My latest experiment is something a little different from the regular kind that I’ve been doing. This one is particularly meaningful to me because I think it is one of a few things that have completely changed my mind and my perspective on such a large component of life.
Experiment: Delete Facebook from my phone, shift Instagram to my “app graveyard” (the name I’ve given to the last page on my phone), and place all other forms of social media like Snapchat and Reddit into a folder where I’ll be less likely to compulsively open it.
Note: I still need to use Instagram to post updates on my challenges, but I won’t use it for anything else like scrolling through the feed or using the endless Discover page.
We’re Addicted to Our Phones
The real question is why?
I imagine it’s because we’re trying desperately to distract ourselves from a reality that we can hardly bear. In fact, if I asked you to stop using your smartphone and disconnect from the internet for just a week, there’s a good chance you’d hate it. That’s because you’d be stuck in reality with no form of escape.
I wouldn’t blame you, I’m just the same. My reliance on these technologies is just as serious as the next person.
“If I can’t use my phone, what on earth do I do instead?”
There are reasons for this intense addictive behaviour. According to Johann Hari1, we’re searching desperately for connection in a world that’s becoming more disconnected every day. Paradoxically, this habit of searching for connection online is ruining our ability to connect with people in the real world.
The worst part? This addiction is by design.
Here’s a great explanation by an ex Google employee about how apps are designed to be addictive:
A Closer Look at Snap Streaks
Snap streaks seem harmless right? But in Tristan Harris (the same ex Google employee above) explains how those streaks are designed to make you feel like you have something to lose.
Think about that for a second. That little fire emoji with the 100 next to it is literally there to make you addicted and to encourage you spend more time on Snapchat.
It’s part of what Tristan calls persuasive psychology, unethically being used to induce people like us to spend more time on these apps.
I get that this sounds very conspiracy theorist-like, but there’s a logical explanation to why companies would want to do this: The longer you spend on their app, the more money they are likely to make.
Is the Cost Worth it?
I’m in the generation that saw the explosion in the usage of smartphones and the rise of the older crowd yelling out warnings about the dangers of addiction to social media. I didn’t pay any attention of course. I considered them to be out of touch and afraid of technology, unable to understand the benefits of these great devices.
Not anymore. I was definitely wrong about that.
To highlight the effect of disconnection, let me ask you this:
How many friends can you truly confide in, and trust to have your back when it counts?
If you answered none, you’re not alone. Here’s what this study had to say:
The number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled.
This study was conducted in the US and they’re not citing social media as a factor at all, but the point is about us having less close relationships in general, and these forms of addictive social media certainly does not appear to be helping our cause.
In fact, they seemed to be designed without any regard for the effects on mental health or development.
Why is this Happening?
I’d say it’s because we’re unhappy with the state of our lives, and we use our devices and social media as a way to distract ourselves. This desire to stay connected exists because we feel more alone than ever before.
We have larger houses, with more rooms in it than people. Our families rarely have dinner together, and when they do, it’s in front of the television of some other kind of device. We work more hours in a week, and constantly feel anxious and unfulfilled. These are just some potential reasons for this phenomenon.
If we look at work, for instance, a staggering 85% of employees are not engaged or actively disengaged at work according to Gallup.
It appears to me that most of us seem to detest our work lives, so we distract ourselves while we can, to forget that we have to spend the next ten, maybe twelve hours at a job that’s completely unsatisfying.
And don’t forget about the dreaded commute to and from work. Now there’s another reason to be consumed by your smartphone.
We then reward ourselves for having to slog through work by purchasing stuff. First it’s a huge TV with a surround sound system, then it’s a car, then a new house, and then a new phone, more clothes, expensive watches, and so on. We consume to fill the void.
For the younger folk, they grew up with technology in their hands. However, as you’ll hear from the talk by Adam Alter below, the people who work in tech rarely allow their children access to these devices. A little odd, don’t you think?
Every single year, I’ve noticed that any organisation, society, student accommodation or anything group based (that I’ve been a part of) has been deteriorating.
There are less activities, members are less involved or interested, there are declining rates of participation, and at the student accommodation I was living at, people no longer eat together and bond in the common areas.
Instead, there is a sharp uptick in isolation, depression and other mental health issues. My theory is that this is a symptom of the same larger issue that I alluded to above, but since this post is in the context of smartphones and social media, I’ll focus on these as the main factors.
I believe that the increased reliance on smartphones and social media to interact mainly online is detrimental to our ability to socialise and form those meaningful bonds with people in the real world.
Everywhere you look, you can see people plugged in, connected to their devices as they commute, utterly oblivious to the person sitting next to them. Earphones in, eyes glued to the screen, they immerse themselves into the online world.
You’ve probably seen this yourself: People going to dinner and not speaking a word to each other as they scroll through their news feeds, sending texts to people who aren’t even at the table.
Yet, people can’t pull themselves away.
Imagine having to have a conversation with the person who’s there with you at dinner, without checking your phone once.
Imagine having to sit at a dining table with the family and have a conversation over dinner, without watching TV or using your phone.
These are nightmare situations for a lot of people, which is very unfortunate. This is what I mean when I say that our need to stay connected with others online is disconnecting us.
Have you ever noticed how Netflix recommends shows you’re likely to watch and Amazon recommends items you’re likely to buy? These are examples of how machine learning is being used to understand our habits so that they can best hook us in with recommendations they know we’ll be likely to click on.
(Note: More research and evidence – Is Social Media Bad For You? The Evidence and the Unknowns)
Some of these findings, like in the TED talk by Adam Alter above, indicate that smartphone use is not always negative. There are positive effects of course, but it also appears that these come from a very small number of applications that we use, while we spend most of our time on the apps that make us feel horrible.
The main goal of this post is not to discourage the use of your phone entirely, but raise awareness of how you can be affected and to make choices based on your own research.
Over the next few posts that I make, you may notice a theme. It’s reflecting a change of sorts that I’m going through about my own personal values and beliefs and my worldview.
It’s based strongly on the research I’ve been doing over the past few months and I’d like to share my findings with you as I figure out the implications for myself. I’m hoping to make it a discussion and to hear from you about these findings. Stick around for the upcoming posts.
Would you disconnect from social media and your smartphone? Why or why not?
1 Although Hari has been the subject of intense criticism for his previous conduct, I think the point he makes about disconnection is still valid. Aside from his own credibility that is in doubt, the argument he makes seems to make sense.