Editors’ note: 

David Murray has written two books to help counsel parents and teenagers on the topic of depression and teenagers. Why Am I Feeling Like This? is written for teenagers, and Why Is My Teenager Feeling Like This? is written for parents.

Calls to crisis helplines have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying lockdowns, with increases ranging from 40 percent to even 800 percent for different mental-health support groups. Conversations about mental health on social media have been increasing 750 percent month by month in the same period, anxiety being the most common problem, with teens and young adults suffering most

Pandemic lockdowns have increased anxiety catalysts such as loneliness, instability, and unpredictability. But digital-media consumption has also increased on a number of fronts, with a major uptick in social media especially. Apart from media overuse causing information overload and hyperstimulation of our brains, there’s also the mental and emotional effect of fear-filled news and social-media conflicts over how best to respond to the pandemic. When you combine these increases with decreases in exercise, sleep, social contact, money, hope, and control, we’ve got a long-term mental-health disaster on our hands.

We’ve got a long-term mental-health disaster on our hands.

While there are some factors outside our control that we can’t do anything about, we do have control in our digital-media choices. A digital detox is one solution, but many of us have tried that and experienced the “yo-yo effect” familiar to extreme dieters. It’s a radical but temporary change that reduces digital obesity for a short time before we return to bingeing again (together with its accompanying anxiety). Instead, I want to propose a digital diet for long-term mental health as one of the ways we respond to biblical injunctions to replace anxiety with peace (e.g., Matt. 6:25–34). 

Digital Calories Everywhere

A few years ago, I installed a calorie-counter app on my phone that scanned the barcode of everything I ate. I was stunned at how many calories were in different foods. It also split the calories into “good” and “bad,” which shocked me even more. The increased awareness of the number and type of calories I was consuming changed my behavior permanently.

Unfortunately, no one has yet produced an app for counting digital calories (probably because it would put most apps out of business), but we can develop a digital-calorie mindset. It involves treating every word, image, and sound as digital calories. That means every article, photo, video, podcast, and song that enters our ears and eyes contains digital calories. We’ll look at how to measure that in a moment, but just framing every use of digital media on our phones, consoles, TVs, and laptops as digital-calorie consumption will begin to change our behavior. 

Why is this calorie mindset important? Because digital calories have an outsized influence on our minds and moods.

Digital Calories Affect Us

The next step is to build awareness of the connection between digital media and our moods. We’re all familiar with the connection between food and mood, but we need to develop an awareness of the link between our media use and our thinking and feeling. 

Why is this calorie mindset important? Because digital calories have an outsized influence on our minds and moods.

As we take in digital calories, we must ask some questions: What did that post make me think? How did that movie make me feel? Did it make me feel happy, sad, angry, frustrated, cynical? How did that photo change what I thought about? How long did that digital debate last? How did watching the news change my conversation? Did social media make me more or less sociable? Were these healthy or unhealthy digital calories? Did that calorie strengthen my spirituality or weaken it?

That last question brings us to the most important question: how do I improve my digital diet, and therefore my mind and mood? 

Categorizing Our Calories

All digital media contains calories, and every digital calorie affects our thinking and feeling. So, how do we design a digital diet that tracks calories and so improves our minds and moods? Here are four factors to consider going forward:

  • Calorie classes: Divide all digital media into two columns—good or bad. No digital media is neutral; it always affects our inner health, either positively or negatively. 
  • Calorie counts: Try to estimate a calorie count for each time that digital media enters your eyes or ears. You’ll have to customize and expand this for your own circumstances and character, but here are some suggestions: YouTube video (100 calories); text message (10); social-media minute (10); social-media posts (100); social-media conflict (1000); news program (500); talk radio minute (20); podcast (200); violent movie (1000). 
  • Calorie controls: Diet science teaches that it’s best not to eat before going to bed, or that delaying breakfast for a few hours improves fat-burning, or that four to five smaller meals is better than one huge meal or snacking all day. Similar controls are needed for digital-media consumption. The longer we can delay it each day, the earlier we can disconnect, and the less one-off bingeing and non-stop snacking, the healthier and happier we’ll be.
  • Calorie caps: Even too much of a good thing can be bad for us. So, while we want the bad calorie column to be as low as possible, and we want to build up the good column with health-giving digital media, we also need to put a cap on good calories. Our brains and souls need downtime. Anxiety is an enemy of spirituality, holiness, and communion with God. Therefore we should desire to reduce it and replace it with stillness and silence. Our relationship with God will be healthier.

Mental and Spiritual Health Through a Digital Diet

As you implement your own customized digital diet, I hope you’ll begin to notice an immediate reduction in anxiety levels that will be its own immediate reward.

And eventually, you may experience such deep, durable peace and closeness to God, that you’ll never go back to digital obesity.