Here are the typical tell-tale signs of social media addiction – fidgetiness, being on the edge, checking social media handles every few minutes, stressing out when the response to posts doesn’t meet expectations, and so on.
Through our digital detox bootcamp (Reboot), I have helped thousands of people overcome their social media addiction. Hence, today let me share with you the science behind social media addictions and a few ideas on overcoming these addictions.
Once you know how social media actually works, you will know why it is so hard to control the urge to scroll. Let me share that with you and also give you a few actionable tips.
Why is it hard to control social media usage?
Because it works like drugs.
We check our phones obsessively because social media employs what is known as a “dopamine feedback loop.” That is what makes it so hard to put the phone down and gets you addicted to social media.
What are dopamine feedback loops?
Our brain is designed to learn behaviors it finds rewarding – it is an ancient survival mechanism.
Typically, the things that give pleasure would have allowed our ancestors to survive in the wild. E.g., sugar is a good source of energy and hence, our body has evolved to find sugar pleasurable.
Furthermore, our brain wants us to do the pleasurable things again and again, and it does so by releasing a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is the brain’s ‘desire chemical.’ If an action causes dopamine release, our brain wants us to do it again – that simple.
Think of it this way: ‘D’ for dopamine, ‘D’ for desire (to do it again).
Now see what happens:
An action (e.g., eating sugar) → leads to the feeling of reward → which leads to dopamine release → which leads to more of the same action (e.g., eating sugar).
This is the dopamine feedback loop.
But it works not just for eating sugar but anything that we find pleasurable or which gives us a sense of achievement. Our brain finds these things “rewarding” and hence, releases dopamine.
And incidentally, one of the things our brain finds rewarding is excitement and novelty. Every time you see a social media notification, or a new post, you see something novel and unexpected. Since checking the smartphone delivers excitement and novelty, it creates the following dopamine feedback loop:
Checking the phone → gives excitement and feels rewarding → leads to dopamine release → leads to checking the phone even more often. The dopamine feedback loop is complete. Eventually, you will find that the dopamine release becomes proportional to the time spent on social media.
Incidentally, this dopamine loop is also triggered in response to substance use (cocaine) and gambling (like in slot machines), which cause a dopamine spike. This is how the loop works:
Cocaine consumption → leads to a dopamine spike → which leads to the consumption of more cocaine.
An ex-VP of User Growth at Facebook said that these dopamine feedback loops have been engineered to pull get you hooked and now, they are now destroying your focus and attention.
How does social media usage lead to addiction?
Once we experience the social media ‘reward’, we want to keep experiencing it, and hence, we return to social media again and again. Since our phone gives the reward predictably, after some time, our brain starts expecting the reward even before we open our phones – and our brain releases the dopamine in anticipation.
But remember: ‘D’ for dopamine, ‘D’ for desire.
Since the dopamine came before checking the phone, the desire comes before opening our phones. Hence we now crave to check our phones. At this point, using social media has become a habit.
Soon, the habit deepens and we crave to check our phones so much that we do it involuntarily. We no longer realize that we are using it automatically and mindlessly. This is what social media is designed for: to have you return to the app and keep scrolling. Facebook notifications are bright red for a reason – to attract your attention and to keep you there.
Isn’t this (more or less) how drugs work?
There is still hope though. I can show you how to initiate a digital detox. We also offer a full-fledged bootcamp to undergo digital detox and rebuild your focus, called Reboot.
7 steps for smartphone deaddiction
I suggest you incorporate these seven essential digital detox practices into your regular routine.
1. Break the habit of automatically checking your phone
The first step is to create awareness. Whenever you find yourself reaching for your phone, just do a little self-check in your mind, saying to yourself: “I am reaching for my phone.”
The second step is to replace. You are now aware of your impulse to check social media. Next, find an activity that entertains you but doesn’t involve any screens, and do that instead of checking social media.
2. Disable notifications
Habitual actions often begin with a trigger. In the case of social media, notifications act like triggers. They remind you to check your phone for that oh-so-cute video or to see what others are up to. That promise of novelty and excitement creates a craving.
Uproot these triggers to give your mind a little breathing room by disabling the notifications of all social media apps on your phone. You can do that by accessing your phone’s app permissions.
3. Uninstall social media
Quite often, just the presence of apps on our phones can itself be a trigger. Therefore uninstall the social media apps from your phone.
I’m not asking you not to check social media at all – only make it require more effort. Use your computer to access social media instead of having the app handy on your phone. So instead of checking Instagram on your smartphone, introduce some friction and check only on your computer.
Making something difficult to achieve tends to avert the mind from doing it altogether.
4. Digital fasting once a week
Much like you give your stomach a break sometimes through fasting/dieting/restricted eating, do the same for your mind as well.
Every week, dedicate at least 6 to 12 hours to a screen-free time. Stow your laptop and phone away and do things that don’t require staring at screens. Reading, games, or family time are just a few examples.
Cultivate habits and behaviors that do not require you to be connected to your devices.
5. Don’t mix work and entertainment
Make it mandatory to leave your phone out of your reach when you sit down to work.
Not only will this help you boost your work productivity, but it will also keep your social media usage habit in check.
6. ‘No-phone’ rules
As you would for your children, put some ‘no-phone’ rules in place for yourself. They could be:
- No phones on the dinner table.
- No phones during family time.
- No phones while using the washroom.
- No phones in bed or 30 minutes before bedtime.
- No phones 1 hour after waking up.
You can create other rules that work for you.
7. Replace digital with physical activities
Social media replaces physical interactions between friends and family members. So instead of just liking someone’s posts, meet them up for a dinner or once in a while, give them a call. You will find that you make deeper connections.
Also, physical activities will engage the mind in something other than your phone. The human body is made to move. Intense physical activity releases endorphins in your body, which are the “feel good” hormones – a great alternative to dopamine.
Even if you just do a five or ten-minute walk around the house or stretch your body from top to bottom, you will feel better than by checking your phone.
Summing it up
Your life will improve drastically once you free yourself from the clutches of social media. You will see that you are able to sleep better. Your anxiety will come down and you will start being more present in your relationships.
One of our Reboot bootcamp participants, Apoorba, found that after the digital detox he was able to spend more time with his daughter and other family members. Isn’t it a goal worth striving for – to spend time with family and friends, rather than on social media?
Social media is designed for entrapment. It isn’t a matter to be embarrassed about, even if you do find yourself habituated to using it. The important part is to act.
We can all check ourselves – just refer to the points above.
Try the methods I have elaborated to get over social media addiction. Let me know how it worked. Good luck!