introduction: the epidemic
Social media has become a huge part of the way that people live and interact with each other. Despite this, too much of anything is harmful and with studies showing that internet users spend 116 minutes daily on social media sites¹, our relationship with these tools needs to be evaluated. In a landscape where several applications are all vying for your attention, it is hard to stay present, attentive, and engaged with the things that really matter in your life. However, I can assure you that on your deathbed, the last thing that you’ll be wishing for is that you had spent more time on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. If you take the average of 116 minutes spent on social media daily, this equates to five years and four months of a standard lifetime. Scarily enough, as these platforms develop and mature, this number is only expected to increase.
Those who know me are well aware of my love-hate relationship with various social media outlets. While there are certainly people whose lives I am genuinely interested in, these tools have a way of enabling us to develop a false sense of intimacy with those who were merely characters in a previous chapter of our existence. I first started distancing myself away from social media after noticing how many hours of my day I was spending idly on these applications for no real benefit. Furthermore, these platforms do little to facilitate direct interactions with other people. On a macro level, users are presented with an aggregate view featuring all of their connections which makes it hard to meaningfully interact with every post you see and easy to disregard posts as quickly as they are viewed.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that receiving validation through likes, comments, and shares feels good. Nevertheless, this only serves to cultivate a culture of narcissism and it is too easy to get sucked into these habit-forming, reward-seeking, and dopamine-driven triggers. Addictive usage is one of the desired goals of these applications as this is key to their revenue models.
The Hook Model
Instagram is the quintessential platform for highlighting addictive designs. The cycle often starts with a trigger, such as boredom. Following this, the action of posting an Instagram photo ensues. The reward of likes and comments and the investment of an ever-increasing follower count keeps users returning to the application.
While there exist many others, I would like to draw attention to three harmful effects of social media: An inability to sustain attention, idyllic assumptions about other people’s lives, and easily accessible channels to false information.
reduced attention span
Instant gratification is an expectation with regard to the way that we receive information through social media outlets. This manifests itself in many ways, from Twitter’s character limit to the infinite scrolling style feeds that have become ubiquitous within these applications. Furthermore, frequently switching contexts by moving from one stimulus to another erodes our ability to perform activities under a state of deep focus. It is not difficult to find anecdotes which reveal people’s disdain towards reading long articles or staying attentive throughout a lecture. In addition to this, studies show that 53% of consumers will browse away from a website which takes 3+ seconds to load².
the curated self
“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel”. I’m sure most of us have heard this adage before, especially as it applies to what we see on social media. We carefully polish our online accounts to showcase traditional definitions of success from engagements to career advancements. When this is what engulfs your newsfeed, it is easy to forget that it’s okay to not be smiling and happy. Research shows that there is a link between use of social media platforms and increased rates of depression, anxiety, and other related conditions³. When the narrative pushed on these sites is “look how good my life is”, it’s easy to understand how constant comparisons can negatively affect someone mentally. Sharing both our successes and our failures would certainly paint a more real picture of the human condition.
spread of misinformation
In this day and age, information has an unprecedented reach and opinions can be spread to millions of people within minutes. While this in itself is not a bad thing, the conflation of truth with signals such as likes, comments, and shares is.
I am personally guilty of claiming to have an opinion on a topic I am unfamiliar with after glancing at the most up-voted comments on various Reddit threads. It is very important to try things for yourself and form your own opinions and conclusions instead of relying on influencers to guide your intuition. Sources like TechCrunch and Reddit are most useful when used as a way to add perspective after you are already informed yourself of what is going on in the world. Moreover, make sure that you aren’t being implicitly misinformed by only following those who share a similar perspective as you do. If you are of some opinion A, it is still beneficial to engage with content related to some conflicting opinion B.
Hopefully, by now, I’ve convinced you to at least audit your social media consumption. For those who are interested in making a more active effort to reduce the amount of time they spend on social media, below are a few suggestions that I’ve found to be effective:
turn off notifications
Notifications are an easy way to get drawn into your social media accounts and they should be opt-in instead of opt-out. Turn off non-essential notifications in order to make your visits to social media more deliberate.
stop using native applications
Instead of using the mobile applications for your favourite websites, try using the browser versions instead. This will provide a clunkier and less streamlined experience when using Facebook or Twitter, and by making it harder to access information, the hope is that you will visit these sites less.
The next time you go to check Instagram, think about why you want to. Then, think about your experience with the application itself. Will spending time looking at what other people are doing truly be satisfying? Performing mental checks like this can help you to stay away from habitual urges.
use applications to block applications
If you truly lack self-control, you can use your smartphone against itself with the help of various applications (e.g. AppBlock). These applications will prevent others from launching or sending notifications on a schedule that you define. This way, you are literally unable to check your feeds. I should note that I don’t think this is a very effective way of regaining dominance over social media dependence. I believe that a more organic method would lead to better results than relying on a third-party to control your usage of these tools.
The motivation behind this post is not to express that social media is a bad thing and that it should not be used. On the contrary, I believe that there is a lot of benefit to having an online presence. I would simply like to encourage everyone to think more consciously about how they spend their time.