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Instant distractions weaken our ability to sit with uncomfortable thoughts.
I can’t stay off my phone without feeling anxious. Although I was always aware of that to a certain extent, this past weekend I must have spent as much (possibly more) time scrolling social media than I did living in the present and fully enjoying the time spent with friends around me at the beach. It was obvious what I was doing and why I was doing it, but even with that self awareness I couldn’t bring myself to stop…
Sitting with uncomfortable thoughts is difficult and requires a strong exercise of mindfulness. Like our muscles, mindfulness gets easier with practice and more difficult with atrophy.
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My phone is a wonderful tool that can connect me to almosteveryone I’ve ever met at the press of a few buttons. It’s also a tool that makes me feel an obligation to constantly be reachable and responsive in real time, and even with using features like “Focus Settings” where notifications are hidden I will often find myself picking up my phone and checking them anyways.
Distraction and Addiction
Dopamine Farming (v.) - posting on social media platforms primarily in anticipation of the reactions, comments, and shares generated from the post.
Addiction, when harmful, is a terrible affliction especially when that harm is often extended beyond just the individual who is afflicted with it. Although we often see addiction as requiring harm (an availability heuristic maybe?) it’s not always the case. Some example of addictions that might even be considered healthy could include going to the gym, long jogs, reading/learning, socializing, or any number of behaviors that improve our lives and the lives around us.
Like any healthy action though, it can be taken too far... Going too hard at the gym or jogging can result in serious injuries, too much reading and learning can hinder practical application of that knowledge, and too much socializing can drain both a time and financial budget.
When I think about my posts on social media that perform well and receive a number of likes and engagement, it makes me feel great. For the most part, I don’t think my posts or engagements cause harm, but I do think I will often post things of little or no value just to receive "likes". I'd wager most posts on social media platforms offer little or no value in terms of information, but sorting through the little/no value posts to reach posts with moderate to important information is valuable to network development.
The posts that I observe as performing the best in terms of positive engagement happen to be when connectionsonline will often post updates about career developments, personal goals (achieving or setting), and personal accounts of what they’re dealing with and in these updates is where the true value of social media lays - Network Update Information.
However, social media sites are not solely repositories of update information, and are instead online tribal communities that are interested in signaling belonging and status which fuels the no/little value posts. For example: when a major event happens, that we may all be aware of, such as Queen Elizabeth’s death last week, statements are made… Not just from people directly affected/involved, but by major brands as well.
Our engagements and interactions online are part of our community, just as much as those we engage in offline. It’s why we give vacation photos a like, a post that resonates us and is communicated in a great way a share, and why social media influencers are paid a lot of money.
For myself, social media represents a form of expected reciprocity. You like my tweet, I like yours. You interact with my Insta story, I interact with yours. You like my horrible profile picture, I like yours. Etc… and vice versa.
It also offers a quick distraction from my present thoughts… If I’m anxious, I will hold my phone in my hand rather than keep it in my pocket even if I’m not using it… waiting for the expected vibration of a notification to distract from the anxiety. My anxious habit is rotating through my social media apps - Discord, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, LinkedIn, Email, Signal, Telegram, Messages, and will typically repeat this until I force myself to disengage.
Is Social Media Technology different from previous forms of communication tools?
Addiction is nothing new, and social media isn’t some newly addictive chemical that is being forced on society against our will. So why the intense focus on this specific technology? It could be fair to say that the focus is a result of it being a new technology and that new technology is unknown.
The truth is, I don’t actually remember what life was like before social media. YouTube was around in elementary school, Facebook became necessary in high school, and the developments in communications technology since my childhood have been exponential.
The AI generated algorithms know exactly what I want to see and how to grab my attention. To the point where I receive notifications about posts I might like… This fuels my pick ups rate. I want to see what posts I may have missed that might be important. I don’t want to be the last person to know about someone adopting a puppy or the latest viral tweet. This technology in particular is what concerns me.
AI generated algorithms used by social media platforms are excellent at detecting what we as individuals want to see, react, and respond to. This creates easy distractions that can consume huge chunks of our time as we scroll to see more, which in turn better trains our personalized algorithms.
If social media really can result in an addiction, the solution isn’t as easy as just keeping the temptation away as we do require a certain level interconnectedness. But phone developers and social media platforms have gotten much better at giving users tools to lessen the temptation to doom scroll.
You can turn off notifications on your phone and your social media app. You can set limits on how long you can use apps. You can see your usage data and use that to identify personal behavioral patterns and try to be more mindful with your usage.
These small solutions though can bring about feelings of isolation as our social networks online can keep people at the forefront of our thoughts, even for brief moments. They help expand our circles that are typically cognitively limited through the principle of Dunbar’s Number.
I recently learned of some very heartbreaking news about actions taken by someone who for all purposes, I considered a friend, from a mutual friend when I was hanging out in person… The actions were atrocious and that person deleted themselves from all social media accounts and I had not thought of them until learning of their actions that occurred almost 6 months after the fact. This was someone with whom I interacted frequently with when they were online and who I knew in person as well.
It was at that point that I think I recognized the value of social media for maintaining relationships beyond cognitive limits. It’s part of what makes social media tech a great tool, but it’s also part of what makes it so dangerous.
Social media allows me to maintain more distant relations, but not intimate ones. There will always be many more distant relations than intimate ones for all of us, but when trying to maintain and expand our distant relations becomes a part time job… we can lose sight of developing the more intimate relationships we have around us in present moments - which can be anxiety inducing.
Although I wish I could’ve turned my phone off though and be more present in the moments I had hanging out with them, I do feel much closer to my friends that I went to the beach with this past weekend. Upon reflection, the anxious scrolling didn’t really help me learn anything new or groundbreaking that couldn’t have waited until I was home… In fact, upon further reflection, it feels as though all my scrolling did was make me over-concerned about my perceived inadequate productivity (such as not writing this blog post or working on video edits for Leveller).
I’ll leave you with a challenge to be more mindful of being in the present. I’ll undertake that challenge as well, taking time to breathe and not open up social media apps to distract myself. I’ll set and stick to app screen time limits features and identify better ways to remain mindful and in the moment.
This blog is part of a biweekly column I write exploring communication. Thank you so much for taking the time to read, please like and leave a comment if you enjoyed it. My email is always open for critiques, compliments, and questions. Direct inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @alex_pilkington on Twitter.
I’m increasingly impressed by my friends who stay off major social media network sites (like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) but I can still connect with them over text (or even in the most archaic method of e-mail).
Note: I think the prevalence of social media sites that allow mass communication with large portions of our network inhibit our practical efforts of reaching out to people on an individual level. That’s probably something best explored in a future blog post.
I can’t speak for every phone OS, but the iPhone tracks these as “Pick Ups”… I’m ashamed that my pickups averages out to between 9 and 10 per hour.
My definition and term at least. Not to be confused with “shitposting” which connotes trollish behavior.
I think there are plenty and readily available examples of unhealthy addictions that don’t need to be mentioned.
I guess harm (actual or perceived) is a subjective value, and I wouldn’t call myself compliant or self censorious - so I do know that what I’ve said in the past has certainly damaged relationships with other people.
I’d love to be pointed to studies that attempt to quantify this.
Connections, as opposed to friends, because friendship really should be reserved to denote something more intimate than what can be achieved by everyone listed in our friends and followers list.
I often catch myself doing this on the metro or at the bar.