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Facing up to the addictive effects of social media on the mind...

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

The past few weeks I have been trying to become more consciously aware of the effects that social media was having on my mind. I am uncertain what triggered the realisation that I might be having a compulsion to check my phone rather than a genuine need, but I realised that my constant ‘checking’ was becoming a concern to me.

I decided to investigate my screen time on my iphone, and was astounded at how much time I was clocking up. In the last 7 days alone, whilst being determined to cut down my usage I have still managed to clock up an average of 4 hours 3 mins a day, that’s apparently down 12% from the previous week, so it is actually an improvement! Broken down over the week it’s an average of 6 hrs 44m on WhatsApp, 5hrs 34m on Twitter, 2 hrs on Outlook and 2 hours on messages. I rarely use Facebook as I find it an inequitable forum which often presents a distorted rose tinted version of reality. This usage therefore seems high to me, since I am also conducting a pretty busy life, running a household, working part-time, studying for a masters, caring for a child, reading and painting. So it’s not like I have masses of free time. What the heck is going on here?

At the end of last week I committed to try to give up social media for the following week. However it became immediately obvious that this withdrawal was going to be harder than I had first assumed, and I had broken my commitment by approximately 6.45am Monday morning. This lack of willpower unsettled me. I was a pretty committed smoker for over ten years, so have been addicted to a substance before, and recognise the signs of addiction. I am not one for having something have a hold over me, so I have stuck my heals in and started to unpick it.

My mother (a counsellor/psychotherapist) concerned about the effects of screen use, has been sending me articles for months urging me to limit the time my daughter spends on her ipad. This too, despite my commitment and drawing up a schedule has been exceptionally challenging.

One article from the Telegraph that she sent me this week titled 'Internet is giving us shorter attention spans and worse memories, major study suggests' was based on a review by academics from Oxford, King’s College London, Harvard and Western Sydney. The study found that smartphones were “replacing our ability to remember facts while tricking us into thinking we are smarter than we actually are”. Academics have been studying the impact of the internet on our brains since it was introduced, and have found that the “limitless stream of prompts and notifications from the internet encourages us towards constantly holding a divided attention, which in turn may decrease our capacity for maintaining concentration on a single task”. They found the effects that this digital distraction was having on those affected, was that their brains showed less grey matter in the cerebral areas associated with maintaining focus. The bottom line is that our brains are changing. The wiring is changing. My brain is changing... and I’m confused whether this is really a good or a bad thing, or both simultaneously.

I have been noticing this addictive distraction comes in the form of ‘checking’ for me (it is only 11am on a day I am consciously limiting screen use, and I have already had 45 'pick ups' to look at the screen). For most part I feel like I might be missing some useful information, but in reality the information I am anticipating is probably not that essential, and I know this. The most addictive social media forum I have been finding is Whatsapp. The formation of Whatsapp groups, has become a really useful way to disseminate one message to multiple people. This week I tried a social experiment, I came off a few WhatsApp groups unexpectedly. No doubt I appeared rude, but I felt compelled to just try it. I had previously tried to mute, but it did not work for some reason, and I could still see the notifications, and thus was ‘tempted’ to have a check. Despite this I have still been checking WhatsApp frequently. Why? Goodness only knows. But it has made me realise the compulsion to check is itself the addiction, not the receipt of information. It is like the compulsion to pick up and smoke a cigarette. I found withdrawal from nicotine less difficult to cut the tie from than handling the cigarette itself. I missed keeping my hands busy. This was definitely the toughest part for me.

I fear I am not alone with the compulsion to check my phone being greater than the need for the information itself, or even the perceived acceptance from friendship groups.

I have recognised the good coming from social media including: maintaining contact with friends you rarely see; reducing time disseminating information; exposing lies and propaganda; promoting business; and promoting false feelings of super stardom. However I am now also recognising that this good stuff also comes with a heavy price, as with everything in life I suppose. The full effects that the internet and smart phones are having on the brain is not yet fully understood, and that concerns me.

Within the article 'Internet addiction: a 21st century epidemic' Dimitri A Christakis states “Internet addiction, while not yet officially codified within a psychological framework, is growing both in prevalence and within the public consciousness as a potentially problematic condition with many parallels to existing recognised disorders”. He sets out that “Cultural influences both mandate and facilitate that we spend time “online”, meaning teetotalism is not an option. I agree that abstinence is almost an impossibility, so what does this mean for people with even mildly addictive personalities. I would not consider myself to have a particularly addictive personality, so what does that mean for the rest of the population then?

Now I have recognised that teetotalism is not an option, I am going to try to take back some control by placing a limit of 1.5hrs a day for social media, and will see how this goes. But what really concerns me is that I am having to do this at all. Something can’t be right. The irony does not escape me that I’m about to post this blog post on social media. Does that even count? If something is productive then it should be fine right… but how do we maintain our productivity without allowing ourselves to become addicted to the non productive elements. It will be interesting to see what the future holds on this. I fear we are only just starting to understand the real underlying complexities that the internet has brought with it.

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