Why is social media addictive?

Why is social media addictive?

This is probably a really stupid post to write for an author who uses social media to promote her books. But I am deeply interested in the practice and nurture of creativity. In my experience, the more time I spend on social media, the less I am able to draw on my creative abilities. And I find spending time away from social media difficult. I know I’m not the only one. When I catch up with friends, it’s usually a question of when they will pull out their phone or I pad, not if. At the same time, none of them will admit they find these things addictive. Every single one of us thinks we’re in control. It’s only our friends who aren’t.

The first step in breaking addictive behaviour is becoming aware you have it. There’s definitely nothing to be ashamed of, since we are fighting deliberate psychological manipulation on a mass scale by trying to withstand the use of our devices. As a creative person, I think the fight is worth it. I don’t want to lose my ability to come up with story and plot ideas. I don’t want to waste precious days endlessly scrolling.

Are you addicted? That’s up to you to decide. But here’s what you face every time you pick up your device.

The internet is designed to be addictive

According to neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, seeking is a fundamental human behaviour. The drive to explore and seek is a fundamental part of being human. We receive dopamine rewards for doing so. But Panksepp defines addiction as excessive seeking. The need for that dopamine hit leads us to do more of the behaviour that gives it to us. The internet delivers new information and opportunities quickly, constantly rewarding our seeking. But that is not all.

Alerts and notifications on phones and apps are deliberately designed to offer intermittent rewards. The notification symbol, the ‘likes’ on our posts, the scrolling design, have all been developed in conjunction with psychologists, to keep us online longer. Several experiments, including Pavlov’s famous one with his salivating puppy, have found intermittent reward leads to a greater likelihood a behaviour will continue. The internet is very much like this. Sometimes when you go in to Twitter or Instagram you don’t have a notification. Sometimes you do. So you keep checking.

What can you do to break the cycle?

Lots of articles abound on breaking internet addiction. Being mindful of how much you pick up your phone can be a good starting point. Turning off notifications from social media and emails can reduce the urge to grab the phone. There are aps available which will show you your internet use so you become aware of how much time you are frittering (or Twittering) away. They can also help you stop using as much. I have found Forest to be effective. It grows a tree, and if you pick up your phone while it’s growing the tree dies. It seems pretty ironic to me to use an ap to stop using aps, but we live in a cyber world. Logging out of aps so it’s harder to check them can also help.

For me, the most effective way of curtailing my addictive checking is to turn off my phone and put it away for the day. It is just too easy to pick it up. I also don’t like the slightly blurry, disconnected feeling I get when I’ve been immersed in a cyber world for too long. And I hate the sense, at the end of the day, that I’ve lost a day’s creative practice to meaningless scrolling. I want to be a producer of art, not switch off my brain and be an endless consumer. So remembering those feelings can act as a strong motivation to stay away from my devices.

Restoring creativity

As I mentioned at the beginning, I definitely see an impact on my ability to think creatively if I spend too much time in the cyber world. The reverse is true. The less time I spend on social media and websites, the easier it is to tap into my ability to come up with story ideas and characters.

It’s so easy and tempting to pick up our devices, but we only get so many days to live. I can think of far better, more creative ways to spend them than swiping my finger across a glass screen, my eyes glazed. Like writing books.

Further reading

If you want to dive into this topic in detail, The Cyber Effect by Dr Mary Aiken is a really good starting point.

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