Does being Mindful on Social Media Matter? Short answer- yes. Here’s why and how.
Those two words, Mindful + Social Media – stand almost contrapposto to each other. To be ‘mindful’ is to be ‘present’- to be ‘undistracted,’ standing in the ‘now’- something our social media addiction directly prohibits us from doing. It is for that reason the two are inextricably linked. The more technology pervades our everyday life the louder the call to action to be ‘present!’- to counteract our mindless consumption of information through our digital social platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
In a sense, excessive internet use is a lot like smoking cigarettes at the turn of the century. At some point, there had to be a growing realization that it was a shitty thing to do- but there wasn’t enough vested interest by big companies to provide access to information to could equip us with an understanding of long-term effects. Is Facebook the new Phillip-Morris? To be fair- maybe cigarettes like social media and smartphone use were novel behaviors at their at one point or another- so maybe there just wasn’t enough experience with them to know how far and long reaching their effects would be. When enough people start dying then, and only then will the government step in. But we shouldn’t have to wait that long to take action. Especially if we know at this point that without a shadow of a doubt too much screen-time is detrimental to our health.
One of the mad things is, through internet use, we have virtually moved all of our knowledge/goods/ services hunting and gathering to the online world. Everything we know, everything we need, we find online. Gone are the days of libraries- and giant 5 subject notebooks. Everything is virtual. Facebook is king and Google is God. Oh, and don’t forget Amazon! These are the giant superpowers of the world that control everything we do and see. The notion of an omnipotent technocracy is no longer an ideal confined to Sci-Fi lore. And that’s all fun and games until more and more people start to see their data get bought, sold and breached. When you factor in the headline-making rash of politically divisive fake news incidents and massive successive data breaches, it seems like now more than ever people are considering how they use the screen – or at the very least what depth of information, they are willing to share and receive on it. Its times like these that make think about Jamiroquai’s prophetic hit song from the 90’s, Virtual Insanity. Who knew the guy with the funny hat knew so much.
Living off the grid
It’s beyond trendy amongst cold-pressed juice drinking tribes to say ‘I’m off the grid,’ in fact that has been the most onerous mindful technology tip thus far- ‘disconnect!’ – Jump ship! Run for the hills! So convincing were those cries, I myself abandoned all screens a few times in the past. And yes, I am less anxious when I am disconnected. But I don’t think its sustainable for all people.
Telling the average millennial to get off the social media internet for good is like telling a 15-year-old to wait until marriage to have sex. It might work for some people- but for the majority of people, it WILL NOT WORK. Why? Because teenagers will have sex. And people will look at porn and post videos of themselves working out on the internet. These are just the cold hard facts of life, we don’t get far by ignoring them.
Studies in smartphone addiction
There have been enough recent studies to suggest that too much social media and internet use fosters depression and while I am not debating that obvious fact, I think it is more adequately applied to a worse case scenario. What about the bulk of gray area that most of us teether in? Not the part where you are extremely depressed and seeking obtuse plastic surgery to get likes- but the place where you are wasting a lot of time on the internet and feeling more anxious throughout your day.
Being in my early 30’s- I belong to the generation that is smack dab in the middle of the transition from analog to digital. A recent study published in Computers and Human Behavior notes that in the U.S. 86% of the population under 30 owns a smartphone. We are lucky in some respect because we have a B.C. ‘before computers’- vantage point, whereas anyone who is 17-18 years old, don’t- so they don’t really know how fucked they are. As a whole, the technological shift has replaced a bulk of our face to face interactions with screentime interactions. We don’t have to see each other anymore to keep in touch. We can get our social dose from the comfort of our bed, just a few taps, and a swipe and its like we went out for a night with all of our acquaintances. That can be a good thing, say if you live far away from your loved ones, or you have a business you are trying to start, or you just don’t have the time or capacity to see everyone you would like to see- but as we keep seeing and reading- it can also be a bad thing. Facebook addiction is a phenomenon that has emerged over the past decade while the percentage of adults using social networking sites has soared from 7 to 65 percent. (Perrin, 2015) It’s not the connecting that’s detrimental- its the frequency and lack of moderation of it.
Why are we so connected to being connected in the first place? In his books, Irresistible, NYU Professor Dr. Adam Alter writes the ‘tech zombie epidemic’ is a direct result of the way technology is designed: we get a thrill every time we open the Instagram app (Will I have any likes?) or our emails (Have they replied yet?) – similar to the behavioral gratification we get from playing slot machines.
So how do we navigate these inevitably murky waters? Is there any hope of monitoring ourselves? Or are we doomed to a future where we are divided between those on and those ‘off the grid‘? Cue sad art piece of guy and girl sitting in bed on their iPhones.
Who cares? I love my phone.
I hear you. But how do you feel when you constantly stare at it? Do you feel anxious? Like you are searching for something but don’t know what? Is your to-do list mounting while you look at Insta stories like a hypnotized gerbil?
Are there any preventative measures that don’t require us to go cold turkey from our social media to see success? Probably not, but curbing your use will make you happier.
Up to now, I have had an on-again-off-again romance with social media. After my last break, I was scared to get back on for the very reason Dr. Atler mentioned- this type of technology is designed to suck you in. The likes- the views- it’s all so overwhelming. It is impossible to post something and not watch for the immediate reaction or lack thereof. I knew I was up against a system whose ultimate success was dependent on my failure so I was resolute to figure out how to work around it- to use it to my advantage without succumbing to its seedy underbelly.
After almost a year of social media silence, I wanted to find out if I could balance the peace of mind I found while offline- while still connect with others online through Instagram. Perhaps measured mindfulness could be my weapon of choice? Mindfulness is yet another trending term- uttered by the same rich hippies living off the grid while drinking siracha scented sparkling kale juice from the comfort of their solar-powered smart house. But what does that term actually mean? It means a constant, present moment awareness of one’s actions and more specifically the intent behind those actions. Example: If you are mindfully driving your car- you are watching for lights and turn signals- not scrolling through your feed at every stop. Mindfulness brings you and keeps you in the ‘now’ moment- not tomorrow- not yesterday- not I can’t believe she posted that- but now. I know that’s a hard pill to swallow- because we are all sooo busy, planning our posts- While Elon Musk actually takes over the world. But are we really as busy as Elon? How much of that busyness is manufactured or exasperated by irresponsible smartphone use?
I thought I could use mindfulness to check myself on IG, with the end goal being to gain more viewership to my blog. This required me post ‘daily and consistently’ in order to ‘boost engagement.’ But how do you separate real-life and the image we project within the parameters of this false context? Spoiler alert- You can’t- one will defeat the other. SO if you choose social media – your perception of real life will be augmented. Likely you will have a false sense of importance and a belief that you looking good or getting likes means you are ‘doing something in the world.’ In fact, there have been numerous studies that like social media use to narcissism. I know what you’re thinking- Who me? I am NOT a narcissist- I just want everyone to see how happy, successful, in -shape, and well liked I am. 😉
I realized through my brief time back on the social media platform what I already knew- it’s designed to exploit the innate mental reward system that keeps us hooked. Within a few days of being off Instagram I again I have noticed a dramatic difference in my anxiety levels- and productivity. I am aware that telling the average person my age to quit social media is like telling a puppy not to piss in the house. But I believe in the near future- more people will start to realize how terrible they are feeling, and how little they are actually getting done as a result of excessive social media use. For anyone seeking to cut ties now- or at the very least be more mindful of the way they engage on social media platforms here’s how I’m doing it.
10 tips for mindful social media use
Make a decision.
Changing a pervasive habit is a tall order. Especially when its effects are not immediately detrimental to your wellbeing. The first step is igniting your willpower. What is willpower? The ability to forgo short-term benefits for a long-term goal. Behavior modification is an exercise of will. And if you make a decision to do something and are backed up by a strong will then you will intuitively create the environment to support that decision -to make sticking to that decision easier. That’s what successful people do because they know that their long-term goals heavily outway the benefits of the short-term rewards. So make a firm decision to control your smartphone and not let it control you. It might not happen overnight – but nothing worth writing about ever does. It might also be beneficial to write down a list of reasons why you want to curb your use- and keep it handy. Perhaps you’ve noticed your personal relationships are suffering- or your to-do list is mounting- or you just feel shitty after cruising Facebook for 30 minutes. When you have formulated a solid abstraction for change- the action steps become easier.
Arm yourself with information.
Whenever I am about to make a drastic change- I read every article I can find on Google. Like when I decided to try intermittent fasting, or go on the Ketogenic diet- I must’ve read at least 20 articles- and a book. Once I wrapped my head around the benefits of cutting carbs or in this case social media- it was a slam dunk. Thank you, Google! If you do a quick search for Social Media and Mental health you probably will not be happy or surprised by what you find, and that might make your decision easier- especially when the quietness and withdrawals start to make you re-think your decision to curb your use.
Set Time Limits.
Look I know its hard to not check on how your post or story is faring but you checking it every five minutes will not change the data. Why not wait a full 24 hours after posting to track metrics of engagement? In fact, waiting that long will likely prove more satisfying due in part to the build-up of unseen likes. If you can’t possibly wait a full 24 hours then how about scheduling a check in every few hours- like a meal. Think of Instagram as carbs and you are on the Ketogenic diet – you know carbs are bad for you but boy do they taste good. Manage the time around which you consume Instagram or use smartphone overall – much like intermittent fasting- by restricting times you are on the screen- you will consume more mindfully. Force yourself to stay present through these restrictions. Set time limits. Give yourself 5-minute increments- or at the very least track yourself using one of those handy dandy social media tracking apps.
When I say set intentions I mean just that. What are you intending to do when you pick up your phone? Check your post for likes- see how many people viewed your story? (I’m cringing as I write this- as it dawns on me that this is what society has come to) Cool- go on, check it and come off. Want to post that stupid ramen photo from that really trendy secret Noodle spot everyone is talking about? Awesome! Have at it then go do something IRL- like eat it. Post and leave. Stalk your ex? Fine- scroll through his page- again keeping a time limit in mind- and then bounce. The danger happens when we go on social media without setting an intention. We end up mindlessly scrolling for what adds up to hours a day -without aim.
Focus on a single task.
The fact is multi-tasking is not an efficient practice, all that shifting back and forth between tasks forces our brains to refocus over and over again. So while it might seem efficient on the surface, it isn’t – studies show that multi-tasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%. In essence, trying to #latepost your #ootd while driving means you’re going to end up doing neither very well- and possibly crashing- NBD. (The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year.) Focusing on a single task will also keep you less anxious – which is one of the main culprits that drives us to mindless scrolling in the first place- anxiety. Take your moments, your tasks, and your posts – one at a time.
Lose your phone.
Relax. Not forever. Just for an hour to start, and see how it feels. I really love those moments when I’ve gone without knowing where my phone is for hours on end. They are fewer than I would like- but I am working to decrease the distance between them. As a matter of course, I have set aside my gym time as my sacred space. I don’t take my phone to the gym. Gym time is my time. My time to be present and focused on me. I have gotten so accustomed to it- I don’t even notice that I don’t have my phone on me. When is your sacred time or space? Perhaps when you are with your loved ones you can set aside phone free time. Maybe grocery shopping? Maybe you too can manage to go to the gym without it for just a few days. The first time will be hard, like any practice that is attempting to reprogram the brain- there will be resistance. Press on! After a few times, you will notice how calm and cool you feel. Don’t be afraid to play hard to get with social media. Oscar Wilde said it best when he said- Familiarity breeds contempt; so take some time off and your followers might be intrigued by the mystery. A few of my social media friends thought I’d gotten engaged when I logged off the time before last. LOL. So glamorous- in reality, I was actually just reading and sketching a lot- but a whirlwind romance sounds way cooler.
Capture or experience. Choose Wisely.
I have always said that you can either experience the moment or capture it but you can’t do both! The very act of taking a picture, getting the angle just right, getting the filter you like etc- takes you out of the present into the virtual. If the moment you are experiencing is extra special to you-you might want to consider forgoing capturing it and focus on fully experiencing it instead. After all, you can never get that moment back. Once it’s gone- it’s one. So take it in- for yourself.
Check your triggers.
What are you checking your phone for? I repeat what the fuck are you checking your phone for? Stop. Engage with your surroundings. Stop defaulting to your phone because you are too socially inept to stand still in a crowded place. When we make this mindless scrolling a part of our habitual time filler it becomes pervasive. A recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that stress levels in “constant checkers” on average tend to be higher than non-checkers. What started as scrolling through a line at the bank becomes scrolling while at a stop light, and turns into scrolling while in a full on conversation with a present real-life human being. Ask your self what are your triggers? When are you most likely to pick up your phone and scroll? Identify those moments in your mind so the next time they present themselves you can counteract them and put the phone down.
Find new habits.
The best way to get rid of an old habit is to replace it with a new and more beneficial one. By identifying triggers you can catch yourself in the act- the follow up is to decide on a replacement behavior- something that will ideally be more beneficial than spending 15 minutes looking at a screen. Hooray, that should be easy! I like to take a few deep breathes and take in my surroundings. I check in with myself and ask myself how I am feeling. If I am anxious I ask myself why and get to the bottom of the anxiety. Sometimes a few deep breathes is all it takes- and I’m back to normal- back to the present. I’ve also made a habit of packing a book with me. We all have at least 5 books we’ve been trying o read but haven’t gotten around to. Whenever I am waiting for someone – or waiting for a meal – and staring at the trees isn’t cutting it- I pull out a book. Right now, I’m re-reading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse- I suggest a leisure topic that you like. Bonus: your waiter will think you are worldly if s/he sees you reading instead of scrolling.
Go easy on yourself.
A balance will not come overnight. Transitioning from mindless to mindful smartphone use will take time, an earnest willingness to experiment and most of all, patience. The fact that you are mindfully trying to monitor your actions is already a victory that most people will never experience.
In closing, it’s not always easy- and at first, the silence of leaving the social media party can be deafening, but I am not willing to give up my sanity, or present moment reality to serve others; the present moment is far too fleeting. I am confident that as I continue to apply these steps outlined above the balance will become easier.
As we step into the dawn of this ever-changing technological millennia, the onus is on us to actively work toward more quantitative methods of monitoring ourselves and to mindfully watch our smartphone and technology dependence. It is through these measures of self-discipline we will find our greatest freedom- and preserve our deepest most sacred ability to connect with ourselves; IMHO it is this connection that matters the most.
Want more impetus to launch your phone out of a moving vehicle at high speed and revert back to smoke signals for mental clarity? Read these: