Why We’re Addicted to Social Media and How Mindfulness Can Help

Why We’re Addicted to Social Media and How Mindfulness Can Help

Social media is designed to be addictive, so it can be extremely difficult to use it in a healthy way.

Often, during a work break, I will go on Facebook and tell myself that I’m “just checking in for a few minutes.” But then a few minutes turns into two hours and suddenly, I find myself getting into a long-winded debate with someone who is barely even reading my well-reasoned comments. Or I get sucked into the storm of a really sensational story. Or I simply black out and come-to several hours later after reading 345 comments on a triggering article I never should have opened in the first place.

We all know that the internet is a bit of a crapshoot. Forrest Gump might say that going on social media is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.

And Facebook and other social media giants know this. Their products are specifically engineered to get us hooked. Seriously. The folks who develop the social media products we consume have admitted as much. They know we like to roll the dice. Refreshing a social media feed lights up that little part of the brain that loves to pull a slot machine, just to see if this time, we’ll finally get triple sevens.

This concept is called “intermittent variable rewards.” Essentially, we keep refreshing our feeds, checking for those likes — or perhaps fun new content — hoping to “win” something worthwhile. Whether we’re craving attention, validation, distraction or connection, we’re looking to win. So we keep refreshing, and keep hoping that our favorite apps will deliver those sweet, sweet pleasure-releasing rewards straight to our brains this time.

But the reality is, we rarely get triple sevens from our social media experience. Instead, we get pulled in all directions; drowned in a thousand voices, and overwhelmed by hundreds upon hundreds of forces calling for our attention. Auto-play videos of horrific tragedies. Controversial opinions. Offensive jokes. Titillating news stories. Hashtag activism. Elaborately staged baby announcements. And that’s all just in the first three minutes of scrolling.

It’s important to understand that our brains can only do so much computing in one day. Each time we switch between tasks — which happens every time we check our phones, our email, or pull up a social app “just to check in” — we deplete our neural resources. A recent study showed that for those of us who work on the internet (guilty!), we switch tasks as many as 400 times each day. It’s no wonder we’re exhausted at the end of the day, even if all we’ve really done is sit and stare at a screen.

This is why it’s so important to use social media mindfully.

But what does that mean, exactly? To be mindful is simply to be conscious or aware. So think of it as conscious social media use.

With mindfulness, we learn to pay attention to our social media habits and how they affect our thoughts, moods and feelings. When we use social media with intention and purpose, we are less likely to give in to our impulses and more likely to find the enrichment we crave.

For me personally, using social media mindfully doesn’t mean imposing strict rules on my online activity. If hard-and-fast rules (example: “schedule 30 minutes for social media time twice per day, and don’t open your apps outside of that designated time”) work for you, that’s great! But what I’m advocating for with Mindful Media May is a more intuitive approach.

Easier said than done though, right? I struggle with it daily. Unfortunately, I’m no “after” in this case. I’ve been working on reforming my social media habits with my therapist for more than a year. And while my boundaries are getting better and stronger, I still have tons of slip-ups.

So, something I really want to stress before diving into the mindful social media tips is this: be gentle with yourself as you work on this.

The truth is, if you’re addicted to, or even highly reliant on social media, you won’t be able to change your habits overnight (unless, of course, you go cold turkey). It’s going to take a lot of hard work, trial and error, and messing things up hundreds of times before you start to see a real change.

And that’s ok. I promise.

I tried loads of strategies before landing on a few that work for me. And they don’t even always work! I’m always practicing, and you will be too.

So please, be kind and patient with yourself.

You will not be perfect. Tell yourself that’s ok, and keep showing up to practice.

Next week, we’ll start diving into the absolute best strategies I’ve found to use social media mindfully. Stay tuned!

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