– By Paul Napper and Anthony Rao
Cigarettes, alcohol and commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals like Adderall and Prozac all come with warning labels. Has the time come for warnings when using online media, particularly social media? Are there unsafe or unhealthy exposures, or dangerous doses, within our digital lives?
On the surface, this may sound absurd, but consider these troublesome findings:
· A study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that the closer you are to your smartphone—even if it’s off—the more it acts like mental kryptonite. Merely keeping your cell phone or smart device anywhere near you distracts you, and it can lessen your capacity to think.
· The more time people spend on Facebook, the worse they feel and the less satisfied they are with their lives, according to researchers from the University of Michigan.
· People who watched news coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing reported higher levels of acute stress two to four weeks after the tragic event than people who were at or near the site of the attack, wrote researchers in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal.
Because of studies like these, and our clients’ own awareness that enslavement to cell phones is not good for anyone, we’ve found that many people are starting to rethink exposure to their electronic devices. People are managing how much time they’re “on,” much like they monitor how much time they spend in the sun without sunblock, or how they space out X-rays at the dentist’s office.
They’re treating digital media as a product that may be okay in moderate doses, but dangerous in higher levels.
Digital Media Poses Real Risks
Why is digitally delivered media so hard to keep in control? Social media, gaming, pornography, even seemingly innocent YouTube exploration, many now believe, can become addictive. While researchers are working hard to determine how addictive digital media is—or even if these forms of media are addictive—those of us who help people improve their performance and manage struggles know that digital compulsions are growing. Consuming digital media poses real risks.
In terms of social media, the attention and validation you get from others on social platforms are among the most powerful, potentially addictive social rewards you can experience. Those innocent jolts of pleasure from Facebook likes, Instagram comments or contact requests on LinkedIn act like mini shots of a euphoria-inducing drug, and studies have revealed that we should take a serious look at how our brains respond when we’re on social media.
A groundbreaking study using functional MRI scans, conducted at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center, found that when teens viewed photos with more likes on Instagram, it stimulated a region of the brain that responds to highly rewarding things like chocolate and winning money.
Stopping these socially charged rewards is very hard, and for some, it’s nearly impossible. The rewards often come at you intermittently, and when they do, you get dosed much like a gambler does sitting in front of a slot machine for hours, pulling levers or tapping screens. You’re in a rigged, algorithmic system that’s designed to keep you engaged for as long as possible.
Beware. Unpredictable (and frankly unearned or not terribly meaningful) bursts of good feelings and excitable digital moments are the most difficult to step away from. As behavioral scientists say in studies on rewards systems in lab rats, they are the most resistant to extinction.
How to Keep Your Digital Risk In Check
There are ways to actively work to balance your use of social media and keep some of its risks in check. These seven tips are the same ones we give to our clients to protect themselves from too much social media distraction:
Set a time to check-in. Don’t have your social media feeds open all day. If you conclude that they’re important to you, set a specific time (or times) during the day when you will log in, and set a time limit of no more than two hours a day for all social media sites. There are tools provided by Facebook and Instagram, as well as settings in many smartphones, to set your own time limits and monitor your daily social media use. When you log on to social media, have a specific goal, such as “I will catch up with my friends or the media people I follow,” and limit your time to accomplishing that goal.
Weed them out. How many social media sites do you visit? How many apps do you use? Do you need them all? Weed out and eliminate those that don’t make the “I absolutely need this” cut.
Just say no. Say “no” more and decline more invites and participation on sites, and opt-out of irrelevant webinars, group lists, email lists, and unnecessary updates.
Balance your social life. For every two hours you spend on Facebook, work in two hours of real, face-to-face time with real friends.
Kill the screen when socializing. Cell phones draw our brains away from quality human contact and interactions. When you spend time with other people, your focus should be on them, not your phone’s screen.
Develop new networks. If you’ve recently moved—as students do when they first move to college or as adults do when relocating for a new job—remember that this is an especially important time to significantly reduce your use of social media. Staying virtually tethered to the people you already know won’t create connections in your new community. Get off your devices and start developing a real network of new friends.
Opt for a detox. The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends regular digital detoxes. According to the APA’s 2017 Stress in America survey, a startling 86 percent of adults report being always or often connected to their electronic devices. To detox, the APA recommends finding regular times to completely unplug and stay away from all devices. Doing so, the organization says, will lower stress, maintain better mental health, and help break the chronic compulsive behavior many of us have to constantly check in with our electronic devices, reaching for digital stimulation to fill every free moment of downtime.
Rethinking your exposure to digital media is the first step to controlling it for yourself. Just as you should never eat potato chips from a large bag without doling out a small portion, you are best off setting prescribed limits to digital and social media use before starting.
Work to embrace the natural and healthy moments of downtime rather than thinking of it as something to be avoided. Quiet, stimulation-free moments are our time to do deep thinking and to work through the challenges, decisions, and feelings in our lives.
About the authors:
PAUL NAPPER, Psy.D., leads a management psychology practice. His client list includes Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, universities, and start-ups, and he has held an advanced fellowship during a three-year academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.
ANTHONY RAO, Ph.D., is a cognitive-behavioral therapist. For over 20 years, he was a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. In 1998, he opened a specialized private practice. He appears regularly as an expert commentator.
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