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The Trap of the Content Machine and How to Escape It

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at GWU chapter.

More often than not, I find myself unable to escape the endless thumbed journey down my phone screen. My finger scrolls on and on, no sooner to approaching the end of my feed than I was four hours ago. I know it’s addicting, but I just can’t stop. So I wonder: what is this phenomenon? Why do I do it? And what can I do to quell it?

mindless media consumption

Mindless media consumption is quickly becoming the greatest thief of our time, attention, and energy, the highwayman of an everlasting internet landscape. When we mindlessly consume media, we don’t take care to think about what it is we’re consuming — we simply absorb momentary information and move on with our lives. That content was only relevant for the few short seconds or milliseconds that it graced our screen. As the moment passes, so too does the impact of that content. The compulsion to keep scrolling regardless of the better, more productive things we could be doing takes control of our pacing thumbs and, thus, our minds. 

But why do we find it so difficult to look away, to close the app, to turn off the show? During the day, especially for those of us who work long hours or attend school and must keep our brains active and engaged, we expel most of the mental – and often physical – energy we are able to use for the day. Once we get home for the night, we no longer want to use the precious reserves of that limited resource — energy — in our entertainment. This is understandable; after all, we must work hard to play hard.

But therein lies the problem: we are no longer playing hard. Instead, our time is spent thoughtlessly ingesting endless media as frequently as our algorithms are able to make it pop up on our screens. Nothing we consume is meaningful or impactful on our lives as a whole, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be. However, in order to challenge the urgency we feel to keep scrolling, watching, viewing, consuming, we must rethink how we’re absorbing the excess of media hurled our way.

Changing one’s behaviors regarding media consumption is a lot like a diet: the only diets that are successful do not involve cutting out every single unhealthy thing one eats, but they instead consist of implementing healthier habits that establish patterns of behavior that contribute to improved overall health. Therefore, while we could completely rid ourselves of the instant gratification that is mindless media consumption, we should instead focus on practicing the habits of mindful media consumption when we can.

Mindful media consumption

Mindful media consumption aims to partially solve the problems that mindless media consumption generates. Instead of mindlessly consuming the perfectly-calibrated algorithmic content that your social networks develop for you, mindful media consumption focuses on placing value onto the media that you’re consuming, giving it meaning and impact. If we put effort into being aware of what it is we’re viewing, this cognizance will have a ripple effect on the rest of the media we consume that may continue to be mindless — our modern lives often make this unavoidable to some extent.

Increasing our mindfulness sounds easier said than done, so how does one amplify the attention they pay to the media they consume? On the smallest scale, one can begin the gradual process of rewiring the neural pathways of media addiction by staggering how often they watch television shows. Having access to even just one streaming service makes binge-watching extremely accessible, and this poses a threat to carefully and mindfully consuming any given television show. To alter the process of addictive binge-watching, one can start by watching television episodes as they were intended to be consumed: weekly.

Watching episodes a week apart does several things to aid in mindful consumption. Firstly, you give yourself an entire week to analyze, comprehend, and appreciate the episode. You can enhance the experience through a multitude of methods, including discussing the episode with friends and family to broaden your understanding or listening to podcasts about the show to hear about others’ thoughts as well as potentially hear from a creator’s perspective.

Being away at college has made consistently connecting with my family members who are a country away from me difficult, but our communal engagement in mindful and collaborative media consumption has allowed us to find that connection in new ways. For instance, my sister, mother, and I have been watching The Last of Us each Sunday when it releases on HBO Max. On Monday, we have a group FaceTime to discuss the episode in depth, comparing our favorite characters and storylines. Next, we listen to the after-show podcast in the following days to generate an even deeper understanding of the episode. (My mother has this to say about it: “Listening to the podcast gives me goosebumps! I get to relive the scenes and appreciate them in a whole new way.”) In short, we take the week after the episode airs to spend time with it, expanding our appreciation for both the media we are consuming mindfully and the relationships we are strengthening.

Mindless media consumption is an abyss that the content-producing machine pushes us into. Our technologically-adjacent and often -reliant lives often make mindless media consumption inevitable, its negative effects always in tow. However, the technological resources at our disposal also make mindful media consumption a worthwhile investment. Both the breadth and depth of content we have access to is a blessing and a curse; it is simply up to us to determine which one we want it to become.

Molly is a freshman at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. She is pursuing a bachelor's degree in Communication and enjoys writing opinion pieces on cultural trends in media and pop culture.