Social Media: Excess and Addiction

How We Spend Our Days is How We Spend Our Lives–Annie Dillard

Melanie, granddaughter Saige and I were at the lake in northern Minnesota last July (2016) during the Republican National Convention. Obsessed with the presidential campaigns, I couldn’t bear to watch or listen to the Republican speakers. But I had FOMO: fear of missing out, I had to know what was going on. I turned to Twitter.

I followed my favorite pundits, experts, consultants and journalists. Tapping the Twitter icon was the first thing I did upon waking and the last thing I did before a fitful night’s sleep. I checked my phone constantly throughout the day. I’d go through new Tweets and see the notification that I had newer Tweets and I would begin scrolling all over again.

My body was at the tranquil lake with Melanie and Saige; my attention was fragmented and scattered all over the angry and anxious political landscape. I felt guilty about what I was doing and unhappy with what I was reading but I kept checking my phone apps: Twitter, Facebook and newspaper headline notifications. Every click of an icon brought me a new jolt of fear, energy or joy depending on the news of the moment. I knew my behavior was physically and emotionally unhealthy but I didn’t want to quit; I wanted more. My mix of fight/flight adrenaline and happy dopamine levels must have maxed out. When I felt depressed being away, I went to my phone for another fix. I was out of control.

Today, when Melanie and I spend time with Saige, they talk and laugh about their time at the lake–they have great memories. I remember the angst I felt and my crazy behavior that I did not like.

Tristan Harris, previously a Design Ethicist at Google, now leads Time Well Spent, a nonprofit movement to align technology with our humanity. He wrote that the average person checks her phone 150 times a day. I am not alone. Many addicts and potential addicts click away out there.

In a podcast interview with Sam Harris, Tristan Harris said app users should recognize that 1000 engineers work behind the screens empowering people to spend more time on the apps. Put more bluntly: Intentional or not, app designers, with no set of values to guide them, seek to maximize profits by manipulating users to spend more and more time on their apps. Some users become addicted with damage to their jobs, lives, health and relationships. Designers don’t try to help us make better life choices: they want our attention. We need to be aware of the dark side of technology so we can make smart choices for how we use our devices.

I quit Twitter on November 9, 2016. I stopped watching anxiety provoking cable news shows. I read newspapers for my news and quit going to their home pages many times a day for fear of missing something. I don’t look at my phone in bed or when with others. I recently decided to limit my time on Facebook to one short time period a day. I block out time for Internet surfing instead of going on and off it mindlessly many times throughout the day

Most important to me: I block out quiet morning hours to meditate and read books or listen to podcasts that challenge me and to write, which makes me think. These activities fulfill me and stretch my aging brain. I do not use any phone apps or visit the Internet before or during this period of time. I turned my phone notifications off so they won’t steal my attention and disrupt my focus and concentration. I believe that brains high-jacked by phone apps and constant interruptions are diminished brains.

To try to find meaning, purpose, self-esteem, and a sense of community from an addiction is futile and guaranteed to end in serious suffering. I know how hard it is to break an addiction: I quit smoking cold turkey 35 years ago and drinking in 1974. I consider myself a sugar addict. After a sugar binge, it takes three days of abstinence for the craving to subside. I resist app/Internet temptations daily. I replace them with healthy alternatives. I know from experience that the craving will pass. Excessive users may be able to break their habit on their own. Addicts whose behaviors interfere with work, school or relationships may need help.

I have a finite amount of attention to give and I don’t want to waste it. I want to give my attention to people I love and to activities that make me feel alive naturally. I don’t want my brain hijacked and dumbed-down or manipulated into addictions or excessive use of phone apps that drain my time, energy, attention and enrich others.

The Internet, iPhones and the apps available to us  are tools for us to use with thoughtful awareness to help us live more efficient, more productive and better lives. We need to be aware of the dark side of these tools and make our own choices about how to use them or the machines will make choices for us and absorb us. Now is the time to learn to use them in life-enhancing ways because future technologies will be more threatening to our humanity and freedom.

I look forward to being present at the lake with Melanie and Saige this summer.