Curbing your social media addiction

Recently I’ve noticed an increase in people choosing to disconnect from social media, to escape the noise and constant distraction. Who can blame them, when even the Facebook engineer who created the ‘like’ button, Justin Rosenstein, now restricts his Facebook usage.

But before you hit the nuclear button and blast your social media profile out of existence, there are less extreme measures you can take. In this column, I’ll offer tips for controlling your social media usage and keeping Facebook’s algorithms at bay.

Let’s quickly summarise how social media got this dire. The problem with Facebook, Twitter and other social media services can be boiled down to two main issues.

Firstly, it’s addictive! Many of us can’t resist refreshing our social feeds for new content, or checking the notifications tab to see who’s given us a dopamine hit by liking our posts.

Secondly, there’s far too much noise on social media now. Particularly galling in 2017 is the nonstop stream of outrage and political diatribes.

I have no doubt that moral outrage is justified, but the sheer volume of it in our feeds everyday is overwhelming. Also, most of us didn’t sign up to Facebook or Twitter to hear your political opinions, whatever they may be.

These and other issues have led some people I know to quit social media altogether. Yet despite the frustrations, I’m not ready to go that far. After all, there are some huge benefits to being connected on social media.

The most important is that Facebook allows me to keep in touch with family and friends – many of whom don’t live in the same city as me. I love that about Facebook. And for all the aggravation on Twitter, I also connect to some cool people there and pick up gems of information from time to time.

So how can you keep those benefits, but make a dent in solving the two big problems (addiction and noise)?

To be fair, the social media companies do provide some tools for dealing with the noise. Judicious use of the unfollow button on Facebook and the mute button on Twitter can help you prune away the over-sharers and the political malcontents.

When I asked my Facebook network how they control the social media beast, several told me they’d scaled back on which services they use. One friend commented that he’d quit Twitter and Instagram, but kept a presence on Facebook. His main reason was to claim back some time in his day.

Which social media you stick with will depend on your needs. I was surprised to hear that Instagram was a popular app amongst my friends. One said that she finds Instagram inspirational, because “I follow lots of artists and musicians I like and I just find it helps me creatively.”

The reality is though, if you really want to stay virtually connected to family and close friends, then Facebook is the place to be. Fortunately, there are ways to make the Facebook experience more appealing.

Funneling better content into your feed will help a lot. Several of my friends said they’ve found great value in Facebook Groups.

A relative told me he uses Facebook similar to how he used to use Internet forums. He’s a home brew enthusiast, so he chats about this and other interests on Facebook Groups.

Another friend, who does woodworking as a hobby, signed up to a number of groups about this. As a result, he sees “a lot of posts about spoon carving and forestry these days.”

So let’s say you’ve picked your favourite social network and opted out of the others, used the unfollow or mute button wisely, and joined some groups that interest you. You’ve done all that, but still you’re addicted and spend too much time on social media?

At that point you need to impose time limits on yourself, just as you would on your iPad-hogging, YouTube-addicted child. Make a resolution to not look at your phone or tablet in the evening, or at other times when you need to relax and recharge.

It doesn’t have to be a big time commitment. As one of my friends commented, “I make a point of staying off social media when I go away for weekends.”

If you want to take control at the device level – namely, your smartphone – then ex-Googler Tristan Harris has a list of actions you can take. The top one is turning off all notifications except those from real people (for example: notifications from Messenger are okay, but not from the Facebook app).

I’ve gone even further: I deleted the Facebook, Twitter and Instagram apps from my phone. I still use Facebook and Twitter on my computer and tablet, but I find that not having the apps on my phone helps me focus on other things in the evening or when I’m out and about.

In summary, it’s easy to hate what social media is doing to online discourse. Just remember though, you can take control – and it doesn’t have to mean disconnecting.