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Addictive social media usage patterns: find the root cause first

Jul 29, 2019 | Posted by Cristina in Newsletters

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The text below was first sent to our newsletter subscribers, in June 2019. If you enjoy it and want more, subscribe here.

One hot summer day, four years ago, I was looking over my RescueTime stats.

RescueTime is a time management app that monitors how you spend your time on every digital device and analysis how productive you’ve been. It tracks every online activity, websites you visit, when you browse them, how much time you spend on them, and so on.

Before installing it, I was under the impression that I have been wasting too much time on social media. At the end of the day, I had no idea where my time went, and I guessed that a large chunk of it disappeared into the black hole called social media.

However, “too much time spent on social media” is way too subjective for someone self-described as rational. What gets measured gets managed, so I wanted numbers! I installed RescueTime on my desktop (I don’t think they had an Android app available back then) and forgot all about it. I went on with my usual agenda for a full month.

At the end of that month, I checked the results. RescueTime showed I had spent 28 hours on Facebook, so just a bit under one hour per day.

One hour per day seems reasonable, right? But this was time spent browsing Facebook only from my desktop. So without any mobile time, without Instagram, without Twitter, which probably would have doubled that daily hour at the very least.

When I started doing the math, I freaked out. Even if it were only one hour per day, it still added up to 15 days per year. 15 DAYS! How much would I accomplish if I had two extra weeks in one year!?

Leaving aside how these social networks impact our productivity, there are also long term effects. Multitasking and consuming small bits of information every moment we’re awake affects our capacity to focus and learn.

Our brain is similar to a muscle: we have a finite amount of willpower and mental bandwidth. If we throw it all on things that aren’t important, even just resisting the impulse of checking our phones, we’ll get tired. We’ll be incapable of making important decisions when it truly matters.

The mere presence of our smartphones in the same room with us reduces our cognitive capacity – even when we aren’t using them, we aren’t looking at them, they are face-down or powered off altogether!

And then there’s an increasing level of anxiety – when we’re checking social media, we’re riding this emotional roller coaster, passively consuming things that aren’t under our control.

But it’s not about Facebook. We can have a toxic relationship with any other digital platform, be it Reddit, Twitter, WhatsApp, and so on. That’s why it’s important that we find the root cause instead of jumping straight into treating the symptom.

If we’re not aware of what we’re taking out of the excessive social media use, what human needs they fulfill us on a daily basis, we might end up closing our accounts only to replace them with different toxic relationships.

We close our Facebook accounts, thinking Facebook’s the problem, be proud of ourselves and tell others how good we feel about it, and months later we have the same addictive patterns in how we use different social media platforms. Aaaaand we’re back to square one.

I remember following a journalist who did an extreme experiment back in 2012: for one year, he decided to give up using the internet completely. Yeap, he quit the internet!

During that year, he used an old school phone (yeah, I know it’s called a dumbphone, but just doesn’t sound fair to me :)) ), he used paper maps, he took his news from a physical newspaper he had to buy every morning, and so on. Even his articles for The Verge (where he was working) were created the same way: he wrote by hand and sent them via mail (he had to deliver one article per week). His readers’ comments also came in via post.

He filled his free time with all sorts of things that he only dreamed about before. He started practicing sports regularly, he read more books, wrote more, spent more quality time with his friends, smelled the flowers, admired the blue sky and felt grateful for it all. I remember reading his articles and thinking how amazing it is that he’s able to do such an experiment and get paid to report it.

The interesting part came at the end of his experiment, in the article with his conclusions. After only a few months without internet, he had already replaced old bad (digital) habits with new toxic habits. Sure, offline, but still harmful.

Measuring how we spend our time online, imagining or reading about the harmful long-term effects caused by abusing digital platforms – these are all great rational tools. However, they’re all in vain if we don’t start by treating the root emotional causes. If we ignore our human needs and how we use those platforms as shortcuts to fulfill them, we might just quit using one social network and wake up later struggling with the same addictive usage patterns, only on a different platform.

P.S. this was the subject of the first workshop I held this week for our community of supporters: social media mindfulness and how to take back control.


1. Video: Cal Newport on Impact Theory: How to Quit Social Media and Master Your Focus

Computer science professor Cal Newport was recently a guest on Impact Theory (I just love Tom Bilyeu’s interviews, though I’m never sure if I’m spelling his name right and I need to check 😛 ). Cal talked about his previous bestsellers, Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, harms caused by social media, how to focus, the form of meditation he practices, and the book he’s currently working on, called “A World Without Email”. Btw, do check out his 2016 article for Harvard Business Review: “A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email“.

I personally love Cal Newport’s work and been recommending it non-stop since I first read Deep Work, but I noticed that not everyone feels this way. Most people are repulsed by his rational, logical writing style.

One reason why they feel disconnected from his words is because he’s never been on social media and doesn’t need it in order to thrive on a professional level, so his context is completely different from the context of those who most need his books.

Compare that to my context: I’ve been writing about social media from a deeply emotional and personal point of view. For more than 10 years, my job involved promoting people, startups, Fortune 500 companies or my own projects ON social media! Me and Bobby were the first to sell a blog in my country in 2008, I’ve worked with people who grow and nurture huge social media communities (mostly musicians and entrepreneurs), and at some point I was even the most followed woman on social media in my country.

So you can say I’m in a love & hate relationship with social media, as I still need to promote The CEO Library (nobody will find out we exist otherwise). Quitting it altogether would be like not showing up for work and I’m always looking for ways to extract the most value out of these platforms.

2. Podcast: How to Handle Information Overwhelm (And Social Media)

This is one of my favorite episodes from Tim Ferriss. He talks about how he personally built self-care time and limits in his daily routine, without shame, in order to stay healthy and keep on producing quality work.

Tim has a huge online community, with millions of people following him on social media, reading his blog, his books, and listening to his podcast, so his work relies on digital promotion.

3. List of books: Get ready for the future of work

Retail giant Walmart, founded by Sam Walton in 1950, is one of the most beloved companies, promoter of proud American values. It’s also the biggest employee in the world: more than 1.5 million people work at Walmart (only USA and China’s defense departments employ more people). And, for the past seven years, Walmart has also been world’s biggest company by revenue. For context, tech giants Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook don’t even make top 10.

Walmart has also been among the first companies that used technology to collect as much data as possible and used it to make their operations more efficient. It contributed to the closing of multiple small businesses, led to a low quality of goods made and consumed in US and, overall, widened the economic gap.

It’s the kind of corporation that has an ambivalent impact over the economy. Buyers ask for increasingly lower prices, the company seeks to lower operational costs while delivering at a large scale, lowers wages, pressures its partners to make better offers, providers cut quality in order to keep their (already) small profit margins. Meanwhile, the company invests in automation and AI solutions, accelerating an already existing trend of technological change that makes job redundant.

This model helps us better understand the new digital economy, business models used by companies such as Amazon or Uber, where costumers are at the same time employees and investors. It’s a conflict of interests between multiple parties, where everyone’s fighting against itself, leading to a toxic loop. You can’t have both big wages AND quality work conditions, you can’t have fastest delivery time AND quality AND at the same time offer the lowest prices on the market, and so on.

I first read about the Walmart effect in Hedge book, by Nicolas Colin. Nicolas is one of the three co-founders of The Family, a European startup accelerator and community, and he writes a lot of educational content on the topic of building a safety net in the new entrepreneurial age (he also sends a weekly newsletter with his thoughts and curated resources).

Hedge is just one of the many books we recommend you to read on the subject of the future of work and how we can better prepare for it, here’s the full list: Books to help you get ready for the future of work

4. Article: Your Smartphone Reduces Your Brainpower, Even If It’s Just Sitting There

This is the study I mentioned at the beginning of today’s newsletter, in case you want to dig deeper into the subject.

5. 32 Thoughts From a 32-Year-Old

Every year on his birthday, author and media strategist Ryan Holiday writes an article about the lessons he learned in the past year – he’s six months older than I am, so there’s usually a big amount of overlapping thoughts going on in my mind. He recently turned 32, so this is his recent collection of birthday thoughts.

And check out his previous articles from the series:

  • 25 Rules For Living From A (Semi-) Successful 26-Year-Old
  • Things I Learned On The Way To 27
  • I Just Turned 28: Here’s What I’ve Learned In Another Year
  • 29 Pieces Of Life Changing Advice I Collected By My 29th Birthday
  • 40 Ways To Live A Full Life (And Leave Nothing On The Table) By Age 30
  • 3.1 Lessons Learned on the Way to 31

If you find these emails to be inspiring and if they help you in any way, support The CEO Library here – this is the best form of appreciation you can show 🙂 Thank you!

Baby capybara hugs,

– Cristina

The text above was first sent to our newsletter subscribers, in June 2019. If you enjoyed it and want more, subscribe here.

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