Science explains why you’re addicted to social media – and how to break that addiction

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Social media has all but destroyed our ability to work undisturbed. Constant notifications keep us hooked in a chorus of discordant noise while anxiety builds up in the back of your mind: time is running out! I’ll never get this done on time.

Yet, we obey the ringing and notifications like slaves do masters. Our phones have become like an indispensable limb we can’t be without even for a second. Even if our compulsive habit endangers our employment.

On the April 9 edition of 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper, former Google product manager Tristan Harris gave the best description of our interactions with our phones I have ever come across. He likened every time we check our phones to playing the slot machine. In this case the slot machine pay-out is the jolt of dopamine that rewards us when we do something worthy of an internal reward.

In a video on the Entrepreneur website Ben Angel says our behavior is due to operant conditioning.

In the 1930’s, B. F. Skinner developed the concept of operant conditioning. He used it to change the behavior of pigeons and rats by providing rewards and punishments – if they engaged in a certain activity, they were rewarded with food. Our reward is the ping that announces an email, a Facebook like or a new follower on Twitter.

The reward you got from the last time you checked social media influences the way you behave in the future. It’s like a continuous loop: check your Instagram or Twitter feed, get a shot for dopamine, repeat. Dopamine is of course also released every time you discover something new, so newsfeeds on websites play the same role are social media.

Angel some suggestions to get us off the constant let’s-see-what’s-happening treadmill and onto a more productive plane.

Our challenge is to find more constructive ways to produce dopamine in our brains while we are engaged in work, he says.

One of the best ways to do this is to reward yourself for your achievements.

“A great little mind-set hack for big tasks is to break them down into a series of smaller steps. You’ll feel the dopamine build up as you tick each step off the list in excited anticipation,” says Angel.

“Anticipation of just getting the job done can keep your brain focused and if you can promise yourself a reward at the end of it, then that’s a double hit.”

The trick is to replace the dopamine hit you get from social media with another stimulus.

To begin with, he suggests we may need some help. “So set up some social media app blockers to limit yourself to certain times of the day for catching up and then reward yourself every time you switch it off or switch back to the task at hand even if it is a special treat at the end of the week.”

For me that reward is usually another cup of coffee or a walk in the sun to the gate and back as soon as I’ve finished an article. What’s yours?

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