“Do you want to come out with us for dinner and drinks?” ask my friends.
Of COURSE I do! Even an antisocial person like myself can’t help but bask in the warm company of the few select people I consider my friends. I get all excited and eager for the evening. I shower, I shave, and I even put on pants. “I’m going out to hang out with my buddies!” I muse to myself with a proud grin.
An hour later, I’m sitting at the bar, bored and irritated because my friends have their faces glued to their cell phones. I could have been ignored just as well if I had stayed home, and I wouldn’t’ve have had to spend as much money for my drinks. “Gawd!” I think to myself, exasperated. “Why are my friends such addicts? It’s pathetic!”
The next morning – the moment I regain consciousness from sleep and without even thinking about it – my arm gropes around on the floor, blindly searching for my cell phone. My hand lands on the rectangular piece of plastic. I grab it and yank it off the charging cord and bring it to my face. My eyes haven’t adjusted to the daylight yet, and looking at the screen fucking hurts like hell. And yet, I’m staring at my alerts – all of the e-mails and Facebook notifications that have rolled in overnight. None of them are worth the pain my eyes feel. They never are.
A couple of weeks ago, I heard a person describe this precise behavior as evidence of addictive behavior. Every morning since then, I was aware that I was proving this guy’s point, and yet unable to restrain myself from fishing for my phone immediately after waking up.
The inescapable conclusion is that I am literally addicted to my cell phone.
Cell Phone Addiction
This isn’t news to me. I’ve noticed patterns of behavior in myself and in others indicative of addiction. I’ve tried to wean myself off of my cell phone in the past with mixed results. But they’ve always been temporary. I have always relapsed.
Why is it that we don’t treat cell phone addiction or social media addiction as seriously as we treat drug addiction or alcoholism?
Well, for one thing, we don’t treat drug addiction or alcoholism seriously to begin with. We treat the habits as disgusting and the users as weak-willed, rather than recognizing very real, very physical biochemical reactions occurring in the brain that makes these habits difficult, near-impossible to break.
For another thing, cell phone and social media addiction is a lot more widespread than drug and alcohol use. It’s harder to paint addicts as people who have a problem when addicts compose the majority of the population.
Lastly, there’s the misconception that cell phone and social media addiction isn’t as harmful as drug and alcohol addiction. People have died from drug overdoses. People have been killed by drunk drivers in auto accidents. When’s the last time you heard of anyone being killed by a driver for texting and driv– oh, wait.
It’s not a mystery, really. Cell phones, mobile app games, and social media are carefully engineered to trigger very specific and addictive responses in our brains. The melodic chirp of a push notification, the animated cascading flourish of beating a level in Candy Crush, and the affirmation and attention we get from “likes” and “retweets” all trigger dopamine rushes in our brains. And just because we’re not aware of the dopamine rush doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Reasons to End the Addiction
Look, I get it. I understand the allure of cell phones and social media. I’m not special. I’ve been sucked into this world, too.
Cell phones keep us connected to the world and to our friends. They’re an excellent diversion for staving off boredom. They connect us to audiences, potential consumers, and prospective employers.
But they’re also ruining our ability to engage in actual social interaction with each other. It’s no surprise that introversion and social awkwardness is so widespread in my generation. We grew up on electronic devices. We didn’t have to learn real social skills. Hell, we never even learned how to date! Just “swipe right” and send some dick pics.
They’re also causing us to miss out on real-world adventures. It’s easy to believe that the digital world is more exciting than the real world, because so much of the real world is mind-numbingly boring. The digital world offers escape from mendacity and hardship, in exchange for a bright and colorful fantasy candy land. But when I think back on my fondest memories, I never think about digital experiences. My fondest memories have always taken place in the real world. Good and memorable moments in the real world might be rare and difficult to capture. But they will always be better than the best virtual memories.
New Years’ Resolutions
For two years in a row now, I have resolved to wean myself off of social media and to engage less with political and religious bullshit. I even explicitly vowed to stop following news about Donald Trump. I succeed in these resolutions for days or even weeks at a time, but I always relapse.
Dopamine rushes aside, I always feel like shit when I relapse. Social media and cable news inundate me with drama designed to keep me agitated and angry. Dispassionate and objective news reporting is squeezed out. Sensationalized drummed-up controversies take precedence. And I’m contained within a chamber where my worldview echoes over and over, causing a deafening feedback loop.
It’s not healthy.
And more than anything, I want to be able to hang out with my friends and actually talk to my friends. I don’t like it when we all wind up with our faces in our phones. That’s not cool. There’s something very… Stepford Wives about that kind of behavior.
Advice to Kick the Addiction
Starting today, I’m making a renewed effort to kick my cell phone and social media habits. I invite you to join with me. Here are some steps I’m taking…
- Decluttering my digital footprint.
- Removing apps I don’t need from my cell phone. (Also reduces battery usage, data usage, and memory usage.)
- Unfriending and unfollowing people on Facebook and other social media platforms who I don’t actually know and don’t interact with. They’re not going to miss me, and it reduces the clutter on my news feeds.
- Unsubscribe from newsletters, mailing lists, and anything else that causes your e-mail inbox to rattle off new message notifications unnecessarily.
- Unsubscribing from Tumblrs that post too much, clogging my feed. Unfollowing Facebook pages that I don’t need to read content from.
- Making my cell phone visually less appealing.
- Changing my display settings to monochrome / gray-scale.
- Clearing off all of my app shortcuts, and/or moving them over to a secondary screen.
- A clean, minimalist main screen with just three or four shortcuts for my most common activities.
- 99% of my notifications come from Facebook and Gmail, so I’ve had to go in and disable all those.
- It’s important to remember that disabling notifications doesn’t mean that you’re not getting access to content. It just means that you have to consciously log in to Facebook or Gmail to find out what is waiting for you. It means not being instantly notified every time a new item arrives.
- Disabuse yourself of the need to remain connected 24/7 “in case of emergency.” Let’s be honest with ourselves… If someone we love has a real life-and-death emergency, they’re going to call 911, not us. We are NOT as fucking important as we think we are.
- Restrict incoming messages.
- I hate talking on phones. So for me, it was a pretty easy decision to install an app that blocks all phone calls. They are customizable, so you can block all calls except for calls from certain people, if you wish. The same level of customization can be achieved with text message blocking, as well,
- Use your Do Not Disturb settings. Give yourself certain times of the day during which you are unreachable. At night when you’re supposed to be asleep. During meals. At work. Whenever you feel is appropriate.
- If you want certain people to be able to get a hold of you, that’s fine. Decide for yourself which methods of communication you’ll leave open – whether it’s actual cell phone calls, Facebook, Snapchat, or some other app. Then reach out to those people whom you want to have access and inform them of the best way to get past all of your restrictions. You’ll make them feel special, because they’ll have the key to get access to you that not everyone else will have.
- Limit Your Usage
- Don’t charge your phone overnight in your bedroom. Charge it in a bathroom or in the kitchen. If you use your cell phone as an alarm clock, then put it in an adjacent room so you have to get up to turn it off. If you can hear the phone from the kitchen or bathroom, then you’ll be right where you need to be to wash up or start breakfast.
- Don’t use your cell phone for the first hour after you wake up, or an hour before you go to bed. Give your brain a chance to wind down at night and boot up in the morning.
- If you absolutely must use your cell phone at night, get an app like Twilight, which will put a red overlay over your phone and reduce strain on your eyes.
- Very few of us need to be accessible 24/7. Even those of us with businesses can survive being disconnected for a few hours at a time. Dedicate certain hours of the day for cell phone or computer use. If your time is limited, your time will be more productive and you won’t waste as much of it scrolling and browsing.
- Leave It Home
- Don’t bring your cell phone with you when you go out.
- If you absolutely need it for navigation, then leave the phone in your car.
- If you want to take photographs, bring a single-function camera.
- Turn the phone off for a few hours. Or even a full day. Do this early on to prove to yourself that the world will not come crashing down around you if your phone is off. If you have a fear of missing out, notify your closest friends and family of your plans so they have other ways to get a hold of you.
- Start using Airplane Mode to conserve your battery and to keep out phone call and e-mail interruptions while still maintaining the functionality of your cell phone.
- Reduce Negativity
- Regardless of your political persuasions, avoid news sources that peddle sensational news that keep you agitated. Even if you believe your anger is just and warranted – if the news is making you feel angry, that’s not a good thing.
- If you need to keep abreast of the news, switch to neutral news sources, like AP, Reuters, BBC, and Agence-France. The news will be more boring, I must admit. But at least my blood pressure wasn’t spiking every 5 minutes.
- Unfollow friends who post incendiary articles and messages on Facebook and Twitter. Even if you agree with their messages. Being inundated with this sort of material is not healthy.
- Consider deleting social media accounts entirely.
- If you’re not prepared to delete a social media account, try avoiding it for a single day. Then a single week. Then a whole month. Each time you come back, look at all the notifications that you racked up during that time. Did you really miss anything of importance? Over time, you’ll realize that you can live without social media entirely.
- Establish new communication protocols with your friends. Start by relying less on social media. Try switching back to conventional e-mails, phone calls, or text messages. You can take that a step further if you also want to wean yourself off of your cell phone. How cool would it be to receive an ink-on-paper letter from a friend?