Social Media, Your (Disordered) Brain, and You

Is It an Addiction?

“A recent meta-analysis suggests that globally the prevalence rate [of social media addiction] is about 6% and that it varies by country, ranging from 2.6% to 10.9%” (source: Brain Anatomy Alterations Associated with Social Networking Site Addiction). “Internet Gaming Disorder” is included as a possible condition, warranting further study, in the DSM-V. So, statistically? You might not have an addiction. But you might have a problem.

You don’t have to be clinically addicted to find some of this article useful. All you have to do–and this is what all of this advice will boil down to–is realize that scrolling for hours at a time isn’t what you want to be doing. For whatever reason you have.

Your reason might be that your brain is set up to hyperfocus on that scrolling. Maybe you feel like you don’t have the energy, due to something mental or physical, to do anything else. Here are some ways to help yourself.

Here’s the Part You Already Know

You already know that you don’t want to be sitting and scrolling for hours at a time. You know that being connected to the firehose of infinite information and to the beautifully-presented lives of other people gives you anxiety. You know that if you’re sensitive to rejection, you feel it when you don’t get enough attention or even when you watch someone else get attention that you don’t. 

You know that just hearing a notification buzz, even if it’s a good thing like a like on your selfie, gives you anxiety even as it gives you a tiny rush of dopamine. You know dopamine is your reward chemical, and you know that your dopamine receptors can’t ever be satisfied. The more you get rewarded, the more you want it, and you get stuck.

You know that scrolling disrupts your sleep, because you keep thinking “just one more post, one more page, one more tag search” until it’s too late. And because of the blue light. And because dopamine and melatonin sort of cancel each other out. You know it disrupts your work, because you’re scrolling and not getting stuff done. Or because you’re too distracted by composing your next post. Or because everyone you work with is also on social media, but they’re doing it better.

This isn’t just made up by luddites, by the way. Here is a talk from Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook in which he admits “tremendous guilt” about how Facebook–and other social media–exploits the way your brain works, just to get more users. They know they’re doing it. Are you just gonna let them? (Refusing to support the practices of companies like Amazon and Facebook by not using their services is also a good reason to stop the scrolling.)

You also already know the simple hacks for tricking yourself into less screen time:

  • Turn your phone or monitor to greyscale, so that the icons and images are less exciting for your brain
  • Turn on a sunset timer app that dims and warms (if it’s still in color) your screen when it gets dark out, stimulating melatonin and, again, making it less exciting. F.lux is the classic for desktop, but there are lots more depending on your OS.
  • No exciting themes, backgrounds or wallpapers. Or, use your wallpaper/background as a reminder. Add a picture of the people (or things or places) you want to spend more time with when you’re offline, or a quote about digital minimalism.
  • Turn off notifications in every possible place, so that you control when you see them.
  • Notice which apps are infinite-scroll (like Facebook and Tumblr) and which are self-limiting (like Twitter, which after a certain number of posts doesn’t let you scroll anymore). Bonus: they’re all self-limiting if you don’t follow many people and you get to the end of your new posts quickly.
  • Log out every time you’re done using an app or site–make it as inconvenient as possible to open any app, too, by taking them off your home screen–and change your password to a reminder, like “HeyPayAttention1” or “StopScolling23”. Or change it to a gibberish keysmash and never sign back in at all.
  • Listen to CDs and not Spotify/Prime/Youtube/etc. Scrolling “new for you” and “if you liked x you’ll also like y” is a big rabbit hole for me!
  • Put a book near the toilet. Books of small trivia chunks are good for this, or maybe short puzzles. You do you, it’s private time.
  • If you’re just starting, and especially if you’re reducing your use drastically, know which day is hardest for you. Maybe the first couple days are easy, but on the third day you start to miss your apps. Now you know the third day is hardest and you need to have some extra defenses–more books, a trip outside, a friend–on that day. And it’s okay to have to start over. Shame will only make it harder. You’re not going to “muscle through it.” You’re going to set up structures that help you through it. You’re going to be nice to yourself–and that’s sometimes going to mean kicking your butt out of bed. You know better than your body what’s best for you.
  • If none of it works, switch to a flip phone. Get a terrible data plan or get rid of it altogether.

What Do I Do If I’m Not Online?

You forgot how to waste time? All right, well, my advice is: anything that puts you in flow state. Especially anything connecting you to a physical object or space. 

Quick primer on flow: it’s that feeling when you’re doing an activity and everything else just falls away. You’re thinking only about the activity. It’s active meditation; sitting meditation is just flow state without the action. You might get it while driving, writing, running, drawing, etc. ADHD folks will know this as hyperfocus, when flow state takes over, sometimes to our physical detriment. 

It feels good, though; it’s as addictive as any small dopamine rush, because just about every neurotransmitter including dopamine is increased. But it’s better than the small-rush addiction, because you can control it (to a point), and at the end you get something–a drawing, you’ve driven somewhere, whatever. Scrolling IS something you do in flow state! But if you know you’re in flow, it’s easier to get out.

There are some factors that must be fulfilled for an activity to induce flow state in you. It has to be something a little bit challenging, like a skill you’re still learning or something that takes effort and precision to accomplish. But the tools you use have to also be in working order: you can’t have pens that have gone dry or a body that is simply too tired to move, or you can’t flow. 

It has to be something that gives you feedback, where you can see that what you’re doing is having an effect. It has to be something you can do for a while without interruption, of course. And you have to have a goal: a clean room, a finished drawing, a destination. When you accomplish the goal, flow state should end on its own, and that is why flow in something like scrolling is dangerous: there is no “end” to your “task.”

Ask Yourself Questions

Here’s my big point for questioning your social media time, and it’s a weird one: Are you putting more love into the world?

In my personal cosmology, God/Spirit/Atman/Etc is the aggregate action of love throughout the universe. It’s not a separate being, it’s something we all do (and love is a verb, a doing word, remember, not just something you feel). When you have a face to face social interaction, ideally, aside from the bonding chemicals your brain makes just from seeing nonverbal cues and smelling another human and so on, you also both love each other. Does the same amount of love enter the universe when you receive a like? You might feel the warmth, but did the person liking send it to you?

I am not saying they didn’t! Online relationships can have as much love as in person ones, that’s not up for debate. Online relationships are real, but are you in one with every person who gives you a like? Did they increase the amount of love in the world, or were they just acknowledging that they saw your post? And when you like their posts, are you engaged? Are you loving them?

And should you?

Another easy hack for spending less time online is to reduce the number of people you follow. Why are you following some people in the first place? Can you actually consider that many people friends? Do they still post like they did when you first found them? Are you hate-watching, and is it like watching reality TV, where you just don’t want to look away because you’ll miss something? Are they just popular and you want to stay updated? Do YOU like their content? 

Are you putting more love into the universe when you interact with them?

Okay, what if you are? What if your community is online and your friends are online and your family is on Facebook and refuses to actually call or text you one-on-one?

You might think that I’m about to say online bad, irl good, go find your local community, go introduce yourself to people at coffee shops. Yeah, well, no. If you want to, do! But it’s not going to work for everyone.

I’m actually not saying for you to get completely offline at all. I’m just saying to think about what you’re doing and feeling when you’re there. My community is online! I don’t get out of the house a lot and there’s no like-minded group close enough for me to travel to them anyway.

So what you can do is control how you spend your time online. Set a timer–with a password you don’t know–for your apps. Mine is 9 minutes per hour (because I have 6 problematic ones and 10 minutes would just let me loop back to the first one every hour) and they’re all cut off entirely after 9pm. There are timer and blocker apps for every OS. Mine, on Android, is called AppDetox. 

And with your family and friends who have forgotten how to talk outside of comments and DMs, you can train them. Yeah, it sucks for a while, because it feels like they don’t want to talk to you normally because they don’t want to be around you (which is not the case. It’s not you, it’s Facebook). And you have to make the effort to reach out to them and remind them that texts exist. Remind them that you still want to know what’s going on and you still want to be invited to things. Eventually they’ll get it.

And if you don’t want to do that, that’s fine too. It’s a lot of painful effort to remind someone that they “should” want to talk to you. Maybe you don’t need them to talk to you, if they care that little. How much love do they put into the universe? How much love can you stand to give if they refuse to give any back?

How about this? Think about someone to whom you look up. Your hero. How much time do they spend online? They might have an account, yeah, but do they post and like constantly or do they drop their latest cool thing and disappear? How many people are they following? How much time do they spend on the thing you look up to them for?

Or this: Can you simply notice when you’ve zoned out? You don’t have to change anything unless you want to. But do you want to? Are you enjoying what you’re doing?

If you are, and you decide to continue, think ahead a couple hours. Is Future You still zoned out? Did she remember to eat and drink water and go pee? How’s her posture? Is there something she’s avoiding doing but needs to do? Do you want to change course now?

Close your eyes (block out the screen). Take a deep breath, all the way down into your lungs. Feel your body from the inside out. Feel where your butt meets your seat and where your hands meet your phone and where your face meets the air. Do you want to continue?

Other Considerations

Are you online a lot as a distraction from something that’s going on in real life? Like emotional or physical pain? In those tiny times, like waiting in line or while you’re eating, do you find yourself looking at your screen without having thought about it? Well, if the painful stuff is thoughts, you might have to go through thinking it for a while. Set aside some time and just feel it, and see if that makes it less.

Another distraction might be beneficial, too. I’m always going to recommend books–and, again, for those tiny nothing times, something like a book of poetry or short stories or longform articles might be a good choice–and another great app I’ve found is Pocket, which lets you save articles from anywhere on the web in readable, well-formatted form. And “articles” just means “any text” so you can save short stories, blog posts, and even certain forum threads. I haven’t tried it with fanfic sites.

If you’re online because you’re too fatigued or in too much pain to do anything else, think about what you would do if your modem went down or if you lived forty years ago. Maybe you’d just watch TV, yeah, but if you’re here and reading this you’re probably looking for something different. I’m going to say the word books again! When my brain fog is bad, I like to read YA. There’s no shame in it–maybe you even like reading it when you’re not foggy! It can be old childhood favs or the new hotness on #bookstagram. I’ve also found that a lot of nonfiction is surprisingly light, especially pop science books like those by Mary Roach and Michael Pollan, because they’re written for the lay audience. If books still sound too hard, how about meditating? Or a nap? Or some TV?

I’d also recommend microjournaling, for this reason and because you might be online is to express yourself, to externalize your thoughts and feelings. And that’s cool, until you hit post and then start the scrolling. So a journal might help you with that urge, the urge to Say Something. (And you can post your thoughts online later–just don’t get attached to people liking it!) You don’t need anything fancy. A notebook or your notes app is just fine, although there are dedicated microjournaling apps that come with password protection and dates and times coded in, like an offline Twitter.

I keep saying “micro”, by the way, because you don’t have to be a 17th-century Englishman about it. Fit your words to the time you have, the time you’re in, and what you feel like expressing right then. You can get the leatherbound tome and fountain pen later, when you’ve eased yourself out of 280 characters.

Do you use the internet to research projects and then never have the time to actually do them? That’s another one for timers. Give yourself an hour at a time to do the research. I’m so sorry, ADHD folks, you’re not going to hyperfocus here. You don’t want to! You want to focus on the actual doing, not just the information-gathering stage. Plus, taking breaks helps you integrate and remember more of what you read.

Are you seeing everything through a camera and not really experiencing it for itself? Is that necessarily a bad thing? For me, the camera is a way to notice things I wouldn’t have, a way to pay attention. But the photos themselves? They’re not for posting. They’re for paying attention. I sometimes forget for weeks that I even have them, and then think oh, I guess I haven’t actually talked to anyone about this trip, maybe they would like to hear about it? And they don’t, they just like and move on, and it feels even worse. So my photos are for me now. Plus it’s a physical object that can’t just disappear according to the whims of Facebook. If it’s a matter of documenting your life, remembering things, may I recommend journaling again.

Does the enclosure, in which the zoo animal that is your brain lives, lack enrichment? Do you need novelty? Information? Playtime? May I recommend: Books and Going Outside. Okay, that’s glib and stupid. Maybe it doesn’t need to be complicated?

But again: think about what you would do if the internet didn’t exist. When you were a kid, did you wander the neighborhood? Make up games and crafts and stories? Wrestle your brother? Figure out what a bored kid would do and do it. Affect a physical object.


How to Break Up with Your Phone, Catherine Price

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle

Any book on meditation

Any book on ADHD or dopamine

Any book on an activity you’re choosing to pursue as a replacement


Internet addiction is a real thing. It changes the actual structure of your brain. Some parts get bigger or smaller; other parts get more or less sensitive. But unlike substance addiction, where some of the neural changes are permanent because of the toxicity of the substances involved, behavioral addiction can be changed back. Interventions (things like app blockers and giving yourself other options for occupation), mindfulness, and even meds and therapy can make your brain good as new. 

And yes, that includes good as a new neuroatypical brain. You can change this even if you have depression, anxiety, or dopamine issues like ADHD. It’s not even hard after you get started. It’s also extremely difficult each individual time you have to make the decision to turn your phone off and do something else. But there’s success story after success story. “I have time to exercise now!” “I’ve read six books this month!” They’re everywhere.

Special note: Depression sucks away hope. That’s just a feature. Prove that sucker wrong. Be ornery and contrary. Fight with teeth and kicking against anything that tells you that even the smallest change is impossible.

I’m not saying you’re going to be a productivity powerhouse or read every book or be suddenly completely happy. But you’ll have taken back control of a large portion of your time, and I think that’s an improvement. Don’t do nothing just because you can’t do everything.

PS I know, it’s ironic that I made you scroll this far just to tell you to stop scrolling so much. But you’re done now! Go do something else!

Are you still here? Tell me in the comments what you’d rather be doing, and then promise me you’ll go do it!

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it in your feed!

pinnable image for Social Media, Your (Disordered) Brain, and You
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