Software and Computer Engineering

Reflecting on Time Spent Unintentionally on the Internet

I get a weekly report from my phone about how much time I spend on it (it's called Digital Wellbeing on Android). This past week, I've spent an average of 5 hours per day at the screen. The most used apps are YouTube, for a total of 10 hours last week, and Chrome for a total of 9 hours.

With this information in hand, I'm asking myself how much of this time was intentional time, meaning that I actively chose to watch or read whatever I was consuming, and looking back to it whether that time spent felt enjoyable and well spent.

When time is well-spent

Now listen, I have no issue with having spent time watching or reading what I genuinely enjoy, as those experiences help shape how I do things in life, particularly in regard to computer technology and other hobbies.

As an example, from the “Explaining Computers” channel, I've learned the differences between the capabilities of HDMI and DisplayPort, what the little thunder symbol on a USB-C port means (it's Thunderbolt).

It happened that my work computer was unable to drive a 4K monitor at 60 frames per second with an HDMI cable from its built-in HDMI port but, with this information, I bought a USB-C Thunderbolt to DisplayPort cable which allowed me to use that monitor in just the way I wanted.

Learning that and having a deeper understanding unlocked a solution that was in plain sight (as I have mostly ignored the Thunderbolt symbol and DisplayPorts up to that day, despite those being available to me in a variety of devices).

When time is poorly spent

What I have an issue with is unintentional time. How often do we come out of a internet surfing session and we feel that it was unrewarding, or then we can't even recall what we were doing for the past hour or so? Much like gamblers in a slot machine at a casino, we are rewarded at random times, but then we stick around for longer than we intend to.

This is no accident. All major modern content platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, serve content algorithmically. The experience you have in those applications is deeply tailored to you and designed to be as engaging as possible. The metric that those companies work very hard to optimize is how much time you spend on their platforms.

This is because having your attention for longer means more monetization opportunity as, while you are hooked, you can be shown ads. Advertisers can then target ads according to your interests at an open auction, which is how those “free to the user” platforms generate revenue. This has been the business model for Google and Facebook, building two trillion-dollar businesses.

What can one do about this?

Coming back to you and me, how can one spend time in the internet more intentionally?

The first step is to recognize that this is happening and then reflecting whether is is desirable or not for you.

In my case, I've found that the following approach has helped me keep my unintentional internet time in check:

Instead of being a passive consumer of information, also spend time producing content, especially for your own enjoyment. Having to later explain the what you have read or watched is the surest way to check you are actively engaged with you are consuming.