Curbing social media addiction

Managing for Society
The Manila Times
9 July 2019

Many people are excited by news of the impending approval of a third major telecommunications provider for the country. Mobile broadband users, myself included, are looking forward to the higher Internet speeds being promised – much higher than Filipinos are used to receiving from the two major providers. But in this era of ever-advancing technology, I've learned that more and faster does not always mean better. And this applies particularly to social media use.

Social media has been around for nearly 20 years. Filipinos have always been among the heaviest social media users in the world, even though we have notoriously slow Internet service. Filipinos use social media to connect with friends and family. We also use them to collaborate with colleagues and advance our careers. Still others among us use social media to express themselves, stay informed or develop business opportunities. As Internet technologies go, social media rank up there in terms of potential benefits for our people.

But just like many helpful things in life like exercise, travel, or even eating, we must be careful not to overdo social media. Excessive social media use kills our ability to enjoy deep social activities and conversations, engage a complex train of thought or focus on doing our work well. It can negatively affect our wellbeing and personal effectiveness. I have observed students and professionals alike spend a lot of time on social media every day while failing to attend to their commitments. I have recently been missing research deadlines due to YouTube viewing and I'm not proud of it.

The first step to reining in social media use is self-awareness. A team of psychologists developed the Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale to help people check if they are developing social media addiction.

For each question, answer: (1) very rarely, (2) rarely, (3) sometimes, (4) often, or (5) very often. Do you:

a) spend a lot of time thinking about social media or planning how to use it; 

b) feel an urge to use social media more and more; 

c) use social media in order to forget about personal problems; 

d) try to cut down on the use of social media without success; 

e) become restless or troubled if you are prohibited from using social media; and 

f) use social media so much that it has had a negative impact on your job/studies.

Scores of 4 or higher on at least 4 of the statements above can mean you have a social media addiction.

I'm almost there.

Cal Newport, Georgetown University professor and author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, is one of the strongest advocates of controlling social media use. He defines addiction as “a condition in which a person engages in use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.” Using this definition, we can easily see that social media addiction is a very real threat to many people's lives.

Social media addiction takes away the sense of autonomy and control we all need to lead purposeful and meaningful lives. Social media addicts have been referred to as "digital zombies" by Patrik Wincent, founder of Internetakuten, a Swedish company that offers counsel and education to people dealing with digital stress.

To be fair, Newport explains that “People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.” While observing that checking “likes” is the new smoking, Newport recommends digital minimalism as a counter-measure to social media addiction.

Digital minimalism is a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” Newport recommends that we digitally declutter our lives by taking a thirty-day break from all social media, and then reintroducing the technology into our lives based on our values and priority life goals. 

Lessening social media use releases so much time to do other important things. Newport recommends that we prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption, use skills to produce valuable things in the physical world, and seek activities that require real-world, structured social interactions. Wincent says that when being with our young children, "there is no app that can replace your lap."

I'm giving these pieces of advise from Newport and Wincent a try. Maybe you should, too.

Dr. Benito Teehankee is the Jose E. Cuisia Professor of Business Ethics and Head of the Business for Human Development Network at De La Salle.