Understanding and Improving Digital Relationships

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I spent the past few years learning how to pull the levers and rotate the knobs that use your data to extract clicks from you online. I started to understand how these systems work, and I started to realize I was also addicted to and hurt by different forms of digital media myself. To improve, I conducted research and made changes to my behavior over the course of two and a half years. Now that I am in control, I am trying to bring out the information that will help us better understand and improve our digital lives and general well being. If you feel pained by your digital life, please enter your email below and share this with friends who will benefit.

In this first post, the journey begins to better understand what is happening to us because of our digital relationships, what is happening to us as a generation.

Swept along by the social and technological momentum of digital media, we have increasingly integrated it into the fabric of our daily lives. But many are now reaching the point where we have to step back and think independently about the degree to which we actually want digital media in our lives. Many cannot continue sustaining our digital lifestyles, which have plagued users with symptoms of ADHD, depression, anxiety, and even erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation. I hope my writing will encourage independent thought about digital relationships and, from there, move to reshape them to improve the quality of our lives. Independent thinking is important for societal progress, particularly when it confronts flawed conventional wisdom that ought to be changed.

By understanding and improving our digital relationships, we can improve our lives. Our entire range of human experience is affected by these relationships, including our understandings of ourselves, our relationships with other people, and our society as a whole. One of the most challenging problems I have faced was my digital relationships. One of the most beneficial changes I have made in my life has been to reshape those relationships. Doing so has vastly improved my productivity and life.

But it’s hard. Rather than being immediate and visible, the consequences of unhealthy use of digital media are subtle and gradual. Although they do become visible over a long period of exposure, it is still difficult for people to connect those consequences to their digital media use, because of how ubiquitous that unhealthy behavior is and because of the lack of both media attention and research about the consequences of digital media use.

Because of the gradual nature of the repercussions, it’s hard to grasp the full extent to which digital media use becomes problematic until it is perhaps too late. It is also hard to grasp the full extent of the consequences until a generation that has grown up immersed in digital media has matured. That generation is mine. We grew up completely immersed in digital media. A research project that compared our experience to that of previous generations that did not have that immersion would, I believe, reveal how our digital relationships have harmed us: higher rates of ADHD, depression, anxiety, suicide, and even erectile dysfunction, which is related to reduced sensitivity to stimulation that is a consequence of repeated, acute overstimulation from porn. Digital porn also can contribute to premature ejaculation, but not through reduced sensitivity to stimulation but from the cognitive hypersexualization caused by repeated contact with the limitless amount of pornographic content available via the Internet and other social media.

Unhealthy digital relationships are intensely personal and exposing, because they often involve relationships with pornography entrenched in a hodgepodge of deep internal emotions such as guilt, shame, fear, and isolation. As a result, they are challenging to bring up and discuss, which also makes it hard to diagnose and improve these relationships. Even aspects of our digital relationships that do not involve pornography can be difficult to talk about. I realized my habits with digital media were adversely affecting me, but had difficulty discontinuing them because they had become an ingrained part of my daily experience, and because I had grown to rely on their short-term benefits. We must shed them off for the greater benefit.

It is important to do so sooner rather than later. During my junior year of college, I truly recognized how vital it was to better understand and improve my digital relationships. It would have been much easier for me to change my digital behavior if I had tried earlier, because the longer you maintain adverse digital relationships, the more ingrained they become and the more challenging to fix. In he 1700s, Samuel Johnson warned against the costs of bad habits: “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken”. By continually responding to stress through adverse digital relationships, rather than leaning in to the stress or engaging in alternative forms of restoration, we condition ourselves in ways that inhibit productivity, affect our emotional states, among other consequences.

I am grateful to be able to attest to the productivity benefits of reshaping digital relationships. I went from being a mediocre student barely getting by with three classes per semester to successfully taking six of the most challenging classes in the school per semester, often skipping the prerequisite classes. I was also a varsity athlete and fraternity member and worked on various projects on the side, like this writing. Transforming my digital relationships transformed my mind, rectifying an extremely impaired attention span that had challenged my ability to focus in class. My attention would constantly drift, as a consequence of my continuous multitasking with digital media. After I changed my behavior, I could sustain focus for hours at a time while in the classroom, resisting all digital temptations without expending as much mental energy.

It’s very important to improve these relationships. Because productivity is important to our happiness, and because our devices constitute the medium through which many of us try to be productive, understanding and improving our relationship with our devices can enhance our productivity and our happiness. After I changed my behavior, it became clear to me how our digital relationships can inhibit our productivity and prevent us from living life to the fullest.

It’s a real problem. To some, the concept that our relationships to the devices we use every day for communication and convenience can be unhealthy and negatively affect our productivity and happiness may sound far-fetched. But it’s actually not, and I think many people realize this. By understanding and reshaping our digital relationships, we can distance ourselves from a lifestyle of constant distraction. This can allow us to engage with mental economies of scale. This has significant benefits. Most notably, this can lead to flow. By allowing our cognitive apparatus to address the needs of a particular task, we can complete extraordinary work with less mental energy. By making this transformation, we can work much more effectively with a given amount of cognitive energy for a period of time.

It’s worth making the effort. There is so much opportunity for our generation. We have the ability to accomplish so much now, more than ever before because of the access to information, people, and knowledge that digital technologies offer us. But the very technologies that enable us can also hinder us when we don’t make optimal use of them. By understanding the reality of suboptimal use, and by implementing strategies to reshape and optimize the ways we use digital media, we can capitalize on the its benefits while better resisting the drawbacks.

I’m going to highlight something here. Although I implemented many changes that I will recommend in this writing, the one foundational change, from which all other changes followed, was cutting out my use of porn and eschewing all digital sexual stimulation. This allowed me to masturbate and ejaculate less frequently, endowing me with more sexual energy. I also had more receptivity to stimulation from not being constantly overstimulated by digital pornography, whose abuse erodes our receptivity to stimulation. With increased energy and receptivity to stimulation, cutting out Facebook and Instagram notifications and checking emails and texts much less frequently, reducing the constant listening to EDM, eliminating use of dating apps, leaving my phone on airplane mode more often, engaging in more solitude and enjoying nature, spending more time with friends most importantly, working out more regularly, better identifying and pursuing my interests, and reading more, has caused me to radically improve my mental state. Reshaping my relationship with digital technology really has changed everything, for the better.

Days feel longer, weeks feel longer, I notice more, I remember more, I dream more. I feel like I have significantly more time on my hands and mental resources to absorb new information and process existing information. I feel like I’m less easily distracted. I feel like I can work for much more extended periods of time with less energy, because I am less easily distracted and have to spend less energy resisting distraction.

If you’re in high school and college it is especially worth making similar change. It is during high school and college when the inner self is constructed, when the foundation for independence is created. But our digital relationships inhibit the development of the inner self and capacity to be independent, because we never spend time alone; we are constantly occupied, connected to the artificial stimulation and connectivity on our devices. Comfort with being alone is fundamental to decompression. If we do not feel that comfort, and instead rely on compulsive consumption of digital media, we deprive ourselves of opportunities to let the mind decompress, without which we operate continuously on overdrive, with longer-term consequences we are not fully aware of yet.

At a time when students are supposed to be taking control of life, new digital media often seem to be in control of us. For example, digital porn reduces our sensitivity to stimulation, causing us to be much less aroused by our lives, resulting in perpetual states of apathy and gloom. With apathy and gloom, we only want to do the minimum amount of work necessary to scrape by. Deprived of sexual energy and sensitivity to stimulation, we simply do not have the foundation of energy, arousal, and receptivity to stimulation to give full attention to our work. When we constantly are engaged in artificial stimulation, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to create our own means of combatting boredom.

I was there. Because of digital media, I lost touch with my inner self. I rarely spent time away from the continuous stream of artificial stimulation. I rarely spent time alone with my thoughts. Because of digital media’s portability, I was able to constantly imbibe digital stimulation while studying, eating, working out, going to the bathroom, walking to class, trying to fall asleep, and even driving. And not only was I constantly digitally stimulated; in the rare moments when I wasn’t I would often think about things related to digital stimulation, like who may have liked a picture I uploaded on social media, or when someone would respond to a text or email I had sent earlier. By appropriately separating from social media and unnecessary digital social interaction across the board, I was able to reduce this cognitive obsession and ease the process of introspection, allowing me to reconnect with the inner self.

Understanding young adults’ unhealthy digital relationships offers more than self improvement potential. It helps us to answer one of the most important question of our time: why do we feel like a particularly lost and lonely generation, with ADHD, depression, anxiety, premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, and a seemingly heightened suicide rate? We discover that a large part of being lost and lonely is a function of maintaining unhealthy digital relationships without having access to a basis for understanding them and how we are negatively impacted by them. And of course, we are physically separated and lost from one another because of the harm digital information exchange does to our relationships, as well as what sexual depletion from porn does to us and our interest in social activities. And we come to understand that these problems that we experience in life are direct products of our digital relationships. So on a broader level, what I am writing about is how we may resurrect our lost selves. By understanding and correcting our digital relationships, we can become more.

Next: understanding what motivates use of digital media.

After receiving many requests from others, I will be releasing a book on all of the topics covered in this blog. Add your email here to be notified when it’s released and get access to the signed early copies.

Benton Turner