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On Digital Safe Spaces

The Pleasures and Perils of Progress

The arrival of the Internet has often been celebrated as a crowning achievement. People have the freedom to say what they want to say, believe in what they want to believe, and do what they want to do–the Internet has enabled all of us to find our communities. Compounded by the explosion of social media, we have been able to experience an incredible range of inspiring social developments. This has included new attention to marginalized voices, awareness of new cultures and attitudes, and the ability to connect with almost anyone from anywhere. In five seconds I can go on Twitter and see what the prime minister of Australia is up to.

While we were sleeping, our information volume changed from a trickle to a storm that never lets up. For many people, we are now living in a time of digital sensory overload. Internet content stimulates us from the second we wake up to the second we fall asleep.

This has drastically affected the way we act, and while research in this area is still in progress, a 2008 University King’s College study titled “The Google Generation” regarding academic research habits can offer some preliminary insight.

First of all, the study found many users to “power browse,” simply looking through titles, content pages, and abstracts for quick wins. Another finding was the heavy reliance on skimming to seek out information where people would view only one or two pages from an academic site before leaving.

While it is important to keep in mind that the study’s parameters were limited to research behavior and researchers, reading through these findings may feel like an oddly familiar experience.

Perhaps you are even doing it right now.

The Problem

For many of us, perusing the Internet is also an inescapable reality brought on by the nature of modern work and the onset of quarantining. Between Zoom calls, spreadsheets, and Google, the results of a long day of electronic use are incredibly tiring. Our brains feel drained, our eyes weary, and looking out at the physical world can feel like some faraway dream. Little by little, we lose touch with our natural world while becoming more entangled with a synthetic universe built of strings of numbers.

Digital Osmosis

So far, our examination of the nature of the web has not even touched on its contents. While we may find empowering stories and uplifting communities, for each “good” of the Internet, there is also plenty of “bad”. Rampant misinformation, internet forums filled with hate and toxicity, and trolls who find pleasure in tearing others down also thrive in this democratic arena. For every message about unity, there is another comment tearing someone down. Spend too much time looking through those comments and you might find yourself starting to take on a similar mindset, like a kind of digital osmosis. We absorb what we consume, and the things we read compound over time to shape how we think about ourselves and the world around us.

Sometimes, even positive content can still have a negative impact on our mentalities. We all know about FOMO, the feeling of missing out, where we see other people living their highlight reel. Much has already been said about how to approach FOMO, but no one can deny that it exists or the dissatisfaction it can cause. In general, social media can be a breeding ground for competition and the portrayal of unrealistic standards. All those small tweets and pictures we see each day can have an overall negative compounding effect.

Becoming too caught up in the digital world can be a dangerous game to play. I personally have been guilty of this, opening up TikTok for a quick break only to unwittingly spend the better part of my day scrolling endlessly. Getting sucked in to the Internet wormhole not only makes us lose track of time, but we also risk losing some of our mental sanity.

As quarantine and social isolation continue to be a reality for the majority of us, it is now more important than ever to define the boundary between our physical and virtual worlds and to also create a safe virtual space where we can flourish.

Hard Reset

Part of curating a healthy digital space is knowing when to step away. As people who work, communicate, and entertain themselves through the Internet, it can be hard to know just where the off button is. For those people who have an especially difficult time, I want to suggest a hard reset.

Put your phone into a box for a week. Any work that needs to be done can be done on a laptop or computer, but no social media, no news, and no electronic-based entertainment of any kind.

Fasting For Energy

This borrows from the idea of dopamine fasting. Introduced by Cameron Sepah, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, it is based on the very simple idea of staying away from impulsive behaviors that have traditionally been rewarded by dopamine. More details on Sepah’s exact method can be found here. The goal of this diet is to reduce our dopamine dependency from less productive activities, such as browsing the Internet and channel our energy into activities that contribute productively to our lives.

Letting yourself stand up and go outside to breathe some fresh air can be incredibly helpful for taking ourselves out of the constant and unrelenting Internet world.

Of course, there are also other ways to decrease our dopamine dependency. Some of the other options include setting screen limits, deleting certain apps or banning certain websites, or going a certain number of hours each day without checking your phone. Even taking periodic breaks, like letting yourself stand up and go outside to breathe some fresh air can be incredibly helpful for taking ourselves out of the constant and unrelenting Internet world. It is up to you to decide which method works best for you, and more importantly, stick to it.

Knowing when to step out of a digital space is vitally important in keeping our minds and well being safe, but becoming less reliant on our electronic devices also helps us to better focus on ourselves. Though we might not always realize it, the digital world can often serve as a distraction from our thoughts and responsibilities. In resetting or refreshing our relationship with the Internet, the important things in life center back on ourselves.

The Values of Censorship

In our modern democratic and liberty-filled era, any idea of censorship is immediately filled with all kinds of negative connotations. However, there are merits to censorship on an individual basis. More specifically, we should not seek out content that we know is going to spark negative emotions in us. Especially in our current political climate, where everything is politicized and no subject is off-limits; internet forums are filled with a diversity of opinions that can devolve into a series of ad hominem attacks. It is in my humble opinion that creating a digital safe space means excluding those less beneficial ones that I just mentioned.

In practice, this can mean not going into the comment section of a controversial post and not debating strangers online. Needless to say, no one’s opinion has ever been changed in the comment section of Twitter. Rather, everyone doubles down and becomes a more astute defender of their opinions. While I personally have never participated in an Internet squabble, I have read through certain discussions where commenters would get more and more radical with each passing exchange. By the time one stopped replying, both commenters had taken positions unrecognizable from the original one.

Comment sections can be a place infested and brimming with negative energy and unproductive arguments. Almost everyone has had the experience of seeing a tweet they agreed with, going into the comment section, and half an hour later leaving the comment section with a head full of frustration and three years shaved off their life.

Responding to the Echo Chamber

A common counterargument to this is that by avoiding certain types of content on the Internet, we could create an echo chamber of diluted opinions. Of course, this is bad because when we’re exposed to the same opinions over and over, we can overlook critical ideas that may be better than our own.

But not diving into the comment section of a controversial YouTube video doesn’t mean we’re creating an echo chamber. It may seem hard to believe, but there is actually a wealth of intellectual and scholarly work across all ranges of beliefs still accessible beyond the comment sections of YouTube. Shocking.

As an example, long-form journalism still exists as an absolutely wonderful medium built of all sorts of ideas. What makes long-form journalism particularly fantastic is that there has been a lot of thought put into these pieces and they present their arguments in an intelligible way. My own favorite sites for finding these gems include The Atlantic, Longform, ProPublica, and even The New York Times. This medium of information is almost the perfect avenue when we are looking for perspectives that challenge. Even if alternative perspectives may not be fully convincing, our awareness and understanding make us more well-rounded.

Individual censorship isn’t so much about blocking opinions as it is about making sure only productive arguments get in.

The web is a double-edged sword and can serve both as a place for people to expand their knowledge and minds or narrow their worldviews. When used correctly and in the right places, we can use digital spaces to learn and enrich our minds. You can do this by establishing certain sites that you know to be reputable and seeking your information from there. ThoughtCo offers a great guide to determining if a website or article is reliable, found here. Individual censorship isn’t so much about blocking opinions as it is about making sure only productive arguments get in.

The Conclusion

As a medium that is omnipresent, the Internet never stops influencing our thoughts and actions. The content is alluring and addictive, and it has captivated billions across the world. It is our job to take back our power and stop the Web from mindless influence.

We have touched on merely two ways of doing this, through resetting our relationship with technology and valuing only productive arguments, but of course, there are many other ways out there that may work better for you.

No matter what you decide to do, the value of digital safe spaces should never be underestimated when it comes to leading a healthier and more positive life.

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