The Great Brain Hijack
Audit your social media apps to avoid gambling with your mental health
The smartphone is the most successful consumer product in history. It connects us to people who share our interests around the world. Labour-saving apps save hours we’d have previously spent shopping, visiting a bank and booking holidays. It’s also a magical portal to valuable information: recipes, maps, the weather forecast and more.
So, why do many of us have the creeping feeling we’re being enslaved?
The issue is distraction. Smartphones shatter our ability to think because they continually interrupt us. Some labour-saving apps make us productive. But, their proximity to personalised social media feeds and gossip news means its difficult to break free from their insidious influence. Mixed in with ‘always-on’ work emails is the shiny lure of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and others social media and entertainment apps. When our devices are turned on, subtle psychological tricks built into the algorithms hook our attention. The pleasure unleashed in our brains can lead to addiction. It also results in what psychologists call “continuous partial attention”. This makes it impossible for you to fully focus.
The lure of variable rewards
Home screen updates and message icons rely on the concept of ‘variable rewards’. This is the same psychological system which makes gambling addictive. When you click on an alert icon, or pull the screen ‘down’ to refresh the content, its similar to the pleasurable anticipation after a gambler yanks the arm of a Las Vegas slot machine. You have no idea if you’ll discover an interesting email, a ‘like’ from a long-lost friend – or not much at all. Not knowing keeps you coming back for more. One study indicated your phone doesn’t even have to be turned on to distract you, its mere presence in the corner of your eye damages cognitive capacity.
Ironically, it’s a group of former Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and engineers who’re sounding the alarm. Justin Rosenstein banned himself from Snapchat (which he likens to heroin) and limited his use of Facebook. He warns of the dangers of getting hooked on ‘likes’ which he describes darkly as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure”. His concern is surprising as he created the ‘like’ button in 2007 when he was working at Facebook.
Take back control
To take back control, ask a simple question:
“What specifically is the benefit am I seeking to get out of invested time spent on this app?”
Write down the services you use and then answer that question for each. Imagine life without this service for 30 days. You might experiment with not using this for a week, or even a month. It’s easy to do. After the week is over you can then list what you’ve, how you felt, and if it’s worth investing the time again. Or, you might use the extra time you saved to learn a new skill or kick off a creative project.
This blog is adapted from my second book The Human Edge: How curiosity and creativity are your superpowers in the digital economy (Pearson, 2019), buy your copy here.
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All right reserved Copyright © 2019 Greg Orme