“I think I’m addicted to social media.”
This descent to madness was gradual. What started with “How much harm can this do? Let me spend a few more minutes on it” turned into “I’d rather be on YouTube than hang out with her, she can’t possibly be more interesting than all these clips on my ‘Watch Later’ list”.
That toxic thought spread its tentacles to the other parts of my life too until everything I used to love and enjoy — reading that fed my brain, conversations that fed my soul, exercise that fed my body — were laid by the wayside in favour of a blue glow on my face.
Worse yet, months of spending hours chewing up whatever Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube wanted me to digest had turned me into an unfocused, demotivated, and easily irritable person.
An Experiment on Myself
It seems ridiculous at first. How do comedy skits, cat videos, memes, and posts from your friends turn you into that kind of person? It was difficult to find a convincing answer at the time because it seemed like social media addiction research was still in its infancy. People were just coming to grips with the damaging effects newsfeeds have on our brain, not just with misinformation but with prolonged and obsessive use as well.
I decided to do two things — educate myself about what I was doing to my brain with social media and experiment on myself by quitting it, cold turkey, for 6 months and closely observing the resulting behavioural changes.
I started by informing my friends that I wasn’t going to be using social media for a while, deleting all of the apps on my phone, and changing their passwords to long obscure ones filled with random characters that I would never be able to remember.
And then I waited.
Twitchy Fingers, Twitchy Mind
The first thing I observed was that I didn’t know what to do with my hands anymore. I would grab my phone, turn it on, look through my apps, and turn it back off. I’d do this constantly knowing fully well I didn’t have any more social apps to go on and that I wasn’t allowed to reinstall them.
I felt like I just needed to scroll for some reason.
Have you ever wondered why every successful social media platform has an endless newsfeed of content? Have you ever wondered why all of them allow you to refresh their newsfeeds by swiping down from the top of your screen?
Social media is engineered for addiction. If you’ve watched The Social Dilemma (and I highly recommend you do) you know this already. It’s based on the same design principles as a slot machine at a casino.
The Social Dilemma (2020)
We tweet, we like, and we share--but what are the consequences of our growing dependence on social media? As digital…
Just like gamblers are addicted to pulling a lever because the next pull might result in a prize, so was I with scrolling through newsfeeds because the next scroll might result in a video, image, or article that I’d find entertaining. When the first twenty or so posts were things I didn’t find interesting, I’d scroll back up to the top and pull the lever to refresh it, desperately hoping that something in this new list would give me my much-needed dopamine rush.
So for the first few weeks after quitting, I felt worse. A lack of constant surges of dopamine worsened my mood.
The Thief of Joy
The next thing I observed was the occasional urge to see what someone was up to. Somebody’s name would pop into my mind and I’d want to see where they were, how they were feeling, and what they had done.
After meditating on these urges I realized that when I used to do this, I would consciously or subconsciously compare myself, my circumstances, and my achievements to theirs. This always, without fail, led to a feeling of inadequacy.
As I scrolled through the posts of my friends — their happy moments, their promotions, their wonderful holidays, their master’s degrees and everything else — in my mind, the highlights of their different lives were combined and transformed into a timeline of a single high-achieving individual. In other words, the names on the posts began to blur and it felt like all of these incredible moments had been posted by a single person whom I couldn’t dream of measuring up to.
Inadequacy results in a self-blame game. You punch yourself for every decision you’ve made that didn’t result in a similar life. You completely disregard the fact that these are the highlights of different people’s lives and highlights by nature are rare occasions with large gaps in time between them where nothing but hard work is done.
You treat yourself unfairly. Forgetting the circumstances you were in and what you thought was right at the time. Disregarding all of the hard work that led to your achievements no matter how small. Failing to remember the wonderful holidays you’ve had and the beautiful moments you’ve shared with your friends.
Contrary to what you might think, these feelings never motivated me to change things because there was always someone out there who had done more and had done better. Constant comparison is the thief of joy.
Escaping a Fishbowl
One or two months into the experiment I began to notice that my attention span had grown and my focus had sharpened. I was now able to read for longer and watch lengthy videos without itching to move on to the next thing. Perhaps the best part of this was being able to pay greater attention to people during conversations and not have my mind drift off.
There’s an awful lot of truth behind the joke that people have the attention span of goldfish when they’re on social media (ironically goldfish now have longer attention spans than humans). The problem is that it carries forward to the other areas of their life as well.
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The majority of content on these platforms is short in duration. In fact, when it comes to advertising it’s what the experts recommend — short-form content of not more than a minute or so. When you’re on social media flipping through these posts, you’re training your brain to focus on a topic for minutes at a time before distracting it with another topic.
You have only one brain that’s affected by what stimulates it. So when you’re at work, it gradually becomes tougher to flesh out that presentation or write those lines of code without losing focus. It becomes hard to do “Deep Work”. The kind of work that requires a long period of unbroken focus. The kind of work that has the most economic value.
In a TEDx talk titled “Quit Social Media”, Dr. Cal Newport, Author and Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, speaks about what the market values most in the 21st century:
“If you produce something that’s rare and valuable, the market will value that. What the market dismisses, for the most part, are activities that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value.
Well, social media use is the epitome of an easy to replicate activity that doesn’t produce a lot of value; it’s something that any six-year-old with a smartphone can do. By definition, the market is not going to give a lot of value to those behaviours. It’s instead going to reward the deep, concentrated work required to build real skills and to apply those skills to produce things — like a craftsman — that are rare and that are valuable.
To put it another way: if you can write an elegant algorithm, if you can write a legal brief that can change a case, if you can write a thousand words of prose that’s going to fixate a reader right to the end; if you can look at a sea of ambiguous data and apply statistics, and pull out insights that could transform a business strategy, if you can do these type of activities which require deep work, that produce outcomes that are rare and valuable, people will find you. You will be able to write your own ticket, and build the foundation of a meaningful and successful professional life, regardless of how many Instagram followers you have.”
Pop The Bubble
The experiment had made me a lot calmer and far less easily irritable than I was before. I sincerely believe that this was a direct product of not being outraged every other day by something on somebody’s timeline.
The content recommendation algorithms on any platform are quite predictable. Very few people know precisely how they work but we all know that if we watch a few videos on a certain topic, we can expect to be bombarded with similar videos in the future.
So if you tend to engage with content that irks you, the algorithms will keep serving you similar pieces of content because they want you to engage as much as possible, and you’re going to be constantly outraged.
This isn’t meant to imply that you should avoid news and discussions like the plague. There are events, clear cases of injustice, that deserve public (or even worldwide) outrage and discourse. I just realized I have to be smart about what I spend my energy on. There’s no point raging about everything that happens halfway around the world if my own house, network, community, and country isn’t in order.
What frightens me the most is that you can stumble into an echo chamber on social media and not even know you’re in one. It starts with a single piece of content, then something similar as the algorithm tries to keep you on the platform (hardly ever an opposing or balanced opinion because that might lead you away), and this goes on until much of your newsfeed is dedicated to the topic, and your ideologies and perceptions have shifted as well.
You’ve given a company, its algorithm, and those who influence it, control of your mind.
Impressive but Superficial
The most rewarding outcome of the experiment was that my day-to-day interactions with people had begun to feel more genuine. By insisting on meetups and phone calls over likes and comments, I found it so much easier to open up to people and in turn rediscovered my love for having long conversations — the ones that bounce from topic to topic and make the hours fly by. Since my focus had improved and I was less inclined to keep glancing at my phone, I was able to give people the attention they deserved and most importantly, enjoy their presence.
Many interactions on social media are geared towards impressing people (I’m looking at you Instagram). We spend an awful lot of time on our online personality, thinking of the right thing to say or the best image to post, so we’re perceived as how we’d like to be perceived — strong, beautiful, funny, or intellectual. You certainly don’t want people to think you’re boring, dry and weak.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t lead to a genuine connection or friendship. Think about the people you call your closest friends. They haven’t only seen your good and impressive side. They’ve also been angered by you. They’ve seen you cry. They’ve seen you act irrationally. They’ve been (accidentally) hurt by you and yet they’ve remained your friends because they’ve accepted your flaws and they chose to forgive your moments of weakness.
Friendships are formed when we display our vulnerabilities to another person and trust that they will not take advantage of them.
Alain De Botton, a philosopher and the founder of the School of Life, in a recent Flow Session with Jason Silva said it best:
“All genuine friendship begins the moment we take down the mask and we go “I’m suffering, this is difficult for me”. Every time that you trade with somebody a piece of information that puts you in a vulnerable position and departs from the script that we’re all given about what a successful life is, that’s friendship.
It’s such an irony we spend so much of our energy trying to impress others when really what we need is a sense of communion with others which is not based on impressing them. To impress another person is also to shut them off, it’s to close off our humanity from theirs. And so our success-oriented culture is fundamentally unlinked with our emotional aspirations to connect with other humans.”
Walking the Middle Path
My experiment ended two years ago and despite all of the above, it didn’t end with me deleting my social media accounts. I certainly don’t use it as often and I take very frequent long breaks but I don’t preach abandoning it either.
It is, after all, a great way to get in touch with old friends, help people in need, or find people with similar hobbies and interests. It has given the voiceless a platform, brought about awareness of important issues, and allows businesses to promote themselves and grow.
So the answer to living with it is simple but very difficult to practice: moderation. To help you with this, here’s a list of things I’ve done and continue to do that you might find helpful:
- App Timers — Use Digital Wellbeing for Android or Screen Time for iOS to keep track of, and set daily limits on, your social media app usage. Believe me, it’s shocking the first time you see “You’ve used Instagram for 2 hours today” because you never notice your patterns until they’re laid out in front of you.
- Long Passwords — Change all your passwords to very long ones (with random letters, numbers, and symbols) and store them somewhere safe. Log out of the app or website once you’re done using it so you need to fish out that long password and carefully type it in each time you want to get back on. Making it cumbersome to log in will hopefully keep you away.
- Browser Versions — Delete your social media apps and use their mobile browser versions instead. They’re clunkier and not as feature-rich. The poorer user experience is unlikely to keep you glued to it for long.
- Choose One — Do you really need to be on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and TikTok at the same time? Choose one and delete the rest so you’re less inclined to switch between apps and spend more time on your phone.
- News Aggregator — If you use social media for your daily dose of news, consider using a news aggregator such as Feedly instead. Whatever you choose, make sure it doesn’t have an endless newsfeed. There needs to be a clear end so you know when to stop and go about your day.
- Active Over Passive — Passive consumption refers to consuming content recommended by a platform. Active consumption refers to going in search of content on a subject you want to know more about. Always opt for active. Get those gears working, think of something that interests you, and dive in. Sticking to one or a few topics will improve your focus.
- Dopamine Detox — This is something I’m currently experimenting with after watching a video titled “How I tricked my brain to like doing hard things”. It’s based on the premise that because social media creates so much dopamine in our brain, our dopamine receptors now have very high tolerance levels. So just like alcoholics need a lot more alcohol to get drunk, we need to engage in more high dopamine activities to feel good. This results in us putting off low dopamine activities that are necessary for our development such as reading, writing, and learning. By spending a day a week or a few hours every day avoiding high dopamine activities and choosing to get bored instead, we can lower our dopamine tolerance and make reading or learning a lot more enjoyable. Boredom is good for us and makes us more creative and productive.
Good luck with your journey! I hope you can practice moderation, sharpen your focus, protect your thoughts, be proud of who you are, and connect better with those you love.
Social media is only one aspect of our symbiotic relationship with digital technology which we’re still largely trying to make sense of. The control of fire was mankind’s greatest invention but as much as it cooks and welds, it also burns and harms. What is digital technology’s equivalent of “don’t put your hand into the fire”? How do we wield it to its greatest potential but not be overcome by it? How do we make sure it stays an untiring servant and never becomes a cruel master?
We have a lot more thinking to do.