Stop bingeing on social media – part 2

In my last post, I outlined the reasons why over-use of social media and Internet-enabled screens in general present problems we’d want to avoid. And I emphasised that this applies to people of all ages, not just young people. My post was in response to a piece in the Guardian following the Growing Up Digital report by the Children’s Commissioner for England. I said that I’d come back and offer some strategies. Here I am.

A word about that word “addictive”

In that earlier post, I talked about the “addictive” and tempting qualities of social media, comparing it to sugar, alcohol, tobacco and cocaine. Of course, not all these things are equally “addictive” or equally harmful when over-used. In fact, the word “addictive” is itself over-used and has an emotive attachment that we need to be cautious of. The definition of an addiction is when someone continues compulsively to use or perform the addictive substance or action despite knowing that harm is being caused; and in substance addiction at least the response lessens and so the dose needed to get the same pleasure becomes greater. Addiction is partly affected by the behaviour of the dopamine or reward pathways in the brain but also partly by many less measurable effects of personality, social situation etc. So saying that cocaine is addictive and social media are addictive, because they trigger the same kind of dopamine response is not by any means the whole story. Addiction is not as simple as reward pathways, even if they are implicated. Substances such as illegal drugs and activities such as accessing social media are also both different in many ways, including in how addictive they are; what damage may be caused; the fact that social media in smaller doses does no systemic harm whereas there is no recognised safe dose of cocaine et al; the fact that social media use also produces recognised benefits to self-esteem and connection; and a whole load of other differences. Not to mention the psychological state of the user.

But, yes, I believe it’s important to recognise that the activation of the reward/pleasure/dopamine systems of the brain makes social media and internet-based screen use very tempting indeed, for some of the same mechanical reasons as for sugar, tobacco, alcohol and cocaine. We need to accept that this type of temptation is physical, biological, as well as psychological, because we need not to underestimate the power of that temptation. Although most of us are not genuinely addicted and although, even if we are, the harm is not like the harm done by many other things we might be addicted to, it helps to treat the situation somewhat as we might for any genuine addiction.

(In my next post, I’m going to give you some fascinating evolutionary reasons for why social media can be expected to activate the reward systems. It’s to do with three ways in which humans are “programmed”.)

My strategies

Today I promised strategies. Which ones you choose will depend on whether you’re acting as a parent or school or dealing with your own compulsive over use. Where relevant I’ve mad separate comments for parents (when trying to help teenagers) and schools.

Underlying principles

A. Intrinsic or extrinsic motivation – see Drive by Daniel Pink. Essentially, know about the two forms of motivation:
Extrinsic involves rewards and punishments: “If I do this I can have a reward”; “If you don’t do this, you won’t be able to do…” Intrinsic motivation comes from within and responds to acknowledged feelings of benefit when the right action is performed. It involves the individual setting a goal, knowing why it’s desired, and acknowledging pride and pleasure when the correct action is performed.

Extrinsic motivation works well at first. Soon, greater reward or punishment is required. So it ultimately fails. Intrinsic motivation is more likely to succeed and for longer. It involves autonomy and is good.

B. Don’t fret about your bad habits: just create new ones – every time we perform an action we lay down or strengthen pathways, making it easier next time. Brains love habits, whether good or bad, and they are easy to form. So, a new habit could be: “I only use social media on my phone, not my laptop.” “I spend an hour a day with my phone in a different room and during that hour I read/chat/garden/run/do housework/listen to music/have a hobby.”

C. Aim for active agency – adults make the rules for children but the aim is that the children see the benefits and continue to build them into their lives, as teenagers starting to take control of their own wellbeing.

D. This has to come from good modelling by adults. Everything I say applies to us equally.

E. Always emphasise that there is nothing wrong with phones and social media. They are not bad things. They are wonderful things! Being connected to your friends and all (well, most of) the other things we use the Internet for are great benefits. It’s just that it’s too easy to do it too much. Just as sugar is perfectly fine in small quantities but in larger quantities or too often it damages us.

Strategies

A. Pomodoro techniques

This is a simple but effective technique which helps form a new and good habit, in this case focusing on one task for a set time, without checking a phone. The Pomodoro technique helps in two ways:

  1. It allows us to set a specific amount of time that we will work for – ideally a modest amount so that it isn’t too daunting: 25 minutes is recommended.
  2. It prevents us from accessing social media (etc) during that time.

You can either find an App on the Internet or a simple kitchen timer. Some Apps allow you to block social media and/or emails – that’s ideal. Otherwise, turn our wifi router off or just disconnect your devices (all of them!) from the Internet. Then, just for the amount of time you chose, WORK! Work like the wind!

FYI, the Apps I use are SelfControl (timer + social media blocker) and BeFocused (timer). Both were free. There are also specific Pomodoro Apps but “Pomodoro” just refers to the method of working for short periods of time uninterrupted.

The result is almost always really positive: you find it easy to do, you love the feeling of actually working without interruption, and that feeling encourages you to do the same next time. I find that I ignore the timer and carry on working and that makes me feel great.

Teachers:

Can you adapt this for some of your classwork? I recommend digital switch off periods, to fit into whatever classroom activities you’re doing. Talk about it and why you’re doing it; encourage discussion of feelings when you’ve finished; discuss whether they could do the same at home.

Do point your students towards this technique for their own personal use.

Parents:

Model this with your teenagers. They and you can investigate and compare Apps and also compare success. Show them that you find it hard, too, but that you are trying.

Find a way – depending on age of teenager – to insist on homework periods being managed by such techniques. If you do this right, your teenagers will soon find that it helps them and will do it themselves.

B. Out of sight, out of mind

Being able to see or quickly access the object we desire is a trigger to wanting it. If I see chocolate, I want it; if I don’t, I don’t think of it. People trying to lose weight are encouraged not to buy the foods they crave, so that they aren’t easily accessible when they crave them. Apply this strategy to digital media: keep your smartphone out of sight – and ideally out of reach, outside the room, for example. Avoid having links or bookmarks to whatever social media platform your vice is on your laptop.

Schools:

Consider a universal “hand your phones in” model, at least below 6th form. I know that sometimes you need students to use the phones for classwork but you can work around this. Create a mindset that phones in class are just for school tasks. If phones are accessible, it is beyond difficult for students not to be distracted. In fact, the research is clear: they will be distracted.

Parents:

At home, everyone should put their phones in a box or basket in the hall when they’re working. (And at night.) Teach children from a young age that social media is only for phones and phones are not useful to have nearby while trying to concentrate. Aim to develop self-control after parent-control. Promote the healthy message on my Online Wellbeing Pledge below.

C. Use the Marshmallow Effect

Read the Marshmallow Effect by Walter Mischel, about the seminal research into how young children (and the rest of us) learn and use self-control. The original experiments are fascinating (and sweet – oh, but those poor children!) but what has been learnt from them is really useful. The two that stuck out for me are the next two points below.

D. Distraction

When we are thinking “I want that” or “I want to do that” and it’s something we’re trying not to do – whether it’s eating another piece of cake, drinking a glass of wine, smoking a cigarette or using social media instead of working – if we can distract ourselves for a few minutes from thinking about it we stand a good chance of resisting. If we can distract ourselves with something we like, it’s likely to succeed because we are likely to become involved in the thing that we have chosen instead. So, play some music, hum a tune, write a list of things to do, run around the room, go for a walk (without your phone!) – anything that’s appropriate for the moment.

Schools:

During break and lunchtimes, make sure there are activities available that students want to do. Not all the time, just some of the time.

Parents:

Provide alternative activities and insist that some are device-free. If your teenagers are severely attached to their phones, this may at first need to be high-interest, high-reward and for only a brief time. But it’s up to you to find a way. We often need help to find something that entertains us as much as our phones and friends on social media: find what it might be for your family. There is always a way you can make this work. Persevere. You’re their parent and you should know best!

E. Replacement – “if/then”

This was one of the most important strategies to be confirmed by the Marshmallow tests. Essentially, it works like this: you say to yourself “IF I [start to switch on Facebook / feel the urge to check my emails] I will [eg drink a couple of sips of water*]” I know, you think I’m bonkers. Try it. It’s remarkable. What you don’t say is “IF I start to switch on Facebook, I just WON’T.” Because you probably will. But the IF/THEN rule works because it gives you autonomy and a healthier, easy alternative. (*Drinking the sips of water is my choice, because I also know I need to drink more water; yours could be “do five press-ups” or whatever you want as long as it’s positive.)

Schools and parents:

Educate your young people about this. Get them to experiment. Treat it as a laugh at first and see if it works. Get them to look at the research online. Ask them if they could be stronger than those toddlers in the experiments…

F. Communal SOS – Switch Off Screens

Pretty much everyone who uses social media and screens a lot notices and appreciates the sense of peace and relief when the screen is switched off. So, having periods of the day when we each do this is really important. But having a communal time, a time when you know that everyone around you is also offline is helpful for two reasons. First, we can then connect face-to-face, which, though harder, is important for mental wellbeing and for young people\s ability to make conversation and communicate. Research shows that conversation becomes shallower and less engaged when a phone is present. Second, because if young people know that their friends are also offline, it’s less stressful for them and they feel less left out.

Schools:

This should, in my strong opinion, be built into your school day. It can be something each teacher does for a while during a lesson or something the whole school does every now and then. Boarding schools particularly need to incorporate this into their evenings. I know of many schools that have and, when it’s done right, it gets huge positive feedback from students, staff and parents.

Whatever schools choose as the policy, it has to be a team effort. You all have to know why you’re doing it – for the wellbeing and performance of your students and staff – and you all have to buy into whatever policy you choose. AND the parents need to be brought onside, too. The common theme from all my conversations with schools around the world, is that, whatever the policy, it doesn’t work if the parents aren’t onside.

Parents:

If your children are under 12 or so, it will be easier to adopt this policy, but I think it should be part of every family’s healthy lifestyle: have SOS every evening at a certain time and all the way through till morning and an SOS every now and then at weekends, maybe for an hour at a time. Go on a trip or play a game or just do ANYTHING ELSE but stare at a screen!

G. Have engrossing hobbies

This is obviously linked to the distraction point above but it’s not just for those times when you’re tempted. What I’m suggesting here is to find activities that take a substantial amount of time and when it’s easy not to keep looking at your phone. Ones that spring to mind are: cycling, gardening, cooking, any sport, any hobby, puzzles, knitting, craft work.

H. Talk about it

Different sites and platforms will have a different pull over us, depending on our age and what we are looking for. Snapchat exerts an enormous pull on many teenagers and has various methods to engage young people so magnetically that it can be incredibly hard to resist without feeling “left out”. Keep talking to your teenagers; let them know that you understand the draw – because being left out is one of the worst things that can happen to a human, especially a young one. Let them grow their independence and self-control and not feel they have to be dominated by any massive corporation out to get their data and make money out of them by making them want to buy things. (Which is the aim of all these “free” platforms.” Why else do they exist? And how else are they so valuable?)

Talk about how it feels when you spend some time offline, too. Help them notice that they feel less stressed, less battered by constant demands to communicate and communicate the best of themselves. And if they don’t, notice it for yourself.

And finally

Here’s my Six Steps to Online Wellbeing pledge. Discuss it with your teenagers – and consider implementing it yourself. If you don’t think it’s something you need to follow, why do you think teenagers need to? Sorry to labour this point but I’m afraid all the worst behaviour I see with phones and social media is by adults. (And sometimes me, though I’m trying.) And if you’re not guilty of any of this, I apologise. You’re either very very good or very very lucky.

Six Steps to Online Wellbeing: A Pledge. Stop yourself bingeing on social media (part two)

Do you have any other strategies to suggest? I’d love to hear them!
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For links to research on this topic, see my Resources section.
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