I spent the past few years learning how to pull the levers and rotate the knobs that use your data to extract clicks from people online. I started to understand how these systems work, and I started to realize I was also addicted to these systems myself. To improve, I conducted research and made changes to my behavior over the course of two and a half years. Now that I am in control, I am trying to bring out the information that will help others understand and improve their digital lives.
Unfortunately, rather than controlling social media, most of us seem to feel controlled by it.
As Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of growth at Facebook, said: “If you feed the beast, it will destroy you.”
If we let it control us, it will destroy us.
How can we end this addictive and possibly harmful relationship? My research and experience suggests we must make the following changes. These changes allow us to escape psychological feedback loops that lead to more social media use throughout the day.
Five steps for reshaping social media use are:
- reduce the number of your “friends” and upload less content
- scale back use of notifications
- scale back use of news feeds and profile browsing (and pornography)
- develop and exercise self control
- develop and maintain strong real world relationships.
Let’s go in order.
The first measure is to upload less content and cut back your “friends” list. Less friends means less vulnerability, which reduces your obsession with monitoring social media for notifications. We obsess over notifications to mitigate vulnerability, because notifications let us know when there have been interactions with our profile. Ending notification checking is the single best thing you can do to restore control over use of social media, and this first change makes it easier to do that.
2. scale back notifications
The second measure for reshaping our relationship with social media is to cut back and ideally eliminate our use of notifications. Let them pile up to 99 and go back to 0. You won’t miss much, and you will have much more control over social media. Notifications are a key driver of our obsession with constantly checking social media because of the randomized reward they can provide. Notifications can release a surge of dopamine similar to what a gambler feels from the uncertainty of whether he will rake in winnings or lose all the money he has put on the table. The outcome of digital information exchange is fraught with uncertainty over whether we have been publicly validated or devaluated, and by whom. That uncertainty can be alleviated only by clicking the notification. But notifications drive compulsive use of social media and are not worth that cost once you have identified it.
3. scale use of news feeds and profile browsing (and pornography)
The third measure for reshaping our relationship with social media is to eliminate use of the news feed, profile browsing, and pornography. The purpose of making these changes is to reduce the consumption of digital sexualized imagery. It is important to reduce consumption of digital sexualized imagery to separate yourself from the feedback loop of sexual anxiety that leads to attachment to both social media and porn. Consuming sexualized content on social media perpetuates this feedback loop by producing sexual stimulation that leads to sexual anxiety from being unable to channel that sexual stimulation. This then leads to use of porn to streamline the release of that sexual stimulation. Because of the free and endless novelty, of online porn, we often end up following a path of least resistance, which can lead to abuse. Then we go back to social media seeking sexual content to replenish sexual energy. The feedback loop starts again.
This third measure is also important because, by reducing our use of the news feed and profile browsing, we can separate ourselves from the feedback loop of social anxiety. Use of the news feed and profile browsing creates social anxiety by arousing feelings of insecurity and inferiority from peer comparison. This is done by subconsciously contrasting the romanticized, glorified lives of others with our own fallible, insecure, isolated self behind an electronic screen, drawn to Facebook when lonely. We then upload content hoping for validation and continually monitor social media for responses that provide that validation (notifications) — in an attempt to reduce that anxiety from peer comparison. This feedback loop of social anxiety operates between two axes: peer comparison and external validation. It can also lead to depression. So it’s worth escaping by making this change and scaling back content consumption on the news feed and on profiles.
4. develop and exercise self control
The fourth measure for reshaping our relationship with social media is to develop and exercise self-control. This allows us to successfully implement these measures and resist temptations to engage with social media in unnecessary ways. Because of its immediate accessibility, it is difficult to resist temptations to check social media. Successfully implementing and maintaining these measures thus requires developing and exercising a heightened level of self-control which, although initially challenging, over time becomes easier to exercise, ultimately enabling more effortless, reshaped use of social media.
The problem is not that we can’t change our relationships with social media. We can. The problem is that it is difficult. These feedback loops continually compound, meaning that in order to comfortably maintain use of social media, we need to escape these feedback loops altogether by changing behavior that may have become ingrained over years.
5. invest in real social relationships and interests
The fifth measure for reshaping our relationships with social media is to invest energy in real social relationships and to find other activities that offer satisfaction or comfort. We go on social media seeking satisfaction and comfort, only to find that digital connections offer limited and superficial rewards. The social and sexual anxiety that drive heavy use of social media can never produce the satisfaction and comfort of real-world relationships and activities.
With more real world relationships, we feel less anxious and lonely. Thus the desire for validation, which motivates us to upload our photos and other content, is diminished. With less content uploaded, we feel less vulnerability online, and check social media less frequently.
With less news feed and profile browsing, we feel less social anxiety from peer comparison that leads us to upload content, and we feel less sexual anxiety that leads to use of porn. With less vulnerability from having fewer social media friends, we become less concerned about digital public validation or devaluation. And with less uploaded content, there is less of a basis for validation or devaluation online, thus easing the process of separating from randomized notifications. With less checking of notifications, we feel less compulsive temptations to check social media.
These changes allow us to scale back intensive use of social media and avoid ADHD (from compulsive checking) and depression (from peer comparison).
These changes are interconnected. By reshaping our relationship with social media in the ways I have suggested, we deconstruct the basis of our addictive relationships with social media (and even pornography) by sidestepping the feedback loops that drive increased engagement.
Take control or be controlled.