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A young species' primer.

“Addiction is a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences.” - Wikipedia

Introduction

What is information addiction?

Information addiction (IA) is a condition caused by the irresponsible consumption of information, especially compulsively.

It's continuing to scroll through Facebook even though you've definitely seen everything. It's your fingers typing "reddit.com" by themselves when you open a new tab. It's closing Instagram and opening it again right away. It's picking up your phone every five minutes to check for notifications, the constant distraction of anticipating them, and the anxiety you feel when it's not with you. It's the urgency and elation with which you whip it to your face when you hear it chime. It's the "just-one-more" which glues you to YouTube or a bad series for three hours longer than the one video you planned. It's the obsessive need to be finished which kept you playing that Facebook game or shiny app until you'd found every plant, puppy or Pokémon. It's the dark narcissism or insecurity which keeps you checking the gradually-climbing likes on your latest post. It's the impossible-to-ignore itch to look at something interesting and shiny right now which thwarted your last few attempts to read a book. It's that month of soul-numbing grinding you took on "voluntarily" because you "wanted" the shoulderpads with eyeballs on them and 6 more ilvls. It's your twinned abject despair and morbid curiosity as you learn about the day's horrors - political, genocidal, whatever. It's your angst about the state of the world. It's frustration and anxiety and discontent and expectation and fear and just one more and it might be the reason you're so unsatisfied.

It's your magnificent, broad-shouldered soul weeping at its lot, chained to a rat running in circles.

It's kinda like food

The food-drug metaphor helps here. Eating is a reality of life, as is processing information. You can't avoid either, but they can wreck you if your relationship with them is bad.

Information is, in many ways, more dangerous than food. Choosing to eat requires effort - you have to walk to the kitchen, order food, or go shopping. Information's effortless. There's always a screen nearby.

Food also has an obvious, physical consequence: you feel immediately gross, and in the long run you become obese. Information leaves your mind a wreck, but that goes unnoticed more easily, or is even accepted in a society where it's the norm.

Food is difficult in that it's a physical requirement, which means you must face that demon several times a day. But we rely on information more and more, and we interact with information sources which are increasingly addictive and dangerous.

The ability to recognize when you're being dragged around by your baser instincts by weapons-grade behavioural conditioning is an increasingly important survival skill.

You don't devour another two cakes when you're full. Your diet goes beyond junk food. You can learn to consume information responsibly too.

The effects of information addiction

Am I addicted to information?

Does what you've read so far strike close to home? If it does, you might. Keep reading. IA's deep experiential sensitivity cost can numb you to the point where you can't feel the impact of having it, because the ability to feel withers.

If this all sounds melodramatic, you could be in denial. Or you could be fine. It's not a black and white thing. Some people aren't hooked on information yet. Some maintain a healthy relationship with it. Some have fertile enough minds that they can use it a lot without too many costs. Think about what I've sketched here and spend some time reflecting quietly. Look for it in yourself.

Cause and effect

Most of the things which make you vulnerable to IA are made worse by an active addiction, so it's hard to separate cause and effect. This section discusses effects and situations which are co-morbid with IA.

Practical

Poor prospects, feeling trapped or helpless

If your life looks grim - if you're in a terrible financial situation, struggling to find employment, feeling generally bowed and incapable, or if something in your life is confining you - the escapism of IA is hugely appealing.

Trying to escape IA under the weight of life's lot will be harder than usual. But it's even more important to do. It will give you the clarity and agency to make and pursue plans to improve your situation.

Personal neglect

A neglect of personal well-being (hygiene, sleep, food, exercise), housekeeping (cleaning, tidying, shopping) and healthy money-seeking can creep up as the tendrils of IA sink in. Why take care of things in the real world? The small, delayed positive payoff doesn't look very good next to one more razor-honed hit, right now, over and over.

Your mind is given over to a hundred little voices, clamouring for their favourite drug, and you lose your investment in yourself and your world. This is unfortunately a very cosy spiral.

Screens, everywhere

It's like trying to give up smoking in a house with lighters and cigarettes scattered all over. It's an insane ask. Luckily, there are some practical interventions for this one which I discuss later. The main goal from this perspective is to make screens a smaller part of your life.

Exhaustion

Sometimes you just want to veg. If your normal work-day is killer (or even "just" tiring), you're more likely to turn to IA when you get some downtime. It's just how it is. It's almost unfair to ask your brain to tackle an existential question as big as IA if it's already exhausted.

You need to be in a reasonable state of mind to deal with this stuff. This means carving out calm, rested you-time. Do what you can.

You also don't need to be absolutist about this stuff. While I encourage the pursuit of a good informational diet, an awareness of the nature of IA could inspire you to choose higher-quality TV, or a little less TV, or to mix in reading with TV occasionally.

Work obligations

If your job requires you to use sources of IA, things can get tricky. You can use it as an opportunity to learn to recognise its exploitative facets, but ongoing use will normalise it in your life.

You could try to find a different job, or a different role within the company, which minimises your exposure. You can also make an effort to compartmentalise - to make it clear to yourself that work-based IA is simply work, and to avoid bringing those habits home. Making your work-based IA interactions "methodical" (using Facebook's post scheduler to automate postings in advance, for example) can help to cement this division.

Interpersonal

Social expectation

A lot of your friends are doing it, probably. It's difficult to abandon something such a huge chunk of society is pouring their cunning, art, dreams, hopes and feelings into.

This is honestly a hard one to tackle. You have to look practically at the pros and cons, remember that entirely-physical relationships are still a thing, and consider the fundamental breadth-depth trade-off in how we spend our time.

Tapering your use lets you benefit from less IA while gracefully winding down your connected presence, but there's a huge spike in effective benefit from quitting altogether.

Poor or absent human connection

Spending time with other human beings is incredibly core to our makeup. IA habits are likely to draw you away from time spent with friends, and a lack of people to spend time with is likely to push you towards IA.

Some IA sources give you (low-quality) human interaction on tap, which makes it appealing to try to plug the gap with them. More broadly, IA numbs and distracts to the point where a lack of connection is less painful.

Psychological

Attention fragmentation

Attention fragmentation is a creature which is born when you spend too long being interrupted by things, such as notifications.

Eventually you enter a state of permanent distraction, wherein big chunks of your mind constantly anticipate (in excitement or dread) the next interruption. Your limited reserve of simultaneous processing capacity is exhausted by these guests, which is how anxiety costs you your sanity.

It has a huge cost in happiness, your ability to think deeply and clearly, and makes you more likely to make low-quality decisions.

Experiential numbness

Experiential numbness is a little further out there, but if you've been nodding thus far I suspect you'll know what I'm talking about.

You have a finite reserve of high-quality mental energy each day. If you spend a significant proportion of your time "on" in a damaging, IA kind of way, you experience numbing as that reserve is depleted. If you keep over-spending it, you accretively lose the ability to replenish it well. This takes a long time to heal.

It's not the same as "brain fog" in which you feel frustratingly unable to function normally. In fact, you can probably "function" in the doing-a-menial-job sense better than usual when you have EN.

The cost is in wonder, joy, sorrow, vividness, spontaneity, and creativity. The world around you loses colour through no fault of its own. In the course of years spent with different compelling information faucets bleating for attention and shaping your mind to care about little more than the next hit, you lose the ability to appreciate the rest of the world with useful sensitivity.

It's a tricky one to try to describe because the damage is subtle and incremental - frog, boiling water. Most sufferers don't realise or care that they have it. Perhaps things get boring more quickly. Perhaps your motivation to do things moves towards "it's good to be doing something" or "more beans must be better than fewer beans" and further from the intrinsic awe of the thing. But, bottom-line, the sparkle goes out of the world quietly, and you adapt.

So I'll take my best shot: try to remember what the world was like when you were younger. Around seven to fourteen. Remember the soaring awe of learning new ideas or seeing incredible images. Remember the raw devastation of being upset. That's experiential sensitivity, and you have that capacity within you.

There is a decent case to be made that the world-dimming usually acknowledged as a normal part of getting older is EN, caused by things like having to do unsatisfying work, stress, anxiety, guilt, draining people, and IA.

Feeling overwhelmed

The torrent of information is relentless. This produces different things in different people.

Some meet it "head-on", giving massive chunks of their time over to making sure they've consumed as much as possible, so they aren't left behind. This is a quick route to attention fragmentation and experiential numbness.

Some try to weather or deflect the tide, but may still harbour negative feelings about the stuff they're missing, or otherwise resent that they're making tradeoffs between being connected and remaining sane.

Whichever you are, having this incredible volume of information, and knowing that hidden in it is a constellation of tidbits which you care about - while also knowing that to consume them all would consume more time than you have available - is not a healthy experience.

Pessimism

Things are better than ever for the inhabitants of Spaceship Earth.

Our economies are becoming steadily more carbon-efficient. Our emissions policies have us on a course which ultimately stabilizes, even if it might suck for a while in the middle, and there's no reason we can't keep improving those policies.

The proportion of people living in absolute poverty continues to dramatically decline. While inequality continues to be a problem, things are improving. PPP-adjusted income is increasing across the board (animated) (see also).

Life expectancy has skyrocketed in the past 200 years (alternate vis). The equality of the distribution of that improved lifespan is also getting better. Child mortality is falling fast across the board. Healthcare intervention prevalence is improving dramatically.

The proportion of people who are undernourished continues to decline, even in the developing world. This is also true as an absolute value, despite our population growth.

The "great powers" are spending less time than ever at war. Deaths in recent conflicts are too high, but they're still way better than in recent history.

Absolute global homicide rate is seeing a small, recent increase after 12 years of decline - and remember, this is in the context of global population growth.

Human rights protections continue to steadily improve across the board.

People are more literate than ever, and the ratio continues to improve. Fewer people get no education than ever, and primary school enrolment continues to improve. The years-of-schooling gender inequality gap has almost been closed. As a population, our projected levels of education look extremely positive. Learning outcomes have improved dramatically almost everywhere between 1985 and 2015.

(Charts via ourworldindata.org; sources are on the images.)

And yet we're gloomier than ever. Maybe reality doesn't match what we know we're capable of. Maybe our lives are beset with horrible stuff that we'd rather not deal with. Maybe there are still several massive systemic problems and fixing them is a really daunting task. I think all of these are true, but I don't buy them as sufficient to explain all the gloominess.

Humans have a calamity bias. We perk up when we hear stories of disaster. We're also more efficient at disseminating information than we've ever been. And so it has come to pass that when any atrocity anywhere in the world happens, most humans hear about it, and bear the psychological toll.

You can see how this scales. In a community of a few thousand, serious anti-social acts will be carried out by one or two individuals (and news of them will be shared) every few weeks or months, perhaps. In a community of billions, we get to hear about the tiny proportion of people doing really horrible stuff constantly, because in a population of billions, the anti-social contingent grows to thousands - and we forget how tiny they remain in the big picture.

There is an argument to be made for being informed. Human rights violations need light in order to be fixed, right? But a carousel of gore and horror and outrage has a cost, too. We're convincing our entire species that humanity is terrible, cruel and destructive. Misanthropy has never been cooler, or more prevalent. And we're sharing the kinds of psychic scars usually reserved for medical professionals and soldiers with every human being.

It's dishonest because it's a monstrously lopsided view of our species. We've done, and continue to do, utterly mind-boggling amounts of good. It outweighs the bad by so many orders of magnitude that I don't know how you'd go about visualising it. We just have this mad tendency to ignore the good and stare bleakly at the bad.

The real kicker is that pessimism leads to apathy and despair. Learning about how "doomed" the world is is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the ultimate effect of knowing about all that horrific stuff is that you feel like it's ubiquitous and inevitable, which makes you less likely to lend your hand to making things better.

Choosing not to consume news media which is presenting a biased view of the world (more doomed than it is) to your brain which parses information in a biased way (preferring doom) is not irresponsible. Contributing to the dystopian potential future of a planet full of apathetic, despairing humans is irresponsible.

I think there is a really important discussion to be had here about how to learn about the state of the world in a way which doesn't crush your spirit - and how to translate that awareness into useful action, instead of letting it fester as frustration or despair. I don't have the answers, but I think it's an important question to ask.

I did make a tool called White Mirror which lets you use the Internet without the doom, though.

Depression

Most of what I said about pessimism applies here. The million tiny cuts on your psyche take their toll.

When depression and IA occur together they are incredibly hard to dismantle. The grey apathy of depression makes the earnest soul-searching and self-reflection of IA recovery look like an incredible amount of work, and the industrial distractive power of modern IA is a welcome escape from the worst depression serves up.

The big fetters produce depression almost reliably in combination. If you suspect they might be the source of yours, it is worth your time to try to tackle your IA. Do it experimentally for a day, a week, or a month, and see how it affects your state of mind.

But I'm not going to pretend depression has a magic bullet. I hope you find your way out of the tangle. Be mindful about the information you consume, try to keep busy, talk to someone, get professional help, and explore the drugs available.

The using loop

If you're using, you keep using. It sounds simple but it's really worth thinking about.

After even a few minutes, but especially after half an hour or more, you often find yourself in a strange kind of fugue, happy to get completely lost in whatever IA you're consuming. It seems that, more than the faucet becoming more compelling, the world outside quietly ceases to exist and you follow the small loops of your new reality, perhaps soothed by its ease and simplicity in contrast to all the travails of the real world.

This is how "just one video" engulfs an entire afternoon.

This is the rat in the cage self-administering morphine while it starves.

Your flaws and biases

The flaws listed here exist in us all. Many of them are mutually co-morbid: they often occur with a similar or complementary flaw.

To claim that they are an inevitable and substantial part of being human is irrational pessimism. The potential for each flaw exists in all of us, but you get to choose the extent to which they express themselves in you, by curating your information diet and monitoring your state of mind.

Learn them and try to recognise where they affect your behaviour.

How is IA exploited?

This section covers patterns and flavours. Patterns are systemic templates for exploiting flaws. Flavours are thematic banners under which groups of complementary patterns, techniques and targeted weaknesses are used to induce compulsive behaviour.

These lists are not exhaustive. Please e-mail me if something's missing!

Patterns

Bottomless bowls

A Tristan Harris coining, this is possibly the most important pattern to understand. A bottomless bowl is something which keeps serving up stuff as you consume it. Think of Facebook's news feed: you can keep scrolling for as long as you like.

This is a brutal trap. Bowls generally serve up portions of varying satisfaction to you, so your variable reward bias is kept hot (in other words, you're kept constantly hunting for the most interesting, funny or horrific stuff.) The IA zombie state is utterly facilitated, since a gentle sweep down on your scroll wheel or a swipe or tap effortlessly waves in the next morsel.

The intersection of these two effects means that you can absently scroll or swipe for alarmingly long periods of time.

Progression systems

These feature most prominently in computer games. They promise you Cool Stuff based more or less on the single fact of how long you've been playing for. Progression usually comes in the flavour of power - more guns, bigger guns, abilities - or accolade, but it can vary.

This leans mostly on the +1 bias and the completionist compulsion. The cost is in making the experience of the game one of chasing an extrinsic reward. The enjoyability of the core gameplay loop is overshadowed by bean collection, which fundamentally colours the experience.

Instead of playing to creatively manipulate systems, achieve mastery or flow-state, or explore strange worlds, the player ends up invested in the size and completeness of their collection.

Relentless notifications

Free access to your notification tray is a goldmine. The most insidious apps will notify you constantly - not frequently enough to annoy you, but not infrequently enough for you to kill the app's brainworm. If it's really effective the notifications will hook you each time. This reinforces familiarity with a new app or program, and encourages investment.

These have a deep cost in attention fragmentation.

Variable reward schemes

This one is almost ubiquitous, and it boils down to taking an action and being shown or given something of uncertain value to you. You can find it in:

...and many places besides. Learning the pattern here is really important. Try to think broadly and generally about what forms this could take. The "taking an action" at the start is important too, as it hooks you into the push-button-receive-treat addiction loop.

"Share" for in-app cash

Prevalent in mobile games, this pattern asks you to trade your social capital with your friends for in-app currency.

Slowly refilling action points

Also big in mobile games, and often called "energy". This both limits how much you can do at once (compelling the impatient to spend money) while making doing well in the game reliant on opening the game every few hours (establishing familiarity and investment).

Flavours

These are my reflections on the flavours of information out there. Your experience may be substantially different. It's really important that you do a lot of slow reflecting of your own, especially with the flavours which hook you the strongest.

Social media

You know what it is; you're probably familiar with it. The idea that spending lots of time on social media makes you feel like crap is pretty widely accepted at this point.

It exaggerates the calamity bias, because its content-surfacing algorithms mean that you only see the top one percent of "reaction-worthy" content. In this it does the same for several other biases, including othering, recency, brevity, and ease.

It's entirely built around a variable reward scheme, because you never know how good the next thing you scroll to is going to be.

It ruthlessly exploits our fondness for connection and validation, feeding us a pale imitation of time with people we care about, and in the same stroke it draws us to spend less time together in real life.

I found quitting a lot easier after I made a point of switching to phone calls for as many people as possible. At that point, you're looking at losing touch with a couple of stragglers, instead of most of your community.

News

The line between social media and news is pretty much gone at this point. I speak about human-curated news here.

News thrives on views. It's the only way for a news-sharing organisation to survive. Journalists and editors are well aware of our biases, and they know what to do to get clicks and views.

News leans really, really hard on the calamity bias, and presents us a skewed view of the world as a result (see my Pessimism rant above).

It's also increasingly involved in othering, as marketers discover that they can, for example, show the right stories about the left being terrible, and show the left stories about the right being terrible, and profit from both. Fight it. We're all human and we're all in this together.

The really powerful perspective shift here is getting an honest answer out of yourself to the question "do I really need to hear (and adopt) this person's version of what's going on in the world?" Connection is valid and valuable and important, but why hand away the lens?

Try learning about the lives of the people who live near you directly, by talking to them. Also try to avoid bias when you learn about distant parts of the world, through good stats, science, and encyclopaedic writing.

Games

I think games are far and away the most addictive screen-based experience we've developed. They're deeply interactive, and they are portals into strange, vivid worlds. Escapism was never so interesting.

I spent a long time addicted to computer games. It was a difficult road. Gaming is only getting bigger, and I empathise deeply with parents trying to guide their brood through the jungle.

There is a trend towards games building their systems around continuously extracting money from the player (as opposed to providing enjoyable worlds and systems). There is also a trend toward extrinsic motivation (such as achievements) instead of intrinsic motivations (such as genuine satisfaction). These trends are diluting the valuable aspect of games, but they might be helpful in that they make games more obvious Skinner boxes, which makes escaping easier.

Desktop

It's hard to generalise, but broadly, desktop gaming risks a "heavier" kind of addiction. The improved input scheme, the sitting upright on a seat, and the power of modern desktop PCs means that you can have experiences and visit worlds which are really immersive and high-fidelity.

When it comes to divesting of the real and inhabiting other worlds, the vividness and compulsion of desktop gaming can get close to that of books for a book-worm. And it has multiplayer. Heady stuff.

Console

Consoles are much "lighter" than PCs. The experience is casual and relaxed; you're usually on a couch, the control device is small, and you can pick up or drop games very easily. This mitigates the risk of "heavy" addiction, but adds risk in the scrolling-through-feeds vein. Low-friction entry means you can fall into the hole all the more easily.

Apply the same principles as with any IA. Monitor your overall usage, and learn whether the games you choose exploit biases unhealthily.

Mobile

Most people will never own a desktop or console; most people will own a cellphone. Ubiquity is mobile's superpower, and it's a pretty potent one.

Mobile games mostly land on the simple and light end of the spectrum. This lightness is somehow retained when it comes to spending money on them, so they're really good at wheedling you out of cash in little bits.

Their ubiquity also contributes to near-immortal brain-worms. If you are vaguely invested in a mobile game, even if it isn't satisfying at all - just a little compelling - it's easy to get into a loop of whipping out that game whenever you have "time to kill". This is the lowest-friction entry possible, and it makes extremely chronic use likely.

Video

Videos may not be interactive, but this lets them tell more complex, author-directed stories, which can be more compelling. Not requiring input also means that their barrier to entry is lower. Once you've started watching, you can commit as much mental energy as you like - all the way down to "almost none" - and let the experience wash over you.

There's an astonishing variety of video content, and since it's generally imbued with a message you can be sure to find something that reinforces your views, beliefs or feelings, or is delivered in a tone which suits your frame of mind. This means that it has the potential to hit several biases.

Uniquely, video can show people doing stuff - loving, fighting, working, relaxing. Experiencing the lives of other people (real or fictional) vicariously can be really addictive, especially if you lack connection in your life, and there's no imagination-translation layer required (as with books).

On-demand

Vendors like Netflix and YouTube work very hard on algorithms to show you exactly what you want. The danger is that they get good at this, so you trust their recommendations more and more, and you find your identity shifting towards whatever subtle systemic biases are built into those algorithms.

The aspect of choice in the on-demand format plus the lack of a per-unit-consumed cost also means that you have easy access to everything you find interesting in their archives, which is "bottomless" on an unprecedented scale. There's a little variable-reward here, and a whole lot of appealing, passively consumable crack.

TV

TV looks strange and clunky in the age of streaming, but tools like DVR have brought it almost to parity. The main difference here is that there is still some human curation involved in what is shown in which time-slots, and that most sport broadcasting is still done through broadcast TV.

TV really encourages a very unintentional kind of investment, where your choice is reduced to "which of the things which are on right now do I want to watch?" For people who don't have alternatives, or who are inured to the veg-state of soaking in TV, this can lead to consuming un-nourishing or outright damaging stuff "because it's there".

It also includes quite a bit of...

Streaming

Live video is appealing in a very specific way. This is the recency bias serviced as well as it is possible to. The thing you're watching happened just moments ago!

Sites like Twitch have added a tight viewer feedback loop to the experience, which serves a different set of biases and can also be really compelling.

Virtual Reality

VR is coming. No, really. The sensation of "presence" - of actually being there - which VR produces is completely impossible to communicate to someone who hasn't experienced it. Going from weird abstracted interfaces (remote, mouse, keyboard, controller) to gesturing around normally with your hands and looking around naturally with your eyes and head is a complete game-changer.

What this means is that if a screen is a pill, VR goggles are a needle. We are going to have screen-based experiences delivered more vividly, more convincingly, and more overwhelmingly. PC game addiction is going to look like a joke once VR game addiction gets established.

Right now it's awkward, technical, and clunky. We have until it gets slick to get good at managing information addiction.

Porn

I'm not going to poke the morality bear. I do want to make the point that porn provides an acute endorphin hit, on demand. This is completely analogous to a cigarette or a game of Candy Crush. Strip away any socially-derived guilt and a high-volume porn user is still damaging themselves, because you can only flood those receptors for so long until they lose sensitivity.

Chat

Modern messaging apps offer a new way of speaking to people: ongoing low-bandwidth, low-commitment discussions with 5, 10 or 50 people at the same time. This has an important effect.

You're switching your attention between these contexts quickly, and if you leave notifications on you're constantly dropping out of whatever real-life context you're in to enter them. This has the potential to induce massive, massive attention fragmentation because of the demands it places on our limited daily processing capacity.

Apart from that risk, I think one-on-one interactions with people you care about are valid and worthwhile. It's pretty easy to integrate chat into your life in a healthy way: moderation. And make sure your notifications are off!

Spending money

Buying stuff can be really, really addictive. Remember how marketing works. They're out to convince you that you're missing out on something, or that you are in some way inadequate, and that their product will give you what you "need".

If you have disposable income and your impulse purchasing is only occasional, you're probably OK. But if money is tight, or if you buy stuff frequently (especially if it's to try to feel better), you need to tackle it.

Other sources

I've highlighted the big ones here, but "screen-delivered information" is impossibly broad. The big picture is that you should try to think clearly about any extended screen time, and try to figure out whether it's good for you.

Drugs are social

It is a truism in drug circles that you have to lose your "drug friends" if you want to get clean. Unfortunately, there are some parallels with information. Do you have certain friends who you only (or mostly) play games with, or write on each other's Facebook walls, or watch series with, or text?

If you answered yes, it might be worth trying to find ways to steer those relationships towards interactions which lean less on information. In extreme cases, you might need to ask yourself whether the relationship is worth more than freedom from IA.

Screen-free information

Books

I'm hugely pro-book, but books are still information and it's still possible to have an unhealthy relationship with them. I think the big ones are:

Audio books

The book caveats apply, but audio books are great. They are a calmer, more reflective kind of stimulus, and you get to rest your eyes. I suppose it's worth mentioning that I think a healthily calm mind values periods of silence (which one could lean on audio books to avoid).

Podcasts

Podcasts are interesting. Since they're designed for longer consumption sessions, the hosts generally get to tackle topics a little more substantially, but since they're often ad-hoc discussions, they can lack the depth of researched articles.

The choice of who you listen to is really important, because you will be closely exposed to their value system, and it will rub off on you.

Music

I suppose listening with headphones in certain situations is a little anti-social, but that's something us introverts need sometimes.

Music is great.

How to fix IA

It's all you

It's tempting to throw experts at problems. This works for a lot of things, and I empathise with the desire to believe that a professional can solve every problem. Someone who has spent a lot of time practising empathy is probably good at it. Talking to a psychologist might be really valuable. They're trained to understand how addiction works. I also recommend talking to a close friend - they know you better and they're invested.

But ultimately, IA is difficult to solve and deeply personal. If you have it, you need to fix it. You're the only one with good enough access to how you think. You are very good at deceiving yourself but you're also the real authority in your head. Don't be afraid. You can do this.

Take it seriously

Using information is light, effortless, and casual. It's almost a nothing-action. The cost of entry into the rabbit hole is a gentle swipe or tap. What's five minutes on a news-feed, really?

So if you think your information habits are problematic, you need to figure out how to take seriously the cost of continuing with those habits in their current form. You need to attach this weight to every time you open that app or website.

What are you missing out on because you're pouring all your time into these holes? Time with your child or family? Learning to make the music or art which really touches your fellow humans? Time for your side hustle which will get you some real freedom from the daily grind? Time spent learning a skill, discipline, profession, or domain, for fun or profit or both?

Because it's not five minutes. It's five minutes, plus five minutes, plus five minutes, plus five minutes... you get the idea.

Find what IA is stealing from you, and take using information that seriously.

Consume thoughtfully

Your task is difficult, but simple. Become aware of your informational diet, develop and assert control over your consumptive habits, and hold yourself to a high standard.

Examine both quality and quantity. Reject information which exploits your biases, and control how much information you consume overall.

Quality matters

If your relationship with food is good, treat information which exploits your flaws the same as cheap takeaways. (If it's not, pick something else!) It's fun and easy and pleasant, but the only way to include it in a healthy diet is in moderation.

The really key step to take here is to start evaluating the quality of each information-chunk you engage with.

Quantity matters

Taking in way too much overall is really what damages experiential sensitivity and causes attention fragmentation. Treat each day as if you have a finite budget of "brain on time", and then make intentional choices each time you interact with information. When you choose to engage, do it with your full and undivided attention.

In each interaction, ask: "Is this worth what it asks of my limited budget?"

Know your flaws; know their tools

You've done a lot of the work by reading the previous sections. Being aware of the mechanisms equips you psychologically to reject manipulation.

Constant vigilance

Your ongoing task is to look for those patterns, and appeals to those flaws, in every information faucet you interact with, and to avoid interacting with destructive faucets.

You also need to practice internal vigilance, as the best way to recognise IA is often by noticing irrationally emotional or impulsive behaviour in yourself and looking for its source.

It might be helpful to review the list of biases. Anything appealing to one or more of your biases is unhealthy. Obviously, this property exists on a continuum, and you're still allowed to have fun.

Be intentional

One of the most powerful tools in your arsenal, which is indispensable when you need to interact with an IA source, is intentionality. This is simply going in with a clear and specific objective. Tell yourself what it is - out loud, even - before you open the app or website.

Examples:

Make sure you keep your objective in mind the entire time you use the IA source. Once you've achieved it, put down the needle phone immediately.

This completely reframes the interaction from "lead me down a rabbit-hole" to "do something specific for me". It gives the power back to you. It will, over time, improve your sense of agency, making you less of a passive consumer and more of an active agent.

In general, if you open the app or site to have things shown to you (scroll through a feed), it's bad. Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and Pinterest are all guilty. If however you open the app with the clear intention to do something specific (calculate a sum, translate a phrase, learn a language, draw a picture) it's probably fine. This browse vs. search intentionality distinction is very useful. Try to examine your own motivations with each IA faucet you visit.

Develop impulse control

Impulse control is a strange skill. I know people who have no trouble dieting but are far-gone information addicts, and vice-versa. I think a lot of it comes down to how strongly the drug affects you.

Some people will be able to improve their usage from the perspective offered here. Others need something more direct.

The Addictive Voice model

My favourite tool in asserting impulse control is something called AVRT, or Addictive Voice Recognition Technique. I urge you to visit their website and complete the free course. It has zero woo.

Here are the main points:

You are now immune to your addiction of choice.

AVRT was designed for simpler drugs, so fitting it to IA is tricky. You will probably need to consume information from dangerous faucets again.

You might need to learn to draw a subtler line in the sand, and to understand yourself well enough to notice when your information consumption moves from healthy to damaging.

If you do use IA sources which you can afford to stop using completely (that is to say, your income or social well-being doesn't rely on them), consider using AVRT to stop using them, one by one.

Decide what's OK

Before you can try to exercise impulse control, you need to decide specifically what that means. Vague feelings of guilt or anxiety are a complete waste of energy.

You need an exhaustive, specific plan.

Maybe you want to stop using unhealthy information right now. Maybe cold-turkey sounds a little harsh and you want to allow yourself two Insta binges each day, and to catch up with Facebook twice a week. Maybe you're mostly fine with how you use information, but you want to max out your social media time at one hour a day. Sounds good! Pick something that works for you, and then write it down.

I have found in my own IA treatment that hard time-blocks work really well for me. I pick short, specific periods during which I can use any IA source as much as I like, which helps me avoid the missing-out aspect. Outside those periods I don't touch them.

You may struggle at first to recognise certain behaviours as addiction-driven. Make sure that you remain alert, and add constraints to your plan as you discover the need for them.

A great way to discover whether something is good for you is how it makes you feel. It's a lot simpler and more direct than analysing it against the list of flaws, and it usually comes to the same conclusion. The essential point here is to reflect on how it makes you feel both while you're using it and after you've stopped using it. Is the rush worth the regret?

Constantly self-evaluate

How are you doing? Consider keeping a log of every time you use a dangerous IA source so that you have a good idea of your own usage patterns. Be honest. Include your intentions going in (were you looking up a specific event, or just browsing?), how long you used it for, and how you felt before and after using it.

Is your behaviour in line with the plan you set out? Don't beat yourself up if you lapse, but figure out how to make sure that it doesn't happen again. You may need to tweak your plan if you keep lapsing: you may have curtailed your habits too aggressively. Gently tapering usage can be more effective than quitting altogether. Figure out what works best for you.

Keep tracking your behaviour, changing your behaviour and checking on your behaviour until you are where you want to be.

Be patient with yourself

Understand your position

You might be deep in the addiction at the moment. If the idea of only thirty minutes of screen time in a day sounds scary, alien or naïve, remember that your perspective is that of the using junkie: wildly skewed. Each day spent dismantling your IA will change that perspective.

Time is your ally

Changing a habit takes time. There's very little way around this. If you can understand the shape of your addiction and move away from it a little each day, your victory is already secure. It's just in the future.

Also, re-read resources (like this one) about IA occasionally until you're free. Our minds are really vulnerable to fond of repetition.

Don't give up

Be relentless.

The basic human state is incompetence. If you've never done something before, you're more than likely to be terrible at it.

This is completely fine. Your superpower is the ability to adapt and grow. Greet failure with reflection - it's an opportunity to grow - and satisfaction that you're making progress.

Fail enough and you must succeed.

Forgive yourself

It's really tempting to lose yourself in a spiral of self-pity or self-loathing if you do badly, especially if you've had a bad run recently. Try to avoid the temptation. It'll just make you feel worse a month later when you haven't made any progress.

If you are struggling, please talk to a friend or a professional. There is no shame in it.

Phases of information health

These don't apply to everyone; they describe a broad, common arc. Don't panic if you don't follow it.

Make your tech human-friendly

This is easier to do if you're a techie. My aim is to develop simple, visual guides to using these.

The goal here is to make it hard for your addictions to get at your flaws via your tech, making quitting easier. None of these aids will solve IA for you. The idea is to allow your higher brain time to kick in before diving down a rabbit-hole.

Avoid bad habits

These will appeal to you in varying degrees. They're all invaluable.

Many of them are learning crutches - for example, keeping your phone far away from you isn't strictly necessary once you've moved past the urge to check it frequently.

Embrace good habits

I view these seemingly-unrelated-to-IA habits as non-negotiable in mitigating IA. I am dramatically less happy and clearheaded when I drop the ball on any one of them, and I look back on the depths of my IA, in which I ignored all of them, in mild wonder that I kept on plodding.

Get them right and your state of mind will amaze you. Seriously. Even if the benefits look dubious from where you're standing, consider simply committing to them for a week (a month is better) to get a fair impression of what the effects are.

Fill your newly-free time

If you're bored and idle, you will slip back into IA easily. We humans love doing stuff. Do some cool stuff. Hell, make a habit of doing cool stuff.

Beware the screen-reliant items I've recommended here. Make sure to always minimize screen time where possible. Ultimately, non-screen activities should make up the majority of your stuff-doing - moving towards that goal in small increments is how to get there.

If you participate in communities of any kind, keep the biases in mind and stay away from nastiness - online communities are particularly prone to collapsing into factionalism and hostility. You don't need it.

Also, I'm a nerd. Maybe your ideal healthy hobby-list has a lot more sports on it. Please substitute my suggestions vigorously if they don't look appealing.

Recovery is personal

People are extremely varied, as are the sources of IA in life. I've tried to cover a wide enough breadth of examples in this write-up to resonate with a lot of people, but you are the only one who knows yourself well enough to think properly about your situation.

Understand the patterns and use them to think clearly and broadly about your life - especially the facets which consume most of your time - and decide if any of your information-facing behaviour is unhealthy.

Outlook is everything

I'm straying into woo here. Secure your valuables. This tangent is included because you need to get excited about your future and about the things you can learn, achieve, make, help with, and master. The most insidious flavour of addiction is recognising it and accepting it with a shrug. You're worth more than running in tiny circles until you die. None of us are getting out of this alive. Stop taking everything so seriously and go and have fun - the satisfying kind.

Optimism is the single most potent empowering agent for the human mind. Nurturing its flame is a delicate art, but once it gets going it fuels you in ways which are difficult to explain to non-believers. The belief that positive outcomes can and do happen, and are worth striving towards, imbues the human experience with colour and possibility and magic. It also creates a positive feedback loop where those outcomes actually do happen more often, because you've included them in your worldview.

The other half of the equation is agency. If you believe that you can do something, you can. Do you have the power to influence the shape of your life and the world around you? If don't believe you do, you need to bootstrap yourself into believing you do. Unless you are an illiterate, mute subsistence farmer, you have some agency, and it goes way further than you think. You need to explore the opportunities that that agency grants you.

Everything in moderation...

...including moderation.

Going IA cold-turkey will make you a social pariah. Movies with friends are fantastic social glue. Many people only announce events on Facebook or WhatsApp. And a lot of honest human creativity goes into a lot of the monstrosities keening for our gaze.

This is a very individual thing, but generally, if you try to turn into a monk overnight, you will give up on giving it up quickly. Information is great and it can enrich your life immensely. I urge you to simply reflect on the quantity and quality of it you consume. Don't think in absolutes, and be kind to yourself.

I present a direction to travel in. You will know when you need to go further, when you need to pull back, and when you've found balance. Just make sure you're listening to you, and not the insatiable monkey on your back.