Biologically speaking, habits are a good thing. They relieve some of the cognitive work we must do throughout the day by building automatic functions in our brains. For example, imagine how much time and effort it would take if we had to relearn how to make a coffee every morning. Habits protect us, and they help us divert our energy to the areas of our lives that really need it.
However, because habits are so easy to develop, especially when there’s a reward attached to them, it’s all too easy for humans to engage in behaviours that aren’t healthy. One common unhealthy habit currently on the rise, especially in teens and younger adults, is the addictive patterns of social media and screens.
Joshua Todd is an Inkblot Coach specializing in human habits and working with concurrent disorders, specifically addiction and mental health. He confirms just how easy it can be to fall into an unhealthy pattern of social media use, even if near-addictive use seems like the norm.
“If you’re not feeling fulfilled in one area of your life, it’s very easy to become addicted to something,” says Todd. “It can even be something seen as being healthy or normal.”
Positives of social media
Opening the same apps over and over again feels good because the positive rewards are immediate, especially while we’re isolated from each other during the pandemic. It can be a great way to keep up with friends and family, and it provides an opportunity to engage in groups who share your interests. There are lots of fun and healthy uses of social media—our lack of self-awareness around our habits is the root of the issue, not necessarily the platforms themselves.
“We need technology right now,” says Todd. “Can you imagine getting through the pandemic without it? It’s such an important part of our lives, but there are downsides to it as well.”
Negative impacts of too much social media
When our real lives begin to be affected by these virtual platforms, we know the habit has taken a negative turn. Here are some of the potential impacts of too much social media:
Depression, anxiety and stress
Research has shown that four main factors make social media addictive and dangerous for our mental health. Highlights are one factor, and this relates to the fact that people only tend to post positive or happy moments.
“People post when things are going well in their lives, so you’re seeing people’s best moments on social media,” says Todd. “You don’t see what’s going on in the background; you’re constantly searching for perfection, which is totally unrealistic.” People naturally tend to compare themselves to others which leads to a feeling of internal pressure to be better and happier, which creates anxiety or a feeling that “I am not good enough” or “I am inferior to others,” which leads to depression symptoms
Another factor is currency. It’s the component that contributes to a feeling of instant gratification and validation, which human beings love so much. It refers to the “likes,” the “shares,” and the comments that result from a post. They cause a release of dopamine and provide somewhat of a high, which we then tend to keep “chasing.” This is often referred to as the “economy of attention.” We allow others to attribute value to us instead of our self-value being self-determined. It often contributes to feelings of low self-worth, low self-esteem and low self-confidence, all of which can lead to symptoms related to depression and anxiety.
The worst stressor caused by exposure to social media is the potential of being insulted, demeaned or harassed by others. It is common for people to feel disinhibited when hiding behind a screen, which often leads to forms of bullying and harassment that they would not normally engage in while encountering in-person situations. Forty per cent of people who use social media reported having experienced harassment, and 73 per cent reported having witnessed it. These rates are alarming, and the accumulation of these “micro-moments” of harassment has the potential of turning into a macro problem, at times severe enough to cause some people to commit suicide.
Quality of sleep
If you feel like you literally can’t put your phone down at night, that’s by design. “The more you’re on a screen, the more it lessens your brain’s ability to produce melatonin which tells you to sleep,” says Todd. Without good quality sleep, your cognitive functioning, productivity and ability to regulate your mood are impaired.
Body image issues
For visual-based apps like Instagram, the constant comparison to others can result in a negative sense of self, especially around body image. “Influencers who are constantly posting images of their bodies can make people think, ‘there’s something wrong with me because I don’t look like that,” says Joshua. And he cautions that it’s not just women who are feeling the pressure—young men, too, are fed unrealistic body standards every day.
While these apps help us connect, a false sense of connection comes with having many followers you never interact with in person. “You can’t learn to socialize from behind a screen. You don’t know what proper boundaries are,” says Todd. “We evolved to be in front of people where we can see, touch, interact in real-time, and you’re not getting any of that behind a screen.”
5 tips to reduce your screen time
Aside from helping to combat the above effects, reducing your screen time has many positive mental and physical implications. Here are some ways to first recognize if your use of social media has become unhealthy—and then ways to combat that habit.
1. Practice mindfulness
The first thing to remind yourself when trying to cut back is that so much of an unhealthy habit’s grip on you is a lack of awareness about your behaviour. “Like with all of your habits, you’re on autopilot, so it makes sense that you’re going to pick up your phone without any awareness,” says Todd. “It’s a matter of being aware and conscious that this is part of your life and behaviour, so you’re less inclined to pick it up.”
2. Monitor your behaviour
Stopping cold turkey is almost never the answer, says Todd. But stopping for periods and monitoring your reaction can give you insights into how your habit makes you feel. Put your phone in another room for a set period—don’t check emails, Instagram, or texts, then monitor how you feel physically and mentally. “Do you feel depressed? Do you feel like you’re missing out on something? You have immediate access to what this behaviour is doing to you. Writing down how you’re feeling is really important.”
3. Put your observations to work
After you’ve written down your observations about how you feel away from your phone, pick it up and monitor the feelings you get at that moment. Do you feel a sense of connection, of validation? “If you can be aware of what benefits you’re getting, you can find ways to replace them with healthier behaviours,” says Todd. “If it makes you feel connected to other people, find healthier ways to get that same benefit. Any way you can mimic the behaviour you’re trying to avoid is a good way to slowly remove that behaviour from your life.”
4. Remove triggers in your environment
If you want to succeed in dialling down this behaviour, you need to stop yourself from being triggered to engage with it automatically. “There are little things you can do like taking Facebook or Instagram off your phone’s home screen or turning off notifications,” says Todd. “The fewer triggers, the less likely you are to perform that behaviour.” He also suggests getting an alarm clock, so the first thing you see in the morning isn’t your phone.
5. Get an accountability partner
Quitting or cutting back on anything is hard, but having a partner to keep you honest can make a big difference. If you live with roommates or a partner, ask them to remind you of your intention when you mindlessly start to scroll. Knowing someone has your best interests in mind will make you feel like you don’t want to let them down, which will ultimately make you more accountable to yourself.
As with anything, moderation is key. Awareness of your phone and social media use is a significant first step to ensuring you have healthy boundaries and are setting yourself up for success.