Do you find yourself distracted by social media when you’re out with friends or trying to sleep? Happiness researcher and psychologist Dr Tim Bono author off new book When Likes Aren’t Enough explains
Social media has transformed the ways we connect with others. We’re able to get updates and learn information about others faster and easier than ever before. But just like any new development, it can backfire if it’s not used correctly. Let’s take a look at how it often ends up doing more harm than good—and what we can do instead to avoid its potentially damaging effects.
It triggers social comparison
Long before the advent of social media, psychologists like myself knew that one of the fundamental barriers to our well-being is social comparison. It’s hard to be happy if we constantly concern ourselves with how we measure up to those around us. When we derive a sense of worth based on how we are doing relative to others, we place our happiness in a variable that is completely beyond our control. Within moments of logging on to social media we have instant access to others’ accomplishments, vacations, job promotions, home upgrades, and culinary creations. It’s nearly impossible not to get swept into the cycle of comparison. Scrolling through the highlight reels our friends’ posts inevitably fills us with envy because of the things we now want.
What to do instead: Spend that time instead focusing on the good things in your life. Taking time for gratitude has the opposite effect of social comparison—it redirects our attention to the many wonderful things we already have in our lives that already are there but that we have likely taken for granted. People who take just a few minutes to focus on what they’re grateful for feel better about their lives overall, report more optimism about their futures, and even get sick less often.
Even though most of us know on an intellectual level that we spend too much time on social media, we nonetheless feel compelled to open up Facebook or Instagram time and again, even against our better judgment telling us to stay away. The reason? It’s addictive. The same neurochemistry that leads gamblers in Vegas to empty their wallets into slot machines they know are unlikely to yield the jackpot is what keeps us going back for more updates from friends and relatives we know are likely to make us feel envy from their vacation shots or anger from their political rants.
Part of what makes those behaviors so addictive is the uncertainty factor. The engineers at Facebook know this. If every post and picture that came our way was pleasing, we would actually spend less time on it. But because we never know if the next post is going to make us feel good or bad, we become even more motivated to keep scrolling. Maybe the next picture or post will be make us laugh, maybe it will make us cringe. Maybe the next pull of the slot machine will hit the jackpot, maybe it will come up empty. There’s only one way to satisfy “maybe.” That’s to keep going back for more.
What to do instead: Make it harder to keep going back. Put your phone in a place where it’s not always in arm’s reach. Download apps that monitor or limit how much time you can spend on particular sites. Keep your social media apps buried in folders on the last screen of your phone. Or don’t use the apps at all and make yourself log into a web browser each time you want to log on. Those extra steps may provide the barrier you need to prevent overuse of this addictive media.
It’s replacing in-person connection
The single strongest predictor of our happiness is the strength of our connections to other people. But we’re referring to the three-dimensional people in this case. The number of Facebook friends or Instagram followers we have does not count, despite our obsessions with crafting our own digital personas and becoming wrapped up in others’. In recent years the amount of time we have dedicated to screen time has corresponded with a similar decrease in the quantity and quality of our in-person connections. Even if we are physically with another person, we often are so wrapped up in documenting the experience for our followers to see, or checking our phones to see what others are up to, that we neglect the opportunities to develop authentic connections with the people we are actually with.
What to do instead: The next time you are tempted to scroll through social media, scroll through your list of contacts instead. Find someone to call or FaceTime. The happiness you derive from an authentic connection with another person will be far greater than a random post or like on social media.
It’s affecting your memory of the actual event
People around the world now take more than a trillion pictures a year—mostly on their smart phones and often to post on social media. This might seem like it’s enhancing our experiences. But to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you spend all your time getting the perfect shot for your Instagram, you could miss it”. If we direct all of our attention toward capturing the best shots for our social media followers to admire, less will be available to enjoy other aspects of the experience in real time. Social experiences present an opportunity to take in a wide array of sights, sounds, interesting facts—and perhaps most importantly—connect with loved ones. Spending too much time on our phones will detract from those other aspects of the experience, undermining the happiness we could be gleaning from them.
What to do instead: The next time you are enjoying a meal with friends or at a cool place, it’s great to snap a few pictures to capture the memory. But set a limit on the number of pictures you’ll take and the amount of time you’ll spend on your phone. Make sure an equal amount of your attention goes toward taking in all aspects of the experience and savoring the camaraderie of those around you.
It’s keeping you from falling asleep
For many people, even after they have gone to bed and are under the covers they reach for their phones and end up getting sucked into the vicious cycle of social media. In addition to the reasons already outlined in this article, its ill effects can be especially troublesome when they happen right before bedtime.
Sleep itself is an important behavior for our overall happiness and well-being. When we sleep the brain does a lot of work to help us feel good and maintain focus on our work the next day. We want to give our brains as much time as possible to do this work.
Getting worked up with anxiety or envy from what we see on social media keeps the brain on high alert, preventing us from falling asleep. Plus, the light from our mobile device just inches from our face can suppress the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps us feel tired.
What to do instead: If you find that you spend a lot of time on social media right before bed, don’t keep your phone on your nightstand. Keep a place for it that is beyond arm’s reach. Instead, try some deep breathing exercises or read a book if you need something to divert your attention. Ultimately you want to do something that slows your brain activity, and social media almost always does the opposite.
It’s diminishing your attention span
Each spring I give my students an assignment that has to be one of the easiest they’ve ever received and yet it has the lowest completion rate of any I give all semester: they have to sit in silence for six minutes without reaching for their phones or using any other form of media. An alarmingly high proportion of them report they’re just not able to do it. Social media has provided a means of constantly giving into the temptation of instant, easy-access entertainment.
This immediate gratification from social media may be inhibiting our impulse control
But the ability to override an impulse is an important skill. Like any other skill, the more we practice it the stronger it becomes; the less we practice it the weaker it becomes. It’s become exceedingly difficult not to give into our impulses at every vibration, chime, or push notification. This constant, immediate gratification from social media may be inhibiting our capacity for impulse control. If we can’t override a temptation like checking Facebook during a silent six-minute activity, we might also not have the mind control to maintain proper attention on other tasks that require our undivided attention during the day.
What to do instead: The best way to strengthen our attention is through meditation. Carving out time every so often to focus only on our breathing teaches us to maintain focus on one task. Over time we become better both at identifying distracting thoughts as they come up and at letting them go. It is the act of redirecting our attention back to the task at hand that becomes stronger. That attentional strength then extends to our ability to persevere through a challenging work task even though new posts on Snapchat or Twitter may be trying to lure us away.
For the record, social media is not inherently bad. It can be used for a lot of wonderful things that can lead to information sharing, entertainment, and even authentic social connection. But we have to be wise consumers of this media and aware of the potential risks. If you find that your social media use is leading you down a path toward one or more of these six paths, I’m not suggesting that you get rid of it altogether. But you may want to modify how you are using it. Then you’ll get more of the benefits with fewer of the drawbacks. You’ll probably sleep better, too.
When Likes Aren’t Enough by Dr Tim Bono is published by Seven Dials and out now.