Let’s talk about digital toxicity and let's get right to the point.
There is a battle raging in the world right under your nose and the scars that it leaves are in some cases subtle and others extreme. It is insidious and spreads from the deepest recesses of your Self to the furthest reaches of the human world. And it’s not going away.
Is all of the digital world bad? No.
Is it safe to ignore? Not in the slightest.
You might find this a bit dramatic, but now I have your attention either way. Let’s talk about the Five forms of Digital Toxicity.
In this case we’re talking about ‘screens’ in the colloquial sense that the word stands as a placeholder for all of the interactive layers of the digital world. It is the screen, the keyboard, the flashy sign, the bright city lights, and the vibrantly colored pamphlets designed in photoshop. It is not only the bright lights of the LCD but the technicolor artifacts that are rendered at breakneck speed to be plastered everywhere. Gone are the days of store signs that are hand cut and painted, now anyone can be a master with the 4k color brush.
Exposure Toxicity is real and it’s sneaky. It toys with your dopamine system and leaves you wanting more. it entraps your attention and narrows your awareness because when a company can throw an ad straight into your eyeballs with 2 second scene cuts and all the bells and whistles you must put all of your attention on that (often) small square of reality or miss something -which they’ve made sure to convince you would be very bad.
I’ve found that Exposure Toxicity has a range of symptoms and damages, most of which you’re familiar with, ranging from simple bleary eyes to full blown dopamine capture, but there’s an unseen danger at play: transpersonal disassociation. Don’t bother looking that up I’m combining the two concepts as I type but I’ll lay it out for you:
Transpersonal Disassociation is when a person becomes disconnected and out of sync with themselves in a way that moves their point of perspective outside of themselves. Enough Exposure Toxicity and people actually begin to experience their life as if observing someone doing it. So much time ‘in the screens’, blasted with perfectly edited imagery and they start to review their choices and actions as if from the 3rd person. However, this is usually very subtle, and from the inside feels more akin to being on auto-pilot or losing track of time. The constant exposure to digital media drags us by our nostrils through the day -day after day- until we disassociate from ourselves.
Now we’re talking about the sheer volume of it. Literal noise and measurable quantity. Information Overload is the name of the game here and it is exponentially growing with the advent and mass adoption of LLMs, Image AIs, and all manner of automated content regurgitators. We’re dealing with a dearth of things to look at and not enough time to do it which creates a sort of Consumption Gluttony.
It’s not about what you consume from the digital cornucopia so much as how much. Inundation creates a condition of simply keeping up with the Jones and has a number of expressions you’re almost certainly familiar with, and probably have yourself had a run in with, such as absentminded scrolling. The reason for this is our social-by-nature baseline. We have not, in the history of the human species and its ancestors, needed to do much info-filtering. Sure, when you’re on a hunt you get a bit of that tunnel vision so that you can focus on the gazelle and feed the tribe but that is short lived and particular in application.
This gluttony spins out of control because the information comes so fast we don’t have time to sort it and consume, and we surely don’t want to be left out... Which leads me to the 3rd toxicity:
Now we’re talking about the quality of that information deluge, and it’s not looking good. With the aforementioned AI toolsets it’s not only a matter of content being created faster but of the quality going down equally fast. As my first goldsmith instructor in the real world used to say, ‘ You can have it fast, you can have it quality, or you can have it cheap, you can even have two of the three, but you can’t have them all, and quite frankly if you think you can, you can go somewhere else.’
Problem is there isn’t anywhere else to go. Digital toxicity is everywhere because everything is going digital. And with automation AIs pointed at profit margins it’s not about quality or value or even truth, but about the actions they can get people to take with the right words in the right color in the right place. Information content across most of the internet has devolved into a battle of who can trigger responses from readers and for that it takes almost no accuracy. This includes not only social media content but ads and junk blogs, to name a few.
But with that number two toxicity in play this becomes a spiral to the bottom because if you don’t have time to filter out what to read you surely don’t have the capacity to filter the out the blatantly false or useless.
Up until now we’ve focused on the content and delivery of Digital Toxicity but now we look to the final two types that exist not in front of you but within you.
Conformity Toxicity is the ceaseless presence of the previous toxicities in the digital space when it creates an unholy alliance with social pressure. The first three toxicities wear down our defenses and our sensemaking so that what’s left is an overworked, over-stimulated, disassociated monkey that just wants to belong somewhere. This creates a condition I refer to as ‘perceptual anxiousness’, a sort of ADHD of perception in which a person isn’t exactly sure what to believe and so stops having original world-view creating thoughts all together. With all bandwidth expended navigating the screens themselves only to find a wasteland of too much garbage, the part of us that wants to belong and sees all the other monkeys already inside starts grasping desperately at anything that feels like solid social ground.
Same videos, same likes, same aesthetic, same word choice, same search history. When Conformity Toxicity hits, the natural habitual mechanism kicks in and we find ourselves chasing whatever everyone else is doing in a last ditch effort to not get left behind, not realizing that we should have left behind this toxic digital together ages ago. Conformity causes a person to lose track of what they would be doing with their time and energy if they hadn’t been body slammed in the first place and as a result drives us into grouped patterns of activity, which of course drives us like cattle back into the clutches of the same industries creating Inundation and Degradation by the boatload. A vicious spiral develops, which leads to the fifth toxicity.
reflection Toxicity is when the damage really starts to leave a mark. This is where self image is affected and the very fiber of a person’s being is impacted because after all of that wear and tear, including a mad dash to keep up with everyone else, the sense of self begins to warp to match.
This is actually a natural (and good) mechanism of adaptation in that the ones that survive the wild are usually the ones that can get into the groove with the environment and what must be done, including keeping up with whatever the tribe is into. But in the Digital world it becomes toxic because hypernormal stimulation leaves us with an environment that constantly changes. The result: distortion by disembodiment.
Reflection Toxicity is the sense of self mirroring the madness of the four previous Toxic states until what was once whole, aligned, and clear with good integrity is now completely beside itself and crooked seven ways from sunday.
If you’re getting hit with all five your biology is lying to you about what it needs while your psyche struggles to make sense of the garbage heap in front of you and you may not even know what you like because you’ve been so busy unconsciously tracking what everyone else likes, which, spoiler alert, they aren’t even sure they like either. Now you can’t tell your ass end from a tea kettle and the you that you’re here to be, often fighting for through every life lesson, is lost and confused.
If you notice these symptoms, some or all, fear not because you don’t need to smash your phone and burn your laptop to escape, though it would certainly help.
Each toxicity has a counterbalance action you can take to flip the scale, and if you’ve found yourself juggling the effects of number four and five, I’d encourage you to take a few days detox at minimum.
1, To counter Exposure Toxicity you will need Time.
This is as simple as it sounds. Screens are the devil here so take some time without screens. The deeper the biological addiction the more time you must take. This may also need to include time from anywhere that is over-done with flashy lights and signs. I find it useful to go into the woods with a book.
The amount of time is anyone’s guess and ultimately very personal to your unique biology, chemistry, and exposure, though I expect a Huberman podcast about the appropriate detox period. Bottom line: if it feels boring you’re probably doing it right. Exposure Toxicity is a dopamine explosion and as a result your baseline is off. Boredom means you’re below the threshold you’ve habituated as “normal” and that’s the right direction.
2, To counter Inundation Toxicity you will need Presence.
Sounds simple because it is but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. To activate Presence you’re looking to drop into the moment with yourself and throttle back the rate of information flow you’re used to. You must literally re-calibrate to an expectation of less information where you’ve previously been trying to keep up with more and more.
Go for a walk. Smell the roses. Notice the sensations of your body as you walk slowly across the grass. There are a million ways to work into Presence but suffice to say the simpler the better.
3, To counter Degradation Toxicity you will need Distance.
As they say, you can’t fix stupid, and the same goes for garbage quality information. It isn’t going to be useful in some way or another except as a cautionary tale so the best thing you can do is walk away. Remove yourself from the blast of low quality information entirely and let your system get used to tracking what is Real and what is Good. This often means actual time, in physical space, with good people. If you’re an introvert you can trade the people for animals and reliable quality books but you get the idea. Stop exposing yourself to garbage data and instead replace it with things you cherish that add to the quality of your life and worldview. Less is more in this case so don’t overdo it.
4, To counter Conformity Toxicity you will need Orientation.
Just as Conformity Toxicity occurs mostly within you, so does Orientation. In this case we’re speaking about a sort of inner compass of the self that points to what you like, what you prefer, what you think, and what you want to pay attention to. It’s the little alarm in your mind that informs you when something is meaningful and equally so when something isn’t actually yours. Think of it as getting to know yourself again, and in this case a journal is often the easiest way to get there, but feel free to combine this with Presence and chat about it with an actually trusted friend for a double action repair process.
5, To counter Reflection Toxicity you will need Honesty.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a hippy circle about feelings because remember, the fifth toxicity is within you and so the counter active fix is also inside yourself. In this case we’re talking about getting back to baseline accuracy about who, what, and how we actually are. It is said that social media has created a historic level of self-confidence issues in both men and women and that’s because of Reflection Toxicity. Your mission here is to breathe realism and accuracy back into your sense of self, not based on what you saw online or what social media would lead you to believe but based on what’s right in front of you. The goal is to flip the distortion of your self image by Digital Toxicity on its head and track back to what is real about you. This can be the trickiest to reverse but the results are worth it.
From here, you’re in the territory of upkeep.
How much repair you must do is based entirely on how much damage you took, but if you dive right back into the digital soup after a few days of Detox, you’ll probably find yourself right back where you started. The problem gets worse though because now you’ve proven to yourself in some unconscious way that ‘it can’t be fixed’. We both know that’s not true but your subconscious only sees that you were toxified, you detoxed, and you got toxified all over again.
For this reason you’ll want to establish regular detox protocols for daily use and some longer detox breaks along the way. You’ll notice I kept the counter fixes simple so that you could apply them to whatever method you want to use. Time, Presence, and Distance can easily be taken regularly throughout the days and weeks to reduce the toxic load you take on and slow down the wear and tear.
Orientation on the other hand is best distilled into principled toolsets. These might look like platitudes but they’ll be unique to you. For example, one of my Orientation points is “rushing is a flag for trauma response”. It reminds me that in my particular case, and probably many peoples’, when I am rushing it’s a response to a trauma that I’ve had in the past and often (never?) serves no purpose except to make me hasty and sloppy.
Lastly, Honesty is a skill you build by regularly asking yourself, ‘What is real here? What is true? What actually is?’, and answering it... honestly. It’s a practice of radical directness with yourself. Over time you’ll build some immunity to Reflective Toxicity, and it has the added benefit of building internal self confidence as well. When we get to know ourselves without distortion, and continue to show up to life, we begin to appreciate who we actually are more and more. Take advantage of this to build your resilience to all forms of self image distortion.
And that’s that. No fanfare needed, no grand finale required. You’re probably getting body slammed by Digital Toxicity right now. Take a break. Put your feet in the dirt. Slow down. Get bored. Ask questions and answer honestly.
The world needs you whole and effectively. Hop to it.
-Kedrik Winter Wolf
Kedrik Winter Wolf