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How to Stop Social Media From Eating Your Brain

I witnessed something disturbing on the bus a few weeks ago.

I watched a girl, who looked to be between the ages of 19 and 22, pick up her phone and do something bizarre.

She did it so quickly that, at first, I couldn’t make out what she was doing.

She opened up an app, within seconds switched to another app, and then switched to a third app only a few seconds later.

She then put her phone away.

About a minute later, she picked it up again.

Now, my attention piqued, I stared (my wife says I do this too much) at what this girl was doing with her phone.

The same odd, dancing pattern of apps played out on her screen, one user interface blending into the next.

It was at this point that I realized she was moving from Snapchat to Instagram to Twitter. She would repeat this cycle over and over.

Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter. Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter.

The methodical, unfeeling nature of the act was bizarre. I felt like I was witnessing something I shouldn’t be seeing.

How can she even see what she is looking at?
What is she even looking for?

I think what horrifies me even more is that I know it is quite common for individuals to check social media in this way, with this regularity.

I know I even do it from time to time.

Maybe I don’t flick through updates as fast as this girl did, but I certainly move from one app to the next fairly quickly when I’m in the privacy of my own home.

I share this now not to condemn one person for what she was doing — but to point out a concerning trend.

More people are turning to more social media use as a way to stave off feeling something.

When I take the campus bus to VCU, where I am currently finishing up my final semester of graduate school, almost every single person has his or her head down.

And everyone is staring at their phones.

They could all be mannequins if not for the subtle swiping and tapping gestures made by their fingers across the screens of their smartphones.

A subtle, insidious shift is happening

We have gotten to a point where we check our phones all of the time.

And I think it’s because we don’t want to feel whatever feeling we’re feeling at the time.

Bored? Check your phone.

Annoyed? Check your phone.

Anxious? Check your phone for a longer period of time.

It has become automatic. As natural as the urge to yawn when tired.

It’s gotten to the point where, like the girl on the bus, we have developed a muscle memory that is finely tuned to our favorite apps on our phones.

On a small level this is damaging ourability to focus, and on a larger level, it’s corrupting our mental health, shrinking our brains in the process.

So what do we know?

I have been recently inspired by the writing of Cal Newport.

You may know him from his most recent book Deep Work or from his equally fantastic So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

In addition to being an eloquent communicator of big ideas, he is also a super-genius academic, a computer science professor at Georgetown University who also finds time to write his extremely popular Study Hacks blog and churn out books and academic papers.

He is clearly brilliant. But he’s also amazingly prolific — and it’s all because of how he uses his time.

He detests social media, and he argues that it is eroding our ability to think clearly. Here’s an excellent TED Talk he delivered on the topic:

I agree with Newport that social media hurts our ability to think deeply, and I also add that it is destroying our emotional health.

I have worked with youth and families in the mental health field, and it is increasingly clear that it is difficult to develop a healthy sense of self if you are fixated on what you see on social media.

Surprisingly, Facebook just released a cleverly worded statement that hints that its own product is bad for your mental health.

Then, what can we do about it?

If we are starting to realize just how bad all of this is for our mental health, what can we do about it? How do we transcend our need for the temporary high that we get from checking our favorite apps?

As introduced above, Cal Newport provides copious amounts of advice for how to break the habit, but if, at the moment ,you don’t feel like digesting 250+ pages of his research and advice in his book Deep Work, then this is what I do.

It may not work for you, but at least it will give you some food for thought.

1. I do my best to live a disciplined life. I believe the more disciplined you are, the greater freedom you have to pursue your dreams.

If you know where your time is going, then you learn how to wisely maximize your time to do more activities that bring you joy.

With this in mind, I try to put limits on how I use social media, if only because I know I have the very human tendency to seek the dopamine rush of status updates, likes, comments, and retweets. I try to check social media at designated times, say once in the morning and once in the evening.

2. For the apps that I use, I ask myself questions: What is the purpose of my using this app? What am I getting out of this? How does this help me meet my goals? Does it align with my core values?

If I can’t come up with any good answers, I discard the app.

3. If I know something really doesn’t bring me a lot of joy (Like Facebook) but I want to hold on to the app to stay in touch with some friends, I move the app somewhere on my phone where I won’t be compelled to check it.

By the way, Newport would argue that I’m adhering to the any-benefit mindset, which, according to him, is a really dumb way to make decisions . To that I exclaim, “I’m only human, Cal! I’m not willing to ditch all social media just yet.”

To limit my Facebook use, I don’t keep the app on my home screen anymore, so each time I think to use it, I have to go searching through my phone to find it and open it. This simple change has drastically cut down on the amount of time I spend on Facebook. I will typically check Facebook once or twice a day now.

4. I try to break the cycle of an uncomfortable feeling leading to an automatic behavior by following my breathing. I meditate on a regular basis now, and I have noticed that, as my meditation skill increases, so does my ability to catch the desire to escape something. By focusing on my breath when an uncomfortable feeling arises, I come to understand what I’m actually feeling — and I avoid turning to a mindless activity to cover up the feeling.

Because checking social media non-stop is covering up feelings

Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash

When you go to check your phone to escape a feeling, you don’t get rid of the feeling. You just squash it for the time being.

Underneath the mindless pursuit to not feel is the feeling that drove your behavior in the first place. Pushing away a feeling only makes it grow over time.

It’s only when you acknowledge your difficult feelings and move towards accepting them that you can get past the feelings and move on with your life.

And past the whizzing screens of switching apps and social media are the real-life scenes that are zooming by without your knowledge.

It is tantalizing to check social media all the time. Like I said, I am still guilty of it from time to time. But I’m working to get better.

I’m painting this in dramatic terms because it is dramatic. This isn’t how the world used to be. We used to acknowledge each other in public places — on school buses, in stores, and on the sidewalk.

Now we bump into each other accidentally, look up in surprise at the human being in front of us, and then look back down at our phones.

Is this is symptomatic of a societal disease or just the reality of a hyperconnected and quickly changing world?

All I know is that I tend to feel better when I put down the phone and walk away.

How about you?