Is social media getting you down? Take a tip from the digital wellness movement and the people who are reclaiming their social platforms.
Whether you like it or not, a battle is being waged between the apps on your smartphone. The ultimate prize? Your attention. “Technology is not neutral,” said Tristan Harris, design ethicist and co-founder of Time Well Spent, in his TED Talk, “and it becomes this race to the bottom of the brain stem of who can go lower to get it.” Over the past few years, Harris has been pivotal in highlighting how apps are often perniciously designed to stake bigger and bigger claims on our attention, to get us hooked, to keep us scrolling. Not for nothing did Netflix claim its competitors were “Facebook, YouTube, and sleep.” This brain hacking has largely worked; we’re glued to our devices. Various studies report that average American adults spend anywhere between two to five hours per day on smartphones. And among the many apps elbowing for our attention is a group that fights extra hard: social media.
But social networking sites aren’t all bad. They do connect people, foster collaborations, and fuel civic participation. They’re fun and engaging. It’s why we have flocked to social platforms, which account for 30% of the time we spend online. But there are offline consequences. While internet addictions have grown in numbers and severity, impacting productivity and creativity, social media itself has proven harmful to users’ mental and psychological well-being, and a fritterer of time and energy.
For one, metrics—likes, comments, friend requests—have gamified platforms like Facebook and Instagram, turning social interaction into a numbers and popularity contest. “It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation, in views, success in followers,” wrote Essena O’Neill, the one-time Instagram star, in 2015. “It’s perfectly orchestrated self-absorbed judgment.” The bottomless feed of news and notifications exist to keep us scrolling, producing in us dopamine spikes, if not hits to our self-worth and pangs of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). The effect is a major time-suck. In a single social media session, we could be spending untold hours in a YouTube video wormhole, pursuing validation through Twitter likes, or hate-watching someone’s Instagram story. As Sherry Turkle summed it up in Alone Together, “Anxiety is part of the new connectivity.”
Christina Cook can sympathize. In 2012, she wearied of Facebook mediating her relationships. “I was living in a constant state of information overload and a vacuum of joy,” she writes me. She chose to completely disconnect for a month and in doing so, regained time, peace, and JOMO, the Joy of Missing Out. Cook’s unplugging formed the foundation for Experience JOMO, which she describes as “a countermovement to our always-on tech addiction.” Through workshops and email prompts, the platform urges a more considered approach to technology and social media in order to rediscover the pleasures and connections of an unplugged life. “In order to experience the joy of missing out, we need to connect deeply with the things that are truly life-giving for us,” she writes, “and they are almost always away from the screen.”
Cook is not alone in her stand against attention-seeking tech. The digital wellness movement has gained steam recently, enjoining people to be mindful of their digital habits. In response to the groundswell, even tech companies have launched features such as Your Time on Facebook and Google Wellbeing to help people get a grip on their tech usage, though it is vital to note that it is in none of these corporations’ interests to get you to log off. Of course, no one is asking that you disconnect completely forever (though if you wish to, godspeed); rather, the advocacy here is to deploy conscious and mindful strategies in tech consumption.
That’s easier said than done, notes Anastasia Dedyukhina, founder of Consciously Digital, considering how we’ve “outsourced more and more of our functions to tech.” Google memorizes our searches, Facebook archives our Moments. Once a digital marketer, Dedyukhina has, in the last four years, committed to the concept of digital minimalism. Where digital tools were once designed to help us with tasks, freeing us up to accomplish more fulfilling endeavors, she says, “we’ve ended up spending more time managing technology.” Her response was to jettison her smartphone for an old-school Nokia, completely eliminating the temptation of apps.
If digital downsizing is too extreme, try a simple habit fix: being intentional. It’s what Leif Hansen practices. He’s been active in the digital wellness space for more than a decade, early on with his 2009 series of SoulTech workshops and lately, with SlowTech, a Facebook group offering tips and support calls to help participants alleviate tech dependencies. “A lot of us feel like we’ve traded the depth for the breadth of a relationship,” he tells me. Hansen’s intentional use of social media means being specific about what he’s using these platforms for. “If I’m clear that I’m going on Facebook because I want to see if there are any events this weekend, then I’m gonna go on, I’m gonna do that, and I’m gonna get off,” he says.
Failing that, Tommy Sobel, CEO and founder of Brick, suggests an easy daily practice: putting your smartphone on airplane or Brick mode for at least an hour a day. That single adjustment is intended to precipitate a series of other behavioral changes, beginning with engagement with the offline world.
Apps to the Rescue?
Another approach is to make apps work for you. There are now a number of apps that help to redress the balance and make social media platforms more user-centric. A quick search on Glitch calls up tools that allow you to export the feeds of everyone you follow on Twitter or re-chronologize your Twitter feed, enabling you to reclaim your accounts and profiles. Here are a few more apps that help limit the clutter and distractions of a social media experience:
The first step toward conscious social media use is, well, being conscious of how much you use social media. Apps such as Moment, Flipd, and Forest help users track and limit the amount of time they spend on their smartphones, but for iOS users, Apple’s Screen Time has got you covered. It provides a statistical breakdown of how long you spend on screen and which apps you’re on, plus its iOS 12 update enables you to restrict the time spent on certain apps and schedule downtime away from your phone.
Applying the Marie Kondo creed to the social media space, this app by Julius Tarng urges a mindful clean-up of the accounts you follow on Twitter. Taking you through your follows, it asks if each account “still sparks joy, intrigue, inspiration,” or remains somewhat important to you. Unfollow, declutter, and watch your Twitter feed grow in significance, but not in size.
Last year, realizing that Twitter has become a platform where free expression can often devolve into abuse and outrage, the company detailed its dedication to “create healthier experiences,” while CEO Jack Dorsey has broached a rethink of its Like button. Perhaps a fix is also due for the site’s retweet feature, which at its worst, overloads users’ feeds and amplifies misinformation. Twitter currently allows users to turn off retweets one profile at a time, but here’s a handy app by Julia Evans that turns off all retweets from everyone you follow.
A great aid in intentional social media use, this Chrome extension eliminates all distractions on Facebook by replacing your endless, attention-diverting news feed with a single inspirational or custom quote.
Facebook’s aggregates—the number of likes, amount of comments, size of your friend base—don’t just quantify social connections, but form an addictive element of the platform. It’s why artist Benjamin Grosser built the Facebook Demetricator, an extension that hides all of the site’s numbers, including friend requests, shares, likes, and those red notification flags. (Also check out Grosser’s Twitter Demetricator)
It’s no longer unusual for old, bad, or out-of-context tweets to resurface to haunt a user’s current life or well-being. If you’d like to unburden your Twitter account of its past and move on ahead, here’s a nifty app by Ryan Giglio that will wipe your entire archive in 20 minutes or less.
Aimed at strengthening awareness of our digital habits and weakening social media’s claim on our attention, these apps, alongside the strategies discussed above, work by shifting control from the platforms back into our palms. Try them out and re-empower the way you approach your news feed—which should be an edifying function, not a time vortex. Social media, after all, is not going anywhere. But it’s time to make it work for us and not against us.