When I first got sober, the comments section on social media became my new drug of choice.
Social media became a form of anti-meditation for me, where I maintained a singular focus on what can only be described as the worst parts of humanity. (I’m looking at you, Twitter.)
I would be mesmerized by the comments section of news posts and other people’s threads. It was like logging on to a train wreck every day. I couldn’t look away.
Of course, during this time things were (and still are) extremely heated in the United States. My sobriety, incidentally, coincided with the election of Donald Trump. The internet and the country were a cesspool. I felt a need to insert myself into EVERYTHING.
People who I may have otherwise been civil with became enemies. There were times when I was shocked by own ability to be cruel. I lost old friends from home, which is apparently a “thing.” I felt like I didn’t recognize some people anymore. Maybe they felt the same about me.
It was horrible.
Why Do We Fight Online?
As it turns out, we respond very differently to things we read as opposed to things we hear. When we read an argument we disagree with, we are more prone to think negatively of the person writing it. My theory is because we do this because it is easier to project our own biases onto a person we can’t actually see.
When we listen to their argument, however, whether it be in person or video, we are less likely to feel negatively about the person. This is true even if we disagree with what they are saying.
The comments section, tweets, and Facebook threads are ripe for fighting. Whereas the fight itself is probably not driving you (unless you are a troll), the desire to be “right” likely is. There is a chemical reward for feeling like your opinions are being validated online. There is an opposite reaction when you are being attacked. Neither emotion is easy to step away from.
I used to go to bed (sometimes an hour later than I wanted) commenting on something until the second I cut off the light to sleep. As soon as I woke up the next day, I would check my notifications.
It was a bizarre digital FOMO.
What is happening? What do people have to say about it? Who am I going to argue with? How can I speed read this article so I can get to the thread and weigh in? Where will my outrage take root today?
I willingly opted in to get pissed off every day. Nothing good ever came from it.
Glued to Our Screens
It all felt like the same cycle I engaged in with drinking and smoking. The solution to those problems was technically quite simple: don’t buy any more. Nobody forced me to consume either. But what is so simple in theory often isn’t in application.
This is true for seemingly absurd things like feeling glued to a smartphone and the dark treasures that lie within.
How many of us pick up our phone strictly out of mindless habit? It’s not unlike the way I reached for a cig because my hands were free. It seemed like something to do.
Very rarely did I believe I was making a conscious decision to check Facebook or Twitter. These apps were the tiny vampires sucking at my life. Half the time I didn’t even realize I was “on them” until I’d been scrolling for five minutes.
The rub? It is entirely by design.
The Hooked Model
Instead of beating myself up, I started to investigate why I was checking Facebook or Twitter so frequently. I found a fabulous article by Carissa Lintao that I suggest everyone read (after you finish this one).
As it turns out, every app and feature of your technology is designed to keep you hooked. The Hooked Model was created by behavioral designer (yes that’s a real thing) Nir Eyal. It goes like this:
You have a trigger.
It can be internal or external, but it’s something persuading you to take action. These triggers are everywhere, all the time. Internal triggers are emotions. Things like boredom, stress, even happiness.
That little bit of downtime between ordering your food and eating it? Trigger. Sitting at home waiting for someone to call you? Also a trigger.
External triggers are things like an email or video ad or push notifications. Oh the push notifications! These little buggers with their tiny red dots are hard to ignore. (There’s a reason they’re red).
Your brain actually gets a little rush of dopamine every time they pop up. (Turn these off.)
Now that you’ve been triggered, you’re moved to act. When it comes to our phones, this means clicking on the ad, or scrolling through the feed, or checking the email.
These are actions the user does “in anticipation of a reward.”
Collecting Your Reward
Now that you are scrolling, what is your reward?
It’s seeing the likes, the shares, and the comments. It’s finding a sweet new deal on bulk bags of quinoa. Maybe you’ve beaten a new level of a game you love to play.
According to the article, these rewards hook us because they constantly change. There’s always suspense. What’s the next level like? What’s today’s discount going to be? Who replied to my comment? What did they say?
This is the final piece of the puzzle. Investment is defined as “anything a user does that increases the chance of returning back to the app.”
Let’s use Instagram as an example. Your investment is taking and posting new photos with catchy captions and hashtags. You bother to do this because you want the reward.
The notifications trigger you to want to check the app, which you do (taking action), and then you are compelled to post again. You want more likes and more comments. Eventually, these investments start to take up a lot of time.
Ever seen people at a restaurant spend 10 minutes taking pictures of their food from various angles for the ‘Gram before they even touch it? It seems insane to let your food get cold just so you can get the “perfect” picture of it, and yet a lot of people do it.
This cycle repeats. Every. Single. Day.
When You’re Always “On”
In the past, whenever I woke up, my phone was the first thing I checked. It was a ritual, the way I woke my brain up to start the day. Some people have a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. I opted for a shot of Twitter.
What happened while I was asleep? I’m eight hours ahead of the eastern seaboard in the United States, so much goes on while I’m in bed.
Who replied to what on Facebook and how will I respond? If I caught somebody still awake, I might dive into a nasty back and forth that simply could not wait. When that happened, I would actually end up running late for work.
I was stuck in a negative feedback loop.
Negative Feedback Loops and Social Media Addiction
A negative feedback loop is defined as a reaction that causes a decrease in functioning.
When it comes to technology and social media, this plays out in different ways. For some, they’re so hooked by a game or app that they stop doing things they would normally be doing. For others, it could be checking Facebook instead of interacting with your family members at Grandma’s 90th birthday party.
We’ve all seen the groups of teenagers sitting around, staring at their phones, not speaking to one another. Or maybe you noticed the mother scrolling through her Instagram feed while her child unsuccessfully tries to get her attention or pry the phone from her hand.
Maybe you are that person.
I’ve certainly been at times and when I finally snapped out of it, I was heartbroken. How many times did I inadvertently ignore my daughter because I wanted to check Facebook?
For many people, this attachment is so bad that they become physically agitated when they are away from their phone. There is a great episode on Buzzfeed’s “Follow This” series on Netflix that I highly recommend checking out to learn more.
Check in with yourself the next time you realize your phone isn’t near you. Notice what happens in your body. Does your adrenaline kick in? Is your heart racing? If you had to hand your phone to someone right now, what would your physical reaction be?
This used to be a big one for me.
A study conducted at the University of Illinois in 2015 found that people who were already susceptible to depression and anxiety would use their phones as a way of avoiding negative emotions.
I cannot tell you how many hours I have spent playing Bejeweled or mindlessly refreshing a Twitter or Instagram feed because I needed a way to check out.
When I was a heavy drinker and smoker, I would often drunkenly scroll through social media just to pass the time and not have to deal with myself.
I’ve lost countless hours of my life to this behavior.
Internet culture, its impact on our emotional and physical wellbeing, and social media addiction are huge topics today. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this issue today.
Whereas there is a lot to unpack with regards to technology and its role in our lives, it’s important to be aware of not only WHAT is happening, but WHY.
My biggest hope is that we all start to observe our own behavior with technology and unplug when necessary, even if only for a little bit.