Forbes once cited marketing experts that estimated most Americans are exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 ads per day. This approximation was made in 2017, and with the rise of ads on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube, the number has probably grown.
Most ads are delivered to us via our smartphones, along with a steady stream of notifications. In 2018, researchers at Duke University found that the average person gets 65 to 80 phone notifications a day. Some notifications are ignorable. But if you spend just one minute a day on each notification, you could spend up to one hour and twenty minutes managing your notifications.
And of course, social media is also responsible for increasing exposure to targeted messaging. Because as of 2020, the average daily time spent on social media (in the United States) was 65 minutes. However, the daily time spent on TikTok and Instagram alone suggests that the average social media usage time of teenagers and young adults is even higher than the national average.
Smartphones. Music and video streaming. Behaviorally targeted ads and apps. Social media. All are increasing our daily exposure to persuasive narratives and messages.
What’s the result? Sociologists and psychologists have been theorizing upon and proving the wide-reaching negative effects of our digital age. Perhaps the simplest theory that calls for reformation is the theory of “cyber” or “information” overload.
This term exposes the “attention economy” that technology giants have been quietly building and refers to a state where brain functioning is inhibited because you’re too overwhelmed by information. Cyber overload can lead to feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and mental fatigue. It can also exacerbate pre-existing emotional and mental exhaustion and lead to cognitive issues such as decision-making.
Recent advice from Church leaders affirms that social media can dim our ability to recognize promptings. At a worldwide youth devotional in 2018, President Nelson invited youth to participate in a weeklong social media fast, and cautioned: “If you are paying more attention to feeds from social media than you are to the whisperings of the Spirit, then you are putting yourself at spiritual risk.”
Cyber overload makes technology and media sound inherently evil. However, from President Nelson’s same address and other Church statements, we are told to maximize social media’s beneficial features and share gospel light and positivity through it. Additionally, social media can satisfy needs for entertainment, connection, knowledge and spirituality.
However, many find it difficult to healthily manage our relationship with media. I have noticed that when I spend too much time online or am too engulfed in media, I lose motivation to create, write or accomplish tasks. I feel dissatisfied and overly emotional. Most importantly, I lose my ability to hear and act on spiritual promptings.
There’s no Harvard researcher or brilliant PhD student to reaffirm my experiences. But I’d like to propose that cyber overload can have spiritually damaging effects.
We sing “I need thee every hour,” but we direct those pleas towards Instagram and Facebook instead of our scriptures.
We have a strong desire to ask and find, seek and knock, but we end up spending that time on Twitter instead of diving into the words of prophets and apostles.
We feel negative emotions or become “past feeling,” like the Nephites (Moroni 9:20). And yet, we continue to scroll, swipe, like; scroll, swipe, like, instead of stop, kneel, and commune with the Father.
Our Savior has engraved us upon the palms of His hands. But we can fail to remember Him with similar fervor if our hands are always tightly clasped around our technological devices. Any testimonies we’ve engraved upon ourselves are covered by enticing media.
The Lord commands us to “watch, therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.” But we’re too busy to prepare because we’re glued to a reality TV episode, a Twitch live stream, or a social media feed.
We live in a culture that complains about lack of time and perpetual hurriedness. But maybe it’s time to reconsider our media usage habits and realize that some of the habits we’ve labeled as necessary are consuming too much of our time, energy and focus.
The Lord has offered His strength, Spirit, and revelation to us, but He needs a hospitable heart. Our hearts and minds cannot receive “all that [the] Father hath” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:38) when they’re preoccupied, overwhelmed, or enslaved by online narratives and behaviorally targeted apps.
Here are some tips that might help you minimize cyber overload and strengthen your connection to heaven:
- Don’t log into your phone until you’ve completed a daily session of scripture study.
- Use a screentime monitoring app to become more aware of your usage habits.
- Unfollow or mute accounts that post negative content, and follow accounts that share uplifting, inspiring messages.
- Follow the recommendations of this Church article on using social media to share the light of the gospel.
As we intentionally diminish the contentious and deceptive influences in our lives, we will become more perceptive to the gentle whisperings of the Spirit. With renewed access to revelation, righteous decisions become clearer, and we can gradually “lay up for [o]urselves a treasure in heaven, yea, [that] which is eternal, and which fadeth not away” (Helaman 5:8).