For some things Harvard suffices; this blog is for the rest.

You Desire Distractions

Advice around the topic of how to “unplug” from social media and put down the phone has gotten so common as to become cliché. We ought to strike a balance so that the positive consequences of using social media outweigh the negative ones. Supposedly, these negative consequences include that social media takes away from our real life, makes it more difficult to connect with the people around us, distracts us from the present, and wastes time we could spend achieving our goals. Despite all the advice on the subject, few people seem to be able to reduce the amount of time they spend on these platforms. But there is an explanation for that, too: it is because these websites are extremely addictive – designed to capture and hold our attention for as long as possible. Or so the story goes.

Three points should make you immediately suspicious of this account. First, you find advice on how to quit social media on social media, often posted by these social media companies. Second, the advice seems to help nobody besides the people selling it. (Would you otherwise find it on social media?) Third, the analysis reveals a very superficial problem: the (understandable) lack of willpower to resist the dopamine hits of the algorithms. Unfortunately, in my experience, medicine should be distrusted if it is not bitter.

Let us consider an alternative explanation: the common narrative has the causality backwards. You do not have a problem connecting to the people around you because you scroll through social media; you scroll through social media because you have a problem connecting to people around you. The phone does not distract you from the present; you are so bored with the present that you use your phone to escape it. You desire distraction.

The busy husband who would love to be fully present at dinner with his family but cannot stop checking social media (or work emails) is revealed to be a man who would do anything – even work – to avoid the awkward dinner. He wants to be distracted. He is not busy; he is trying to convince himself that he is because he would rather be a busy or distracted asshole than a husband who cannot have a deep conversation with his wife. It is a lie he tells himself.

Seen from this vantage point, the behavior makes a lot more sense, and it is obvious why quitting is so difficult. Deep down, he does not want to quit because the reality he is distracting himself from is ugly. Unfortunately, the only way to quit is to face reality and solve the underlying problem.

Sometimes this requires letting go of part of your outwardly projected identity. For example, constantly checking work emails and making “business calls” might be part of your identity as, say, an entrepreneur. You are not a regular guy who buys groceries; you are a busy – and, by extension, successful – entrepreneur who buys groceries. And you need to make sure everyone around you knows that. If you can let go of that need, putting your phone down will be easy. Simply put, if you are constantly busy with your phone, it is most likely because you want to be.

Another possibility is that you find you have nothing better to do than scroll through social media (or play video games) all day. Note again that this focuses on a problem in your life, not on your inability to “resist social media.” Social media use is a consequence, not the cause. It is not the problem but masks it. When you fix the problem – in this case, finding something you truly want to do – your time spent on social media will naturally decrease without any need for “tips and tricks.”

In retrospect, that is how I stopped playing video games. I did not try to stop; I simply picked up the habit of reading books. I never, “struggled to quit.” One day, I realized I had not played a game of Dota 2 in months, and that was it.

In summary:

You don’t fix your problems by quitting social media; you quit social media by fixing your problems.