Wake up in the morning, and what’s the first thing I do? Check my phone. Did any friends text me while I was asleep? How about important emails that may have come in overnight? Next: What’s percolated to the top of my Facebook news feed? What’s trending on Twitter?
The rest of my day is not much better. Dozens of times throughout my waking hours, I peek at the social media buttons on my phone, iPad or laptop, looking for that little adrenaline hit that comes with knowing someone “liked” a pic posted of my kid or “favorited” a snarky tweet. Nothing like killing some time waiting in line at the UPS Store to check my blog traffic and find that I’m having an unusually popular day. Even better to get a message on OkCupid from an intriguing hottie.
The social media high
Sure, all this activity is commonplace. I know because I see you walking down the street, on the subway or in the grocery store, nearly crashing your cart into the tower of Pringles because your eyes weren’t on the aisle but on your phone instead.
But commonplace doesn’t translate to normal, and I have not felt normal about my social media use for a long time. More often than I care to admit, I find my mind craving the digital hit of social media, making it hard to focus on the task at hand.
Brianna Vieira, a 20-year-old Boston University student who estimates she spends two hours per day checking social media on her devices, feels my pain. On the one hand, “there is always news, and Twitter and Facebook are how I stay on top of what is going on.” But on the other hand, this public relations major has been told by her friends that they resent how Vieira often pays more attention to her phone than their conversation when hanging out in person. “My dad gets annoyed with me all the time,” says Vieira, who got her smartphone (a BlackBerry) at age 15. “When I leave a building and walk down the sidewalk, I automatically check my phone. It’s a lot like how a smoker will automatically light up when they leave a building. It’s habit.”
Understanding the addiction
To learn how Vieira and I, and everyone else, can get a grip, I reached out to Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Los Angeles. I expected her to offer up tips akin to those used to treat substance abuse. Instead, when I asked for advice on how to contend with my “compulsion,” she made me relax a little.
“‘Compulsion’ is a harsh word,” Rutledge says. “Human beings are hardwired for social connection, and all of the sudden, we have all these new digital tools that allow us to connect, but we haven’t had time to learn how to use them.”Photo: Cubmundo/FlickrSocial media satisfies our brain’s need for knowledge She compares the Internet and social media to automobiles: “It’s not like everyone in America got a car within the first three years they were invented. But pretty much everyone got on social media right away.” Proof? Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004. Today, there are more than 1.01 billion active users worldwide.
Rutledge says that social media and easy access to the Internet quench another innate human hunger: the need for knowledge. “The human brain wants to know things, and when there is uncertainty, when we don’t know what is going on, we feel uncomfortable,” she says.
That explains Vieira’s unease when she forgot her phone at home one day. “I was so nervous I was missing important emails,” Vieira says.
I shared with Rutledge how I often feel guilty that I’m stalking my phone instead of being engaged with whatever else I should be doing—especially when I hang out with my two young children. “A lot of that is very normal behavior that has been happening long before Twitter,” Rutledge says. She recalls when her now-grown children were small, and she, too, suffered guilt at the end of a busy day. “I’d be standing in the kitchen, thinking I should be engaged with what the kids were doing, but instead, I focused on the flyers that came home from school,” she says with a laugh. “Adults crave contact with their adult peers. That is nothing new.”
Breaking the habit
For those feeling as if social media is controlling them—and not the other way around—Rutledge offers these tips:Last5, a time management app
- Use a time diary to track how you spend your minutes throughout the day. I suggest the free version of apps Last5, Chronos or Tictoc. There’s alsoTimeRabbit, which automatically tracks the minutes you spend on Facebook.
- Pay attention to your emotions while you’re using the Internet. Consider whether the activity coincides with excitement, loneliness or anxiety.
- After a week, reflect on how your time and feelings stack up against your goals and priorities. Get to the root of why you revert to digital life. Do you check Twitter when you crave adult interaction? Do you ping a friend by chat when you are worried something is going on that you’ll miss?
- You may consider using a social media blocking app like Outsmarter, which allows you to control the time you spend on Facebook, chat and online games by blocking those apps at specified times.
- Designate the time now freed to satisfy your cravings or reach your goals. Do you want to focus on a certain work project that Instagram was distracting you from? Can you make time for phone calls with old friends rather than poring over their Facebook news feeds? “You have to do something positive with your newfound time, otherwise simply blocking social media will not be productive,” Rutledge says. “You may be well-served to use that time to develop a vision board on Pinterest.”
- Whatever goals you set, make them small and achievable. Do not set an agenda to “Be a perfect mother.” Studies show that you will feel much more productive and better if you set and accomplish lots of smaller goals,” Rutledge says.
My takeaway from my interview with this media psychologist? I’m not as cray-cray as I thought! “Just like with anything, technology requires a learning curve for how to use it effectively,” Rutledge assured me. “Right now, people are saying, ‘Holy cow! This is great!’ and checking it all the time.”