Why can’t we switch off? Social Media is the new Junk Food


Social Media is the new Junk/Fast Food – and it is even more powerful. Social Media is as important as food and sex. While the effect of desire for sex and food on our brain seems clear to us, the need for Social Media, is not so obvious. I believe that too much too much junk information is not beneficial for our health and well-being but there are solutions. However, we need more of those solutions and have to develop and use a new form of technology: technology that doesn’t exploit us, but that does support us.

The following blog post is based on a TEDx Talk Alexander gave at TEDxEutropolis 2013 – “Are we connected?”. You can watch it online here or read the whole argument in full length below. 

The Personal Experience

I first became aware of the digital saturation in my life ten years ago. I had been spending too much time online and had decided to have a rest from computers. I escaped to Southern Africa doing hands-on volunteer work and did not touch a computer for a year. It was a great experience, but it it was only a partial success. The benefits of our modern technology and my love for new gadgets were, in truth, too great.

Two years ago I found myself in the same situation, immersed in the digital world most of the day. But this time, it was not just me, everyone had succumbed. And today it’s even more pronounced. One has only to glance around in the subway: how many have their digital devices in their hand? Look at yourself, what you do first thing this morning. ­What’s worse is we can’t seem to help it. But why can’t we help it? This time I had more an idea of it.

Social Media is the new Junk Food


I really love Oreos and to have a Coke from time to time. I love the sugar hit and the strong flavor. The same is probably true with my social and digital media consumption. I love to be in touch with people close to me, any time, and of course to stay in touch with friends overseas To be honest, I also like the affirmation that I receive through Facebook “likes”. And then there is my Twitter feed, often personalized to me, that is probably just chewing gum for the eyes.

I’m sure you know the feeling when checking your smartphone “I wish someone would just take this away from me!”. It’s the same feeling and response I have when I can’t stop eating chips.

Change of access to Food and access to Information


Over the last 50 years we’ve made food cheap and available. We built an entire industry on producing and delivering any type of food, anywhere any time . A byproduct of this was junk food. Only in the last ten years has it been realized that this was damaging to our health and today we are more conscious of what we eat and what we teach our children.

Something similar is happening with information and the IT industry. In the last 20 years we have moved from information scarcity, to information overload. And in the last five years, it is not just the information, but the way we access that has changed. In this process we also created a whole industry and a lot of junk information too.

And it’s happening more rapidly than with food as this development is much much faster and the products is more and more appalling to as it is also individually tailored to us.

But why can’t we just switch off? The Psychology.


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Simply, Because we are humans.

The psychological research touching this issues is well established.

We love new information. Our survival has depended for it. We evolved around information. The mechanism for learning, produces produces dopamine, which makes us happy and encourages us to repeat the experience. That’s why you are here and why you read this blog posting and why it makes you curious new about ideas.

We are social creatures. We are wired for social inclusion, most probably because our survival was so long so closely linked to the strength of our ties with others. Social exclusion is very powerful and everybody knows how it feels being the odd one. We need to be part of our peer group and we need the affirmation. Recent Neuroscience research also indicated stronger response of the brain’s reward system by positive social feedback on Social Media platforms by higher use of Social Media.

Further, the form how our devices and media is designed today, we develop very fast a very strong habit of checking and interacting with our devices. Sometimes when you check your smartphone, there is a reward, sometimes not. In psychology this is called intermittent reinforcement – it is amongst the most effective ways to form some new behavior. It’s like an addiction, however, it’s considered by many rather as an annoyance rather than an addiction.

But why do we need to switch off?


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Because we are humans.

We need free spaces. Free spaces that we can fill out – I’m sure, many things come in your mind that you have planed to to do and you didn’t manage to do. From psychological research we need the following for our well-being:

We need solitude. We need time alone, in order to be able to be together with others. You can find this also in the form of silence and stillness in religions – or why so many people might do yoga and meditation nowadays.

Further, we need conversation, not just mere connection. There is a very good TED talk by Sherry Turkle on the topic of solitude and conversation that brings across her research very well.

We also need time disconnected in order to recover. Work becomes more and more flexible, we can work everywhere, anytime. But without proper disconnecting from our work, we burn-out as we can’t really recharge our batteries.

… and there are many more occasions where we need to have this free spaces. Like to focus on our work, to be creative or just to be in the now. Which would be your occasions and situations?

Key: Balance, but…



We need to exercise this, even it is as hard to say as to do. Like with food – all we consume, we have to balance and do our exercise. It is fine to eat loads of chocolate sweets and chips. However, it is not very healthy to base your whole diet on it and you need to eat other things too. That’s nothing new I am telling you, I’m sure you know this already. I think the same is valid for Digital and Social Media: it is also fine to use Twitter, Facebook and the like a full day or from time to time. But next of being connected, we have to disconnect, and also practice conversation and solitude regularly.

The last year I have been working on establishing OFFTIME, a company that develops solutions to this issue: software to support people in having their free spaces and being able to unplug from our hyperconnected world, just enough. With our solutions you are the one again to decide what is important right now: Keep out all apps, phone calls and text messages that distract you and go back to concentrating on your work, a chat with a friend or simply a moment of peace and quiet. OFFTIME will look after everything else. That way you can be more efficient and recharge your batteries properly.

It’s one solution. However, that’s not enough.

The Future


The problem is now already big – and it will be even bigger in the future. We are just at the beginning. Most of the people own now around three devices. In 2020, you might already own as many as 20 screens around you.

We have to move the public discussion from providing more and more access to the internet because of empowerment and democratization of knowledge-connecting more and more people-to the next level and a new direction. We are there – the ball is rolling (and it’s a big one!) and we will have complete connectedness soon enough.

New key performance indicators that permeate the IT industry can’t be the growth of measures like DAU (daily active users), more online and interaction time or other retention measurements. Nor that the top of the class IT students spend their time thinking and optimizing algorithm that make people click ads, as Jeff Hammerbacher once infamously stated when he left Facebook, or even increase this dependence by using our vulnerabilities.

Recognize our Vulnerability + a New Kind of Technology


Up to now there is not much public awareness about this issues, even things are changing most recently and personal #unplug experiences are popping up and are spreading through the internet (Christoph Koch, Paul Miller, Baratunde Thurston, etc.). Nevertheless, in the public debate there is still no deep inquiry into the “whys” and how it could bit different. Why are we, where we are now, from a system but also from an individual and human side? Or to have a more result oriented discussion: how and where we want to use Digital and Social Media? How technology can support our well-being?

A first big and important step in this discussion is to become more aware of and recognize our vulnerability and weakness in regard to how we respond to and use Social and Digital Media. Because you might be able to have the discipline to resist checking your devices, but this self-control also costs you energy, mental energy that you will lack somewhere else. Why would you want to do this? Why let not technology do that? You can use your psychological energy for other things. Things that support your well-being in the long run?

Yes, it’s still a choice we have to make.

A key thing from my perspective is that we have to have a broader public awareness about this issues. Because only when we have reached this awareness and recognition, we will not only be able to individually make more informed decisions, but also develop and use a new form of technology: technology that doesn’t exploit us, but that does support us.


PS: Please feel free to share your thoughts on this topic. The argument presented here is still quite young and needs further development. Why do you agree or disagree with it? What does resonate?


‘ Thanks a lot Stephen for the bouncing early thoughts on this topic and Michael and Ben to clarify all the thoughts before the talk and after writing again! 

Icon like graphics by the Noun Project – Creative Commons – Attribution (CC BY 3.0) – Thinking/Dirk Rowe, Scale/Edward Boatman, and others. Graphic ‘Junk Food & Junk Information’ CC-BY-3.0 by OFFTIME.

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