From the beginning, technology was meant to serve us. We create things, like social media, to make our lives better so we can have more control over the limited amount of time we have every day. But is social media actually improving our lives? Or have we become slaves to our own creation?
Take a moment and ask yourself: when was the last time you went a full day, from wake to sleep, without checking social media? If sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit disappeared tomorrow, would you feel empty and depressed? Has social media become an addiction for you?
Social media can be a good thing, of course, and I’m not saying you need to abandon social media for good. But too much of a good thing can absolutely be harmful.
The Nature of Social Media Addiction
It all hinges on the chemical dopamine.
Contrary to popular belief, dopamine has nothing to do with pleasure. Rather, the dopamine system has more to do with anticipation and motivation. Dopamine makes you feel like you want something and shifts you into a reward-seeking mindset. This mindset compels you to act. When you act to satiate that desire, the brain releases endorphins, which are pleasurable and rewarding.
Unfortunately, some specific characteristics of social media can abuse our dopamine systems:
- Instant gratification. When your brain enters its reward-seeking mindset, all you have to do is open up Reddit or send out a tweet and your brain will interpret that as having acted, thus releasing feelings of pleasure as a reward.
- Incomplete gratification. Even though Reddit links and tweets feel rewarding, they are only slightly so. You are never fully satisfied, so you feel compelled to keep going back.
- Unpredictable stimuli. The brain also releases dopamine when something unexpected happens. And since notifications and alerts are unpredictable, they trigger dopamine. That keeps you hooked.
- Anticipation and conditioning. As you immerse yourself in dopamine-triggering stimuli, your brain begins to anticipate them even before they happen. This is why you sometimes feel “social media withdrawal” — a compulsive need to check social media if you’ve gone too long without any dopamine triggers.
All of this comes together in something called social media creep. Like most addictions, it takes hold of you long before you realize it even exists.
It starts with the creation of a Facebook account that you might check weekly. Then every five days. Every three days. Daily. You install the Facebook mobile app, and now you’re hit with notifications multiple times per hour. Your brain’s dopamine system strengthens, requiring more and more stimulation for less and less reward. Eventually you’re waking up in the middle of the night to check if you’ve received any new likes, messages, or follows.
If you aren’t sure if you’re addicted to social media, see our list of social media overdose symptoms. You may think you’re addicted to your smartphone when you’re actually addicted to social media. And the saddest part is that social media addiction is seen as acceptable in society.
The Benefits of a Social Media Detox
Let’s say you are addicted to social media. So what? It isn’t harming anyone. You’re still getting good grades in school or completing all your work at the office. You’re taking care of yourself. It’s not like you’re addicted to cocaine or heroin, right?
And that’s true. All things considered, it’s one of the safest addictions you could have — nobody has ever died from it. But what about the quality of your life? Social media addiction could be harming you in ways you can’t quite see on the surface.
- Social media is a false reality. People selectively post what they want others to see. And this allows everyone to flaunt their good sides while hiding their bad ones. Nobody’s profile truly reflects who they are as a person — it’s all filtered and sterilized. Unfortunately, we tend to forget this. And we can fall into despair when we can’t seem to keep up with the supposed lives of our friends and followers, even to the point of depression.
- Social media encourages narcissism. One of the biggest rewards in social media is when you make a post and somebody likes it. On Reddit, it’s upvotes. On Twitter and Tumblr, it’s retweets and reblogs. It’s all about your own satisfaction and gratification, and as you chase more and more likes, you can get swallowed up in yourself.
- Social media promotes echo chambers. The nature of social media means you can follow those who are like you and ignore those who aren’t. This is the very definition of an echo chamber: everyone just parrots the same ideas back at one another. If you aren’t aware of this effect, social media can turn you into a close-minded person.
- Social media is a privacy risk. You’d be surprised how much somebody can find out about you simply through your social media history. In the most extreme of cases, malicious users can make your life a living hell in many ways, including doxing, stalking, hacking, and more.
- Social media sucks up time. A visit to Reddit can turn into two hours of mindless browsing. Checking Facebook or Twitter may only take a few minutes, but if you check several times an hour, that can add up to a lot of wasted time. What if you spent that time on something else, like a creative hobby, hiking a trail, or personal growth?
A social media detox can get you away from all of these negatives. Note that a detox doesn’t have to be permanent — it just has to be long enough to rewire your brain and break you out of the endless dopamine cycle. You can always come back later.
How to Do a Proper Social Media Detox
Starting a detox is easy. The hard part is sticking with it.
Despite the involvement of dopamine, social media addiction is a psychological addiction (in the same vein as video game addiction). Whereas substance-related addictions sometimes need gradual weaning due to issues of physical withdrawal, psychological ones are best dealt with using cold-turkey tactics.
In short, you need to stop rewarding your current dopamine triggers so that your brain can return to normal. You can’t do this if you’re feeding your appetite here and there. Plus, you’re more likely to spiral back into addiction with little hits. Here are the simple steps to a true social media detox:
- Deactivate your accounts. This will serve as a hedge against you checking in on a whim, and it will also signal to your friends that you’re on a detox. We’ve shown you how to deactivate Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Other sites may or may not allow deactivation.
- Uninstall all social media apps. This will eliminate all of those notifications and alerts that play such a crucial role in social media addiction. And you won’t be as likely to pop one of those apps open in moments of boredom or stillness.
- Block all social media sites. This is for your computers, laptops, and tablets. Use one of these web filtering tools to restrict access to social media sites. My preferred tool is K9 Web Protection. I also have OpenDNS on my router, which blocks sites for all devices connected to it.
- Replace social media with another activity. It’s not enough to excise social media from your day. You need to fill that void with something else, otherwise you’re just going to claw your way back. I recommend learning new skills, whether creative hobbies, geeky DIY hobbies, or even hobby programming.
How long should the detox last? While studies are still sparse on this, most experts agree that it takes approximately three months (or 100 days) for dopamine levels to return to normal. It may take longer depending on how long and how intensely you’ve been addicted, so don’t be surprised if it takes upwards of six months or even a year.
It’s going to be tough. I recommend reading the account of one of our writers when she temporarily gave up social media. It’ll help you get a better sense of what to expect from this whole experience, and that should increase your chances of success.
Are You Ready to Take a Much-Needed Break?
Social media can be fine as a form of entertainment, and it can even be a force for good with how quickly it can disperse information and mobilize a movement. But you must use it smartly and in moderation. Too much can prove detrimental, even with the best of intentions.
If you think addiction is a real possibility, it may be time to take a break. And while a detox doesn’t have to be forever, you may decide after a few months that a permanent leave from social media is the best thing for you — and that’s okay.
How do you feel about social media addiction? Have you ever detoxed? What steps do you take to ensure that it doesn’t control you? Share with us in the comments below!