I started my Facebook account around July of 2007. If I remember correctly, 2006-2009 was a time when people were using Orkut (ha!) and later moved to Facebook. It’s been more than 12+ years for me and millions of others, being on Facebook. Since then, tech-giants have poured enormous resources to build many similar social platforms – fighting for our attention span and making money in the process.
Cut to 2019, we now have more social platforms than we actually need to stay connected. Facebook these days feels like a black hole to kill time. Instagram feels like a machine built to churn more pretentious and narcissistic humans. Twitter has everyone converse to look intellectually superior.
Facebook these days feels like a black hole to kill time. Instagram feels like a machine built to churn more pretentious and narcissistic humans. Twitter has everyone converse to look intellectually superior.
Given our use case, the pros of being on one of these social platforms under-weigh the cons.
For the last 2 years, my social media usage has gone up to about 2+ hours/day. While I shared something on a daily basis and it only took a few mins to post, I kept going back to check activity, many times a day. Sometimes it’s a ping from a friend. Sometimes it’s the curiosity of who’s liked or commented on my photo. Sometimes it’s just to refresh my brain with memes. But most of the time, it is my brain that has re-wired to grab my phone or computer and open one of these sites to check what’s new.
When I looked at the data (screenshot below) I found out that I spend over 1400+ hours every month on social media sites. That’s a lot of hours. That’s largely FOMO at play.
In recent years, a lot of research, interviews, and articles on social media companies have shed light on the dark practices that go inside to keep us hooked.
New notification types like “A photo of you from a year back”, “someone ABC visited your profile”, “People you follow have posted an image”, etc are all deployed to bring us back and spend more time. Instagram at one point (for a few months) started showing a red badge (indicating something unread or new) beside the “Open Facebook” CTA on Instagram – which was completely irrelevant to Instagram users and is a prime example of dark design pattern to bring users back by any means.
The addiction to open social apps follows us everywhere. When traveling, I noticed that I am spending more time sharing photos rather than enjoying the new country, getting to know the local people or experiencing their culture. Although I did enjoy going to places and was only spending about 30-60 mins posting photos each day, I do feel that I should have used that time to enjoy the place more vs. spending my travel time posting updates online.
Photos can always be shared later, no?
Furthermore, I realized that my addiction to social apps is also hampering my professional life. A few months back, I started reading this book called “Deep work” and just within 20-30 pages, the book made it very clear that in order to produce high-quality work, to think and solve complex problems, to build a focused mind, one MUST have a distractive free environment – leading to a focused and attentive brain.
The research is clear on how using social media apps on a regular basis rewires our brain to have a shorter span of focus time. We start finding it harder to sit and focus on the task at hand for more than a few minutes. At the same time, we also start craving smaller sets of dopamine hits more and more. Soon, we find ourselves constantly switching tabs, jumping apps to see activity, chatting with multiple people at once, watching short clips on YouTube, etc. While all that “work-&-play” in today’s startup culture might sound fun at the beginning, the damage it’s doing is really serious.
For example, I have been wanting to redo my portfolio website for 3+ years now. Every year, I add it to my to-do list but hardly make any progress. This is largely due to the fact that my focus is not my priority and hence my priorities are not in focus. I am spending too much time posting micro-life updates, checking who’s commenting or liking pictures and then repeating the cycle again by planning what updates should be next. It’s not that I haven’t tried bringing my focus back to important goals, but as I mentioned earlier, a lack of shorter attention span and being focused way too much on my “social-media life” has hampered my attention span quite a lot. So much so that I can’t even sit for 1-2 hours straight and see through things at a stretch.
My focus is not my priority and hence my priorities are not in focus.
Worth noting that a lot of people can sit for a longer period of time but that isn’t the proxy of their non-addiction with social media apps. Shorter attention span is just one of the many side-effects of being addicted to social media. Some can’t focus. Some become narcissistic. Some have no real social life. Some start spending $$$ to look cooler online. The list just goes on.
Another big reason why I felt like taking a step back from using social media was that I didn’t want my morning to start with other people’s posts, pictures, and news. I want my mornings to start with a fresh mind, without any biases or discomfort by looking at an endless feed of 200+ people. I want to experience where my thoughts go and maybe just journal them.
Side note – Journaling helps in channeling one’s thoughts, gives thoughts a structure on paper, and results in a calmer and a lot less chaotic mind in the long run.
And that’s what I want my brain to be. Calmer and less chaotic.
Lastly, a recent conversation with one of my friends also pushed me to think more about my immense love for social media and to start tackling the problem seriously. We were discussing our thoughts on our overuse of social media and he made a funny yet applicable comment about this habit of ours of posting life updates quite frequently on social apps. He commented:
Your life is not an Uber ride that you need to notify people that frequently
I knew right at that moment what sort of updates he’s drawing parallels with the ride app, Uber. Just like our Uber app/driver sends us messages at every turn like, “Hey, I have arrived” or “Hey, your ride has started”, etc., we’re also sending our life updates in a similar fashion.
For example, when we go to a new city, we send updates “Hey, arrived in xyz city”. When we’re hanging out in a cafe/restaurant, we add stories on Instagram “Having an amazing time at this cafe/restaurant”. There’s an update for every breath we take these days. It is endless, it is tiring, and it is non-value adding action, to say the least. This doesn’t mean that we should not share news/updates about our lives but I think we need to be asking ourselves the real reason we’re doing it for and then be discreet in how often we share these little-valued updates.
2 months ago, when all the WHYs finally sank in and I accepted that I was and am addicted to social media, I decided to take measures to cut back on my social media consumption. Below I am listing down a few ways I cut down my social media time. Worth noting that the general outline of these action items was “OUT OF SIGHT = OUT OF MIND”.
“OUT OF SIGHT = OUT OF MIND” can be explained as – If something addictive is NOT in front of you, it’s more likely that you’ll NOT crave and reach out for it.
For example, if you like smoking and see a pack of cigarettes lying around or someone else taking a puff, chances of you picking up that cigarette are more likely. So trick here is to keep the pack of cigarettes out of the sight.
Similarly, If you’re obese (or not) and just trying to cut back on fat, having that sweet cookie or fried snack at your dining table won’t let you achieve your goal so easily. Again, if it’s easily accessible, it’s harder to resist. And when it comes to breaking old habits, our willpower is usually weaker at the beginning but improves as we keep at it.
On that note, here are the actionable items that have helped me for 2+ months now in cutting back social media time:
- I started using a different phone for social apps. While auditing my screen time, I realized that I am mostly accessing my social accounts using my smartphone and less via my computer’s browser. Hence, I deleted all the social apps from my main phone and installed them on a spare OnePlus phone. Once that’s done, I am keeping the OnePlus phone inside my wardrobe’s drawer, making it even harder to be in my viewport.
- Turned off my notifications on both phones. Keeping the phone in a completely different room and a drawer is just half work done. To actually make my OnePlus phone unnoticeable, I turned off all notifications from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Gmail, so I don’t get any sort of reminder that I have a phone full of distractions in my closet.
- Setting a usage time every day. Creating rules are important while trying to form a new habit and breaking old ones. So rule #3 was to only use social apps during my evening time, after work hours and before going to bed. That is usually between 10 PM – 11 PM for me. Initially, I ended up going to my bedroom and using the phone to check notifications during the day too, but the urge slowly passed away as I progressed in this experiment.
Tip: Blocking your calendar just to check social apps can also help set the tone for this.
- Delete shortcuts. Even after removing apps from my phone, installing them in a new phone, hiding the new phone in a closet, there was still a way that I could access these sites i.e. via my computer’s web browser. I had the shortcuts added on the Bookmark’s bar earlier for easy access, so I removed as them well.
- Log out of social sites from my work and personal laptop. Along with removing the shortcuts from my Bookmark’s bar, I logged out of all the sites and deleted all saved passwords as well – ensuring it’s even harder for me to go to these sites on my computer and typing in passwords every time.
I’ve been trying to stay off of social media for about 2+ months now. It was hard at the beginning but the temptation to check activity has decreased a lot.
Earlier in November 2019, my overall monthly usage was around 1400+ hours. In 2 months, i.e. January 2020, I’ve managed to bring it down to under 400 hours.
Scorecard here is about a 73% decrease in social media usage over a period of 2 months. 🎉
One strategy that really helped in executing the above-mentioned methods was that I intentionally started this experiment when I was on a 3-week vacation – visiting family members.
Vacation time was a good time because I wasn’t expected to work and didn’t need a laptop. I also promised myself that I won’t work on any tech-based side project during that time. All I was doing during this time was hanging out with my cousins and just reading on my Kindle.
When I was back to my usual routine after 3 weeks of vacation, the benefits started to surface:
- I felt more confident in resisting social media
- I felt more present during my vacation time and even after coming back
- My mornings, in random order, started feeling like a bliss. It kept going on-and-off but I definitely felt lighter and less cluttered mentally.
- Since I am not spending 2+ hours every day on social media apps, I’ve allocated this time just to sit back and just do one activity during this time. For example, I’ll just sit back and drink tea, or call an old friend and catch up, or lie down on the sofa and just let my thoughts wander and watch them passively.
- The feeling of FOMO has dialed down automatically. This has definitely decreased my anxiety levels. I am much calmer now.
- And lastly, I am happy about the less screen-time I am able to achieve because of this – giving my eyes it’s own resting time.
Apart from my personal reasons, I kept coming across materials online which kept educating me on the side-effects of using social media apps on a regular basis. I am compiling the quotes/statements that stood out and convinced me further to reduce my usage of social media apps:
This TED talk on Social Media Addiction by – Leslie Coutterand
- Dream conditioning – Paraphrasing, Leslie Coutterand here – she mentions that “through these social apps we see other people’s lives, where they’re eating, where they’re traveling to, which car they bought, what home they have, etc. All these pictures subconsciously affect our goals in the long run. Sooner than later, we forget our own dreams/desires/goals in life and start chasing goals or lifestyle that is socially validated or cheered.”
- “If one is lacking acceptance, confidence, and security in their life, they get transfixed on getting a celebrity-like lifestyle because that’s how you get respect and attention according to media or social apps.” She calls it “media-driven dreams and ambitions to heal” one’s lack of self-worth.
- “Social apps generate a feeling of need, lack and competition” – again, resulting in us doing things to prove our worth online.
This TED talk by Deep Work’s author Cal New Port on Quitting Social media
- “These services are engineered to be addictive – robbing time and attention from activities that more directly support your professional and personal goals.”
This compilation video of side-effects of social media on YouTube
- “Checking your likes is the new smoking”
- “Tobacco just wanted your lungs, the app store wants your soul”
- “What we find is the typical persona checks their phone every 15 minutes or less, and half of the time they check their phone, there’s no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head, telling them: I haven’t checked Facebook in a while, I haven’t checked this Twitter feed for a while, I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post. That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you conscious and eventually, your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in”