Food For Thought 🍰

Social media, junk food, and some strategies for digital dieting.

When I was growing up, it wasn’t uncommon for the neighborhood kids to drink soda daily. I would visit friends’ houses and we would raid fridges stocked with liters of Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew. It seems so obviously bad now, but I didn’t bat an eye at having a glass of room temperature soda with dinner.

Looking back, I cringe at the thought of drinking that much sugar. I’m sure I must have felt the effects: lethargy, reduced appetite, and cavities were all too common after a weekend binge. Our parents certainly knew that too much soda was bad for children, yet no one seemed to care. The zeitgeist was that “kids will be kids” and besides, soda was cheap. Everyone drank soda, how bad could it be?

Figure showing trends in overweight, obesity, and extreme obesity among US men and women from 1960 to 1962 and 2013 to 2014.

We’ve seen the population health effects resulting from excess junk food consumption. Nearly half of all hispanic (42.6%) and black (48.4%) adults in America are considered obese. This statistic is primarily driven by conditions in low-income communities where fast food is often the only source of nutrition available. The cycle is vicious: malnutrition and health problems carry financial repercussions that far outweigh any short-term cost savings from buying inexpensive food. Subsidizing fresh produce is far cheaper than the medical costs associated with an amputation caused by type 2 diabetes.

We’re making steps now to walk back the problems caused by the widespread availability of junk food, but it has caused irreparable damage to a generation who grew up with it.

However, there is another junk food that is pervasive, and it will be much harder to repair: social media.

Social media looks like real media in much the same way that junk food looks like real food. You can consume it and you will get full, but there is no intellectual value.

By optimizing for engagement, social media applications have stripped away the depth of human interaction to its most basic level. Prominently displaying metrics like follower count and likes have encouraged us to maximize those numbers, irrespective of real-world relationships. Dunbar’s number is an oft cited figure in this context; it states that humans can meaningfully maintain social relationships with 150 individuals. Social media allows us to extend this number at the cost of reducing the average quality of each relationship. These experiences, like junk food, are cheap.

Disclaimer: I am not a Luddite and I use social media. This argument does not come from a pedestal, but rather from the observations of someone who has grown up with the adoption of social networks as a central fixture in my life. I believe there is value in digital relationships, but these should be supplemental to our real-world interactions. Consider the analogy to fast food: eating a hamburger won’t kill you, but if you start to replace every meal with fries and a shake you will feel correspondingly bad.

As a society, we are still working out what the right amount of social media is. If I ate fast food everyday, or came home and watched television for six hours non-stop, this would be an obvious trigger for me. Social media is sneaky. It finds its way into your life during the quiet moments: waiting for a train, settling in right before bed, sitting at your desk. The opportunity cost from losing these moments is worth considering. Our brains love stimulus, and without external stimulus we are forced to turn our thoughts inwards. This is the reason our best ideas come in the shower: there is nothing else to do but think. Social media presents a pleasant, but vacuous alternative to these quiet moments that are so crucial to creativity and inspiration.

Real moments with friends create experiences that shape our outlook on life. When we reflect on our beliefs, we point to certain moments that influence our behavior. Social media influences us, but without the value of experience. Like empty calories, these influences fill us to the brim and don’t leave room for independent thought.

I suspect that social media usage will begin to taper as the generational gap drives engagement to new forms of media. Millennials are far less attached to television than prior generations, and our obsession with social media will prove to be uncool to the next wave of adolescents. In the meantime, it’s up to us to set the cultural standards for what is acceptable usage.

I like to think of this as “dieting.”

For the past few years, I’ve avoided downloading social media applications onto my phone. This does a few things: it helps to introduce a friction point that snaps me out of the zombie clicking and endless refresh behavior, and it removes some of the advertisement tracking that is baked into the code on the mobile apps. I still find myself logging into the sites on my browser and looking for an excuse to re-download the app, but my usage is much less frequent than when the app was accessible on my home-screen.

When I go out with friends, we play a game. Everyone has to put their phone in the center of the table during dinner, and the first one to reach for it becomes the subject of shame. Setting a norm that certain occasions are phone-free is a great way to build a bond with people. It signals that you respect their time and value their company enough to engage fully and be present.

I also actively schedule time where I do not carry my phone on me. During these times I will go to the gym or head out on a walk and force myself to think. It seems ridiculous, but years of reflection have proven that I am especially susceptible to distraction. The only way that I can make this work is to completely remove the physical object from my vicinity.

By dieting, it’s easier to enjoy social media for what it is: entertainment in moderation. Even if you love ice cream, you wouldn’t want to eat it for every meal. Why then is it so common to fill every moment by scrolling through social media? At least junk food gives us a stomach ache when we’ve had too much. The effects from digital content are not as obvious, but are just as important.


📚 Reading

Project Wren allows you to calculate your annual carbon footprint and donate to help offset the cost. Link.

The UN has partnered with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to release a report calling for people to change their diet. Eating less meat is cited as one of the highest impact activities an individual can do to reduce their carbon footprint. Link.

Decentraland is live. Decentraland is a Minecraft-like world in virtual reality, except the land is limited and can be purchased with cryptocurrency. The deeds to land parcels in Decentraland are stored on the Ethereum blockchain. Link.

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Google’s annual transparency report provides metrics for political advertising. Trump leads this category across most social media platforms. Link.

Many of the world’s longest living individuals have supposedly stemmed from remote islands with little to no manufactured food or career stress. Scientists have been studying them to understand what makes these conditions suitable for such long lives. The only problem: birth records from these places tend to be poor quality. It appears that these centurions are younger than suspected due to poor record keeping, not ideal living conditions. Link.

A Bloomberg article on how difficult it is to hide from Silicon Valley’s advertisement surveillance. Link.


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