The Three Scientific Reasons You Shouldn’t Check Your Notifications

It’s a psychological dependency that’s ruining your day.

“person holding phone” by Jamie Street on Unsplash

There are three reasons you shouldn’t check your notifications. All three are bad, and all three are avoidable by the simple expedient of not checking our phones. But this is hard. Why?

First, you’re paying one of the few remaining free currencies — your attention. There’s a limited amount of time in a day and social media is fighting you for it.

The second is mood dependency. Notifications are directly linked to your mood swings. I don’t know about you, but I do not like being psychologically manipulated by tech giants.

What’s the third reason? There are thousands of people whose job it is to break down whatever barriers you have in place to using social media. Their paycheck stems directly from ensuring that you’re hooked.

1. It’s no coincidence the phrase is “Pay Attention.”

“person holding black phone” by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re going about your everyday life, trying to get stuff done, paying attention to your work/SO/art project, when you see your phone light up.

A notification from Facebook! You click on it.

“Julia Jones just posted for the first time in a while.”

Who is Julia Jones?
Why has Facebook chosen to notify me about her?
Who knows.

But you’re on the app, so you start scrolling. Fifteen minutes go by before you know it. With a start, you resurface and go back to whatever you were doing before.

This whole train of events was no accident. Facebook (and Instagram, Twitter, email providers) is fully aware of these psychological mechanisms that give us this need to constantly check and refresh our phones, leading us to spend our valuable currency of attention on their sites.

Each time we get a positive notification, we get a little hit of dopamine. We’re wired to love this kind of virtual interaction.

If we don’t get any for a while, Facebook will manufacture these notifications to keep you checking and scrolling.

2. The Rollercoaster of Emotions

“teal and orange space shuttle” by Matt Bowden on Unsplash

Aside from feeling like I was wasting my time on apps, I began to notice a very strong swing in my moods.

When I got a lot of positive interactions — likes, comments, claps — I was flying high. When I checked, anticipating that influx of happiness only to find I had no notifications, I would crash.

I would genuinely be devastated. And, crucially, I would spend more time on the app, trying to find ways to get people to like whatever it was I’d posted.

I could never predict how my content would perform, so I was constantly on a rollercoaster of emotion, totally at the mercy of the unknowable algorithms.

My boyfriend pointed it out to me first.

“Elena, why do you care so much about how many people have liked that picture of Astrid and Chumbo?”

I couldn’t explain why I cared so much.

“Why don’t you just post it and not check it?”

I couldn’t explain why I couldn’t do that.

Eventually I realized my moods were incredibly intertwined with my perceived performance.

This is done purposefully by companies, around a psychological concept called “variable rewards.”

A researcher called B.F. Skinner found that mice were more motivated to perform a task if the rewards weren’t always the same. Plus, these mice spent way more time performing the task than mice who always received the same reward.

Hence, software companies found it was in their best interest to give users differing levels of notifications, and to ensure that users were emotionally invested in the outcome.

The only way I found to break free of both of those consequences was to go (nearly) cold turkey. I would post once a day, and check once a day.

3. Why you shouldn’t feel bad about it

“post-2016 iPhone” by Katka Pavlickova on Unsplash

Long before there was a societal understanding that smoking was bad for you, tobacco companies knew. Even when it was commonly known, tobacco companies still tried their hardest to get over your objections.

Even though they knew it was cancerous and deadly, they first tried to hide these findings and then tried to overcome them.

Have you ever tried turning your notifications off on your phone? For Facebook, it’s hard. You have to do it in two places — if you just switch them off in your phone settings, Facebook overrides that to give you push notifications.

If you turn them off in Facebook, you still get that little red icon telling you how many important notifications you’re missing out on. On my phone, a Samsung Galaxy S5, there’s no way to turn that off.

The only way I can get around it is to delete the app and only check the websites on my laptop once a day.

Medium, Instagram, Facebook, non-work email — everything.

In the same way that those tobacco companies were at fault for promoting something they knew was bad, social media companies are willingly and knowingly taking advantage of a resource they’ve commodified: our attentions. They’ve made us invested using our emotions.

Although many of us know now that it’s bad for us, we’re so far in that it’s hard to get out. None of this is accidental.

There are thousands of people whose job it is to break down whatever barriers you have in place. Their paycheck stems directly from ensuring that you’re hooked.

All you can do is try. All I can do is limit my social media use as much as I can and hope, eventually, the urge will fade.