds.
A video about mental health tips versus an informative news story versus violent pornography.
So what’s the state of our digital consumption? First point to settle is that what we consume is not the same as where we consume it from. Your mind won’t necessarily be filled with junk because you use TikTok a lot, just like subscribing to any random newspaper won’t elevate your thoughts.
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Start by considering all the platforms from which you consume information. As of January 2022, Facebook (2.9 Billion), YouTube (2.5), WhatsApp (2), Instagram (1.4) and TikTok (1) are the most popular in terms of monthly active users.
We already know that each platform skewers towards specific types of digital content. Think of them as restaurants or supermarkets from where you fulfil digital consumption. You can’t expect fresh vegetables and fruits at a fast food outlet; nor can you swing by a gourmet restaurant for a quick bite.
It’s important to stress that such discussions about digital diet shouldn’t be presumed to rely on snobbishness or elitism. Just like no one should turn their noses up at you if you eat from a fast food joint once in a while.
However, once we’ve begun applying the analogy of mental consumption to digital platforms, a few concerns naturally arise. A principle of a healthy diet is variety of sources of nutrition. Very few people would advocate living entirely on meat or vegetables alone. A balanced diet includes elements such as protein to repair the body’s cells, vitamins and minerals to boost the immune system, carbohydrates for energy and so on.
In terms of digital consumption, these would translate into information that allows our mind to repair or grow (learn), information that fortifies our morals and inner sense of right and wrong, as well as information that allows us to progress forward.
The question then becomes: can we get all these benefits from a single platform? Remember, each platform has limitations of time (length of a video or audio), format (documentaries versus reels), presentation style (slower and quieter versus louder and faster) and perhaps most importantly, curation (dictated by the algorithm, user interface and the userbase of the platform – which is why people on YouTube dance a lot less than those on TikTok).
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The answer then is no. Which is troubling, because an increasing number of youngsters today rely solely on specific social media platforms for information. Again, you can be informed if you follow valuable pages on Instagram. But that will still not be a true replacement for reading a long-form feature from a newspaper. Certain topics cannot be explained in 700 words, instead of 3,000.
The funny thing is, all of us instinctively know this to be true. One of the most popular TV shows among youngsters is The Office. One of its writers, Michael Schur, explained how the show became a classic because it spent time developing its characters over the course of 9 years. We now consume clips of the show on Instagram Reels, and it’s lovely. But wouldn’t we have been deprived of that comedy gold if we’d initially restricted our digital consumption to Instagram or TikTok?
So then the question becomes, what are we losing out on due to our current digital diet? How do we diversify it? What kind of nutrition (important news and facts) are we missing out on? What kind of junk food (celebrity gossip, hypersexual content) are we consuming?
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There is no clear-cut answer here, since we all have different goals, just as we have different food habits. There are certain steps that will definitely improve the quality of our digital diets, but before we explore that, let’s reflect on what needs to change.
Are you happy with your digital diet? Why? Why not?