Since I’m an extreme extrovert who loves to travel, last year was my personal hell. The Year That Must Not Be Named was divisive and exhausting in many ways, and it was compounded by a pandemic because of which I couldn’t hang out with hardly anyone — let alone take my toddlers to a playground — for most of the year. I was burned out, and my iPhone wasn’t helping. That’s why in January I did the thing I’ve been saying I should do for years: I quit all social media cold turkey.
Without constantly scrolling through my usual apps, I started to notice more of the world around me — which made me feel like a recovering addict. But how do scientists define social media addiction, anyway?
Clinically speaking, it’s a little complicated. “There is no officially described diagnostic criteria,” explains Dar Meshi, a cognitive neuroscientist at Michigan State University who runs MSU’s Social and Media Neuroscience Lab and investigates problematic social media use. Such a disorder hasn’t been formally recognized, he says.
As it turns out, there isn’t even consensus among scientists as to how social media affects us. “People claim it’s uniformly harmful, but the data do not support that,” says psychologist Ethan Kross, who has studied social media for 10 years and leads the University of Michigan’s Emotion and Self Control Lab.
Case in point: Kross co-authored a study in 2015 published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that found that scrolling through Facebook tends to undermine our sense of well-being, mostly by increasing our envy. Contrast that to a 2019 study in the Journal of Computer Mediated-Communication that indicated that using social media can actually help improve mental health and ward off severe psychological distress in adults.
What makes it so hard to determine? “It’s a really hard question, because we get so many different things from social media,” Kross says. We might be on there to see what our friends are doing, looking for news, seeking entertainment, sharing Baby Yoda memes — you name it. In my case, I mostly used social networking to be distracted or to see what everyone else was saying.
I assumed my detox would immediately shift my mood. I’m not sure it did, though my husband says I am more pleasant to be around. (I’m sure what he meant to say was that I am even more pleasant to be around.) I gained quality time with my kids, I was more productive around the house — and I was definitely less annoyed, since I couldn’t see anything infuriating in my news feed.
But I also realized how much time I still spent on my phone texting, emailing, or browsing — and how many times I automatically unlocked my iPhone looking for an app that wasn’t there. Those reflexes, Meshi explains, are signs that social media use has become a habit hardwired in my brain.
“Your brain knows you get rewards from things, so if you have a moment to spare — your brain is always trying to get rewards — you pick up a phone,” Meshi says.
Scientists don’t know how long it takes to rewire your brain after you quit social media. That research hasn’t been done yet, Meshi says.
What makes it so hard to quit, anyway? Our devices. Smartphones aren’t just how we connect with our social network; they’re also what we need for work, or navigation, or taking pictures, and the list goes on. “It’s all mashed into one, and there’s so much value in the device,” Meshi says.
Give up my iPhone, though? I’m not ready to go cold turkey on that just yet.
Not ready to quit social media? Here’s how to build a healthier relationship with your smart phone.
Physically remove yourself from your phone.
“That’s my No. 1 recommendation to people,” says cognitive neuroscientist Dar Meshi, who says he used to take strolls outside without his phone. He points to a 2017 study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, which found that the mere presence of your smartphone distracts your brain and reduces your cognitive capacity.
Engage actively with social media.
There is a fair amount of data showing that passively consuming social media can be not so good for us, inspiring jealousy and undermining our own well-being, says psychologist Ethan Kross. “The trick is to figure how you can navigate it most effectively so it works for you,” he says. So seize the opportunity presented by social media to connect with other people and share support, and rise above the negativity.
Don’t forget about social norms.
“There are no social cues on social media to direct us,” Kross notes. That makes it very easy to hop on social networking sites when you’re frustrated or angry and say things that you wouldn’t say to someone else’s face, and just being aware of that tendency can help you moderate your online interactions and give you a more balanced approach to your social media consumption. —MV