Learning how to “plug in” to the media is just as important as learning how to “unplug” when necessary. What are some habits we can implement in order to engage in a healthy and balanced way?

We hear a lot about unplugging these days, about taking time away from the media (news and social) that saturates every aspect of our lives. Having these routine periods of time in which we go “off the grid” is so important, not only for our mental and physical health but our spiritual health too (although, since we are a unity of soul and body, these influence each other). Developing something of a Rule for ourselves in Benedictine fashion is just one possibility for how we can take back control of our time, our headspace, and our ability to be present to other people.

Of course, with life in a constant state of suspension (especially considering this most recent lockdown in Victoria), it’s easy to let weariness make our decisions for us. We’re not necessarily motivated to reform our online media consumption habits during this time of the pandemic when we are living in what organisational psychologist Adam Grant has called a constant state of languishing. If anything, our online media habits are heightened when we are unable to leave the house. Pope Francis warns that digital media opens us to the risk of ‘addiction, isolation, and the gradual loss of contact with concrete reality’ (Fratelli Tutti, §43).

What follows are three simple guidelines to help shape our interaction with media, instead of letting media disproportionately shape us.

1. Frame your day properly

In his book The News, Alain de Botton makes the interesting point that news media has become so pervasive that its consumption has effectively replaced religious practice. It’s the first thing we look at in the morning and it’s the last thing we check at night. On a daily basis, we defer our judgments to those people whose job it is to give us regular opinions, and these opinions have become something of a social marker, even a fashion item. Since for most people the news is now filtered through social media, this has created an additional problem whereby social media can have more of a hold on us than religion does.

An important part of choosing how we plug into the media is choosing when to. Instead of allowing the media to frame our day, we can be intentional about choosing something else instead. The Church’s Liturgy of the Hours is a great place to start: the centuries old form of prayer in which the psalms are chanted (or read) and meditated on. If you don’t have them in physical book form, you can download apps that have the structure on there: Universalis is one, and Laudate is another.

Alternatively, if you simply want to begin your day with contemplative prayer but struggle to structure that time, Hallow is a great app to have handy. It has a whole range of things, many of them for free. You can choose to reflect on the Gospel of the day if you like and the app will structure the meditation according to the time frame you choose.

Sometimes our interior noise is difficult to settle, and having a structure to our contemplative time can help.

2. Assess your ratio of old media to new media

By old media I mean books. An important thing to do will be assessing the amount of time we spend either watching or reading the news and scrolling social media, compared to the amount of time we spend reading an actual book. If the amount of time spent consuming media outweighs the amount of time reading a book, a good challenge would be to rectify that. Those spiritual classics you’ve been ignoring all this time? Crack one open. Sit down. Take the time to concentrate your thoughts on something reflective. In this regard, St Augustine’s Confessions is a great one to read. Also, St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Even if you don’t have the physical books on hand, Amazon offers very cheap Kindle prices for books like that, and you don’t even need a Kindle! You can read them on your computer or smartphone. It might mean increasing your screen-time, but until you get the actual book it might do for now. It’s still better than the news.

As another idea, you might like to try the audiobook service Audible. Audible gives you a certain number of free credits a month to essentially purchase free audiobooks. If you don’t have the book you want on hand, and don’t want to stare at a screen, sit back, close your eyes and listen to the book being narrated to you.

Don’t just read spiritual classics either. Read some great novels. Read Tolkien. Reading teaches us things that media technology never can: silence, patience, and contemplation.

3. Learn how to edify

It’s no secret anymore that social media algorithms feed off of conflict. Part of the reason why it does is that we feed off of conflict. We engage with it and the algorithms track that. Even before the advent of social media, however, the news utilised this. One of the questions that Neil Postman asked in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) was this: Why do news channels have such dramatic theme music? Well, drama ensures our engagement.

And sometimes, we don’t necessarily engage well or constructively either. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes that our social network dialogues can often just be monologues:

Dialogue is often confused with something quite different: the feverish exchange of opinions on social networks, frequently based on media information that is not always reliable. These exchanges are merely parallel monologues. They may attract some attention by their sharp and aggressive tone. But monologues engage no one, and their content is frequently self-serving and contradictory. (§200)

Instead of using social media to generate or engage in conflict, perhaps time spent there could be used to edify, to share things that will hopefully make other people’s engagement a more wholesome experience. And when conflict occurs, don’t engage in a parallel monologue. Learn to engage as if the other person is a real human being, which they are.