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Mind Over Social Media: Tips for Combatting Technology Overuse

J. Junker

Are you addicted to your smartphone? Many of us certainly feel drawn to our electronic devices - and the array of information and activities they offer - in a way we feel uncomfortable admitting. And, while there's some controversy about whether or not the term "addiction" is appropriate, there is growing evidence that things like posting on Facebook can elicit the same brain response as an addictive substance.

"When you scan someone's brain when they're self-disclosing, they activate the same reward-based learning processes as heroine, alcohol, cocaine, and cigarettes," explained Dr. Judson Brewer, author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits.

Those reward-based learning circuits may have evolved to help us find food. 

"If we fast forward to modern day, where food is plentiful, we don't necessarily need this all the time because there's a McDonald's on every corner," said Brewer. "Yet, this process is still at play, and still at play quite a bit. So, our brains start co-opting this and say 'why don't you use this to cope with stress?"

That can be a good thing, or it can lead to harmful behaviors like emotional eating, smoking, and social media overuse.

Dr. Saul Rosenthal saw his first patient with an internet addiction twelve years ago. Since then, he's seen many more. He says it's a particularly tricky addiction to treat.

"It's almost like 'how can you help an alcoholic work in a bar without slipping," said Dr. Saul Rosenthal, a developmental and clinical health psychologist in Newton, MA. "Traditional addiction treatments really aren't practical because, unlike heroine, you can't really live without technology. We really need to train people - or relearn - how to use technology in a healthy way."

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of research out there showing what kinds of strategies are most effective. But, both Rosenthal and Brewer recommend mindfulness as a way to interrupt a negative cycle, become aware of what drives cravings, and gain some perspective on the impacts of our behavior. How does the temporary high of a Facebook like compare to the peace of mind that comes from abstaining from Facebook?

Still, Rosenthal says throwing away our laptops and smartphones isn't the answer, because the physical devices are incredibly useful and not actually what most people are addicted to.

"That's kind of like saying an alcoholic is addicted to the bottle," said Rosenthal. "Technology is the way a person may access the think they are addicted to."

Instead, he encourages everyone to adopt some basic guidelines for healthful technology use:

  • Make conscious choices. The more we rely on smartphones, the harder it is to disconnect. Consider which functions are optional. Could you keep to-do lists in a paper notebook? Use a standalone alarm clock? Make conscious choices about what you really need your phone for, and what you don't.
  • Retrain yourself gradually. Larry Rosen, PhD, advises users not to check the phone first thing in the morning. During the day, gradually check in less often — maybe every 15 minutes at first, then every 20, then 30. Over time, you'll start to see notifications as suggestions rather than demands, he says, and you'll feel less anxious about staying connected.
  • Set expectations. "In many ways, our culture demands constant connection. That sense of responsibility to be on call 24 hours a day comes with a greater psychological burden than many of us realize," says Karla Klein Murdock, PhD. Try to establish expectations among family, friends, and coworkers to avoid misunderstandings if you don't reply to texts or emails immediately. Then, try to be aware of your own expectations, and avoid putting pressure on yourself to be "always on."
  • Silence notifications. It's tempting to go with your phone's default settings, but making the effort to turn off unnecessary notifications can reduce distractions and stress.
  • Protect sleep. Rosenthal asks his patients to keep technology out of the bedroom, and avoid using your phone late at night or right before bedtime. If you must use it, turn down the brightness. When it's time for bed, turn your phone off and place it in another room.
  • Be active. When interacting with social media sites, don't just absorb other people's posts. Actively posting ideas or photos, creating content, and commenting on others' posts is associated with better subjective well-being.

And, of course, don't text/email/call and drive. In 2014, more than 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving incidents on U.S. roads, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. When you're driving, turn off notifications and place your phone out of reach.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.