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Three Ways to Beat Social Media Addiction

For three years, we’ve heard teens say in our focus groups that they are “addicted to social media.” In fact, it’s been said so often, it almost sounds cliché.

Today, however, some of the early pioneers of social media platforms admit they purposely created features that not only lure us into overuse, but they hold us on a social media platform subconsciously unless we take steps to get off of it. There is a science behind what Facebook, Twitter and other companies have done.

Want proof?

First, have you noticed how much the color “red” is used on our mobile phone apps? It is a part of almost every one of them. For years, marketing experts have known that the color red is alluring and inviting. (Have you ever observed how many fast food restaurants use the color red in their logos?) Icons telling us how many notifications we have—are almost always red. It’s a trigger color that signifies importance. And unless we’re aware, we buy into it and click.

Second, have you noticed that social media feeds used to require you to click in order to keep scrolling through the data? Today, they rarely do. Aza Raskin is the tech engineer who invented this feature. He designed the infinite scroll. And he admits, it was designed to be addictive. He said in an interview that there was an experiment with a soup bowl that slowly kept filling itself as people were sipping it from a spoon. Researchers wanted to discover if the people would eat more if the bowl just stayed full. The result?  Yes, they did. So, Aza invented a phone feature that mimics the soup experiment. In essence, we never get done scrolling through “the soup.” And social media companies are using it everywhere.

“It’s as if they’re taking behavioral cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that’s the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back,” said former Mozilla and Jawbone employee Aza Raskin. It’s highly habit forming. “Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally—like literally—a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.”

Mr. Raskin then explained something profound: “If you don’t give your brain time to catch up with your impulses, you just keep scrolling.”

Third, think for a moment about the “Like” feature we now enjoy. One of the most alluring features for social media users is getting “likes” which come in the form of thumbs up, or hearts or retweets.

Leah Pearlman, co-inventor of Facebook’s Like button, admitted that even she had become hooked on Facebook because she had begun basing her sense of self-worth on the number of “likes” she had. Like millions of others, she went to Facebook when she felt lonely or needed validation. She quit Facebook and has tried to stop using the platform, but she acknowledges it’s like quitting cigarettes.

So, why would tech companies do this to us?

It always goes back to money. Funding from investors comes in more rapidly when they know tech companies are keeping users on the screen longer to see ads, teasers and other promotions. So—it’s as if we can’t turn the TV off.

Three Steps We Can Take in Response

In light of these realities, let me offer three steps we all can take. Why not talk these over with your students and determine your best application?

1. Choose to be intentional. Be a leader.

Because of what we’ve just learned—the colors, the never-ending scrolling feature, and the “Like” icons push us into bad habits—we must decide (and help our students decide) to be leaders. We must make a conscious effort to notice what’s happening to us . . . and revolt. Just a year ago, Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker publicly admitted the company set out to consume as much user time as possible. But, the fact is, we control our lives—not anyone else. We must choose not to be a victim. Let’s take charge of our lives and set an example.

2. Set a timer so you can establish boundaries.

Once we see how much time we spend (or waste) on social media platforms, it’s often stunning. Why not set a timer on your watch or phone to tell you when you’ve spent an hour—then determine to stop when that alarm goes off. Realizing what they’ve done, recent reports indicate Facebook is working on features to let users see how much time they have spent on its app over the previous seven days and to set daily time limits. This enables us to avoid being victims.

3. Balance the way you use your time.

I’ve written before about the “equation” we established in our home as our kids were growing up. We told them that however many hours you spend on a screen, you must spend equal hours face-to-face with people, in genuine contact with them, not virtual contact. This kept all of us balanced and growing in our people skills.

To overcome an addiction, step one is always awareness. Now, we know.


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Three Ways to Beat Social Media Addiction