Over the last few weeks, there has been more attention focused on social media use and addiction.
The attention is the result of several people behind our ubiquitous social media platforms coming forward to talk about the way sites are designed and the impacts of their use.
You may have read that Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of user growth for Facebook, recently encouraged people to ditch social media. He expressed his regrets for creating tools that destroy “the social fabric of how society works,” echoing the words of Facebook investor, Sean Parker, who I mentioned in my previous article: How to tell if we’re Addicted to Social Media & How to Stop.
Today, my goal is to further encourage you to ditch social media—or to at least reduce your use of it. I offer some simple approaches that I’ve tried that will make you a better person, even if you don’t succeed. They’re applicable to anyone who seeks to change their behavior.
Although I addressed the underlying psychology of social media addiction and the health impacts in my last article, for a more thorough primer, check out the American Journal of Epidemiology, which published the results of a study on the use of Facebook titled: “Association of Facebook Use With Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study.”
Here’s what the researchers found after analyzing the data: the researchers make clear that interactions through social media are less likely to enhance human well-being, while face-to-face interactions are more likely to do so. The main finding is that those who are addicted to social media report having worse physical and mental health. The addicts are the people most likely to click “like,” as well as seeking “likes.” They’re your friends who are constantly posting and interacting on social media platforms.
Social media isn’t the only addiction afflicting Americans. These tips are applicable to the 226-million Americans addicted to watching television, averaging four to five hours each day, according to Nielsen research. That’s 70 percent of the U.S. population that’s glued to their televisions, some of whom are also on social media at the same time. Combined, Americans are spending over 15 years of the average lifespan watching TV or engaging social media.
Holy mother of Batman—no wonder Donald Trump is President of the United States! Can you imagine what might happen in people’s lives if they redirected that four to five hours of their day that they spend watching TV (or engaging social media) to learning something new or to doing any one of the many things that they say they’d like to do in their lifetime?
Addiction of any sort can be difficult to overcome, but if you really want to experience true well-being, it’s worth trying to reduce your social media consumption. And, while you’re at it, hopefully your TV consumption too.
I can attest that ditching social media (and/or your TV) will result in a completely different life. I haven’t had a TV in my home in over a decade, and I haven’t had cable in nearly two decades. When I saw those “Kill Your Television” stickers on cars, I took the message seriously. I tossed my TV in the bin at Goodwill, and my life is better for it.
Although most people would say that their individual well-being is important to them, they continue to do things that don’t contribute to their well-being. People’s true preferences are revealed when we assess what people actually do versus what they say they want to do. In economics, the theory behind this approach is called revealed preference theory and seeks to analyze the choices people make—what they actually do against what they say they want to do—by tracking their purchasing and consumption habits, including social media consumption.
For example, someone might say: I don’t want to use social media anymore.
A behavioral economist using revealed preference theory would then track this individual’s actual behavior against their ideal to stop using social media. They’d track this person’s actual social media use, and then analyze the results to determine if they’re doing it less. If they haven’t changed their behavior, the results would reveal that this individual doesn’t actually want to quit using social media, because their actions do not reflect that they’re doing anything consistent with what they said; that’s their revealed preference.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a behavioral economist to use revealed preference theory. You can use a crude rendition of this theory by keeping notes that track your desired goals against what you actually do each day. Often, by bringing your attention to how much you’re actually doing something like using social media, you can begin to see whether or not you’re getting any closer to your desired goal.
Next time that you turn on the TV or open up social media on your phone or computer, make a note when you start and stop. Do this for 30 days to see how much time you’ve spent over the last month using social media, watching TV, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or whatever activities there are that keep you from living your truth.
If you have a difficult time making changes in your life, bringing attention to the reality of what you’re doing can motivate you.
It’ll help you to start taking actions to change your behavior too, especially if you can track the results and see your progress, even if incremental. I did this exercise when I quit alcohol, coffee, and sugar simultaneously for several months to see if I was addicted to them, and what would happen if I quit them cold turkey.
Because I quit all three at the same time, I had no idea what I actually craved when I craved one of them, so I was less likely to gravitate toward any one of these vices. I basically tricked myself by confusing myself as to which vice I wanted in that moment.
The next step was the most powerful step during my process. When I craved something or when the thought of one of these vices arose, I simply wrote it down in my journal. I also wrote how I felt in that moment.
If you’d like to read coffee entries that are on the verge of pornographic, read my entries about craving coffee during this experiment. I had no idea that I needed help when it came to coffee; I was only one cup away from a fetish, but I took a stab at comedy instead. My point is that writing it down can make it crystal clear as to where you stand in relation to your vice, and it allows you to leapfrog over our natural tendency to deny our reality in the face of evidence that contradicts our desires.
During the experiment, I also noticed that bringing my attention to the cravings and writing about them acted as a catharsis. It gave me something to do in the moment that I wanted to reach for the vice. Instead of turning toward one of my vices, I turned toward writing instead. At first, I was constantly writing entries, but then I noticed that I began to write less and less as I continued to stay free from alcohol, sugar, and coffee. Eventually, I wasn’t writing at all, and I wasn’t consuming alcohol, sugar, or coffee either.
Personally, I love learning, so the next step that I took was to use my interest to read up on addiction to coffee, sugar, and alcohol. I wanted to be more informed, which was super helpful, because I was able to understand how the chemicals in each affect my body and psychology to keep me coming back to them. We can apply the same strategy to social media addiction by reading up on the effects of social media on human health.
Common Sense Media produced an excellent report on social media addiction and the impact on families and children that you can download for free here.
As a result of learning about the addictive qualities of coffee, sugar, and alcohol, I was then able to use my rebellious side to keep me on track. If you’re like most people, you don’t like it when others tell you what to do or when others try to control you. As I thought it about, I realized that I was allowing these vices to tell me what to do: drink more coffee or eat more sugar.
So, I redirected my natural rebellious tendencies toward these vices. I’d jokingly say to myself: Hey Mister Coffee-man, I know what your pushing, and you know that I want it, but no one controls me, except me. In short, I reclaimed my agency to act independently and make my choices freely. When we take the power away from our vices and reclaim that power for ourselves, it’s much easier to stay on track toward our goals.
Here’s an easy way to help yourself keep your agency. Think of the most controlling, micro-managing idiot of a boss that you’ve ever had, and then paste a picture of them on your device with “Mr. Controlling Social Media Man” written across the bottom. Your mind will start associating social media with that boss who always tried to control you. That’s what social media is doing to you anyway—it’s controlling you to some degree.
Now that you’re tracking what you do against what you really want to be doing, the next step is even easier. Write down everything that you would rather be doing in life, even if it’s something that you’ve never done or tried to do. In addition, write down the things that you love to do and already do. This is your go-to-list; you go to it when you crave a vice. You then choose any one of those items from your go-to-list and then start doing one of them as soon as you’ve finished your journal entry related to the craving.
If your list is long and overwhelming, then prioritize the top three things you’ve wanted to do or would like to try to do. The next time you’re about to log on to a device or a social platform, do one of those three things instead. You’ll probably get lost in the adventure and forget that you were about to log on in the first place. In fact, you just severed another neural pathway to habit—and, in effect, fired your micro-managing boss for that period of time. Do you feel the power?
Another step that you can take is to begin imagining your long-term vision for your life by going to a site like Dream Biography, where you can write your secret dream biography (when the site launches in 2018). On this site, you can re-imagine the rest your life from this point forward, and then post it anonymously. In one year, you’ll get a time capsule letter with your original dream biography to see if you’re on track. Go ahead, start thinking about it now, write your future in a draft document, and then post it when the site goes live in the next few weeks.
Still another step you can take to quit social media is to leave your phone or device at home or in the office. Seriously, leave it at home or in the office, but remember to take your journal with you. Go to your favorite coffee shop, cafe, or tea house, and pay attention to how you feel without your device when you’ve deliberately left it behind and have no access to it.
People who are addicted may feel separation anxiety or a whole range of other emotions when they leave it behind, but that’s okay. The goal is to write about it in your journal, so that you can become more aware of yourself. Bring your full attention to how you feel about it, and then ask yourself these questions:
Is this how I want to feel in my daily life?
Is this consistent with my desired goals?
Is this congruent with what I envisioned and how I felt when writing my dream biography?
Do I really want to be dependent on my devices or social media? If not, why not? Or, if so, why do I think so?
Keep writing your thoughts and feelings down, revisit them, and talk about them with your close friends in person—or a random person you meet at the coffee shop or tea house. Tell them about your experiment, and listen to what they have to say about it.
If leaving your device behind feels like way to much to ask, try this instead:
Another way to begin freeing up time and separating from social media is to permanently turn off the sound and vibrate on your phone. I haven’t had the sound or vibrate turned on for a few years now, which makes it possible for me to focus for longer periods of time without constantly being pinged. As a result, I’m more creative, and I write a hell of a lot more than I did before.
When my phone’s sound was on, I felt like I had a nagging boss constantly tapping on my shoulder taking my attention away from the things I really needed (or wanted) to be doing. Who actually wants a nagging boss—your phone or device—constantly around?
Some people use the excuse that it’s important for them to be available in case someone calls or texts. News flash: the person contacting you can leave a message, and you can call them back when you are ready to. If you’re a doctor or in another profession that requires you to be on call, get an old flip phone with a separate number, and use that one while leaving your smartphone behind. Or, don’t even get a smartphone. Go back to a good, old-fashioned, ring-a-ling-ding-ding—but mute it, and just check your messages.
As for texting, you don’t need to respond to a text immediately. Choose when you’re going to look at your texts. I limit it to when I’m planning to meet up with someone. I’ll text when I’m on my way or to inform them that I’m running a little late. I also save texting for times like waiting on the bus or a flight. Otherwise, phone messages and texts aren’t really that important. Try it, you’ll see.
Choose when you’re going to engage. If you’re on a laptop or desktop, turn off the automatic-login feature for your social media profiles, so that you have to consciously type in your username and password each time you pick up your device. By doing so, you’ll have a little more time to stop yourself from repeating the social-media-feedback loop.
We can also try this: think of your friends, family, or acquaintances. The first person that organically pops into your mind is the person you should reach out to. If they don’t answer, leave a message telling them that you’re headed to your favorite coffee shop, and that you would love to connect if they’re available. If they’re not, that’s okay. You can try the next person that pops into your head.
Just go to the coffee shop or tea house without your device.
Take a book, or engage a random person you’ve never met before. If they don’t want to be bothered, move on or ask someone else. You might find yourself in a deep, unexpected conversation with someone new, but if you’re tethered to your device, it’ll never happen.
If you get stuck, return to your list of three things you said you’d really like to be doing, and then do one of them, even if you’re doing it alone. You might find that you bump into your next good friend; maybe you’ll even find your future partner, a husband or a wife—or your next husband or wife if the last one ditched you because you were addicted to social media.
If you ask anyone want they want out of life, there are very few people that say that their goal is to continuously be tethered to social media seeking self-relevance. Take just one of these steps, and begin freeing yourself from the shackles of social media, so that you can live the life you’ve always imagined.
You may end up freeing yourself from the shackles of other vices too. Although I reintroduced coffee and minimal sugar after my experiment, it’s been four years since I’ve had alcohol—and I didn’t even mean to quit. I just acknowledged my reality, my truth. I don’t like how alcohol makes me feel when I’m with others, and I hate hangovers, so I don’t drink. As for social media, I’m the boss now; it works for me.
Start today by shutting down your computer, right now. Or, turn off your phone, and then go for a walk, thinking about one of things you’d like to do differently in the office or in your personal life, and then do that instead. Today.
It could be as simple as asking your office mate to go for a coffee to chat about the topic of social media addiction. Learn what they have to say about it. You probably want the same thing—connection.
How to tell if we’re Addicted to Social Media & How to Stop.
Put Down the Phone & Walk Away: My Social Media Detox Experiment.
Author: Dr. Matthew Wilburn King
Images: Flickr/Jason Howie; Instagram @ecofolks
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis
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