As someone who had a problematic relationship with drugs (cocaine specifically) in my youth, I can say that it worked in essentially the same way—the same rationalizations, the same endless cycle of faltering attempts to stop, then long periods of use that made me feel terrible, anxious, ashamed.
It feels dramatic to write of social media in such stark language, but that’s the hold it has at times had over my life. At my worst, I realized I would think in tweets, little 280-character musings I turned over and over again in my head as I cooked, jogged, tried to sleep. I was not using the internet, I was the internet, my brain an extension of my Twitter feed (Twitter is my drug of choice, though I think people can be equally addicted to any platform).
Yes, the 12 step programs have their issues, but the first step—admitting you have a problem, admitting you are powerless over it—felt like a good place to start. And so I began to talk about it, in therapy, to friends. I’d write in my diary and theorize about how the internet worked for me.
The theory I landed on was that my social media use was a form of self-sabotage. Scared of success, scared of living a happy life, scared of failure in my writing and work, I’d found a control mechanism that would press pause on all that. If I was on social media, I got less done, I made fewer deep connections, I explored my own brain less. I prevented myself from fulfillment by allowing myself to be fulfilled by tiny shots of dopamine administered over and over again, hundreds of times a day.
Once I could accept that I was indeed using the internet to, in a way, harm myself, I could see a way forward—could see how I would need to heal from that compulsive form of use and find a healthier relationship to it.
Study after study suggests frequent social media usage leads to increased rates of depression, anxiety, feelings of loneliness, and other negative impacts. But there’s a strain of thought, particularly in internet-leftist circles, that dismisses all of this: it’s not really the internet causing people’s problems, it’s capitalism, it’s the isolation of the pandemic, it’s the disintegration of any (already weak) communal form to our society.
To a point, I agree—I’ve written previously about how we need to think about the internet less as an individual problem and more as a societal one, like a factory. We all need to be online for work, for socializing, for everything. But in the same way we can accept that drug addiction is a symptom of a stressful, isolated world, and still work to ensure people are not dying of drug overdoses, or applaud people when they develop less problematic relationships to drugs, we can encourage individual action to make the internet less of a harmful, all-encompassing force.
I used the “it’s the system not the individual” as an excuse for my internet addiction. It became one more rationalization for something that was actively harming me. Eventually, I got sick of it.
I installed an app on my phone that uses a VPN to block all social media access (it’s called Opal for those interested). If you want to check social media, you have to go through a series of steps to disable the VPN. That activates a timer to give yourself just a few minutes of social media use. I deleted all my tweets. I deleted Twitter off my phone.
I still use social media for about 30 minutes to an hour a day. I do still need it for socializing, to meet people, to know of parties, for work, for promotion, and for Mets news (I love the Mets). But I no longer feel like my brain is occupied by the technology. When there is discourse over a new book or TV show or movie, when people are yelling at each other for something or other, I no longer know what anyone is talking about, and more importantly I no longer care.
Social media creates this insular system in which we all start to believe that whatever happens inside of it is the most important thing, goading us into spending even more time using it to address those things. It’s built to be addictive, it’s built to not let you out. Like a casino, it contains no windows to the outside world, but enough sounds and colors, beeps and whistles, to prevent you from noticing you haven’t seen the sun in 15 hours.
“When the outcome is unpredictable, the behavior is more likely to repeat,” the psychologist Jacqueline Sperling says. “Think of a slot machine: if game players knew they never were going to get money by playing the game, then they never would play. The idea of a potential future reward keeps the machines in use. The same goes for social media sites. One does not know how many likes a picture will get, who will ‘like’ the picture, and when the picture will receive likes. The unknown outcome and the possibility of a desired outcome can keep users engaged with the sites.”
Once I stepped outside of the casino, I immediately felt better, but my brain is still recovering from the experience. It’s still hard for me to focus on longer tasks, it’s still hard to read a book without distraction. I thought as soon as I got control of my addiction I’d become a totally different person, one who could read a novel for hours without my leg bouncing, without checking my email.
Instead, I focused more on texting friends, on playing little phone games with them, on perusing Craigslist for furniture. I found different distractions. But the proof of how bad social media was for me is that even with these new distractions, I feel much, much, much, much better. I’m working on limiting these distractions too, but for now, I just feel grateful to be out, and flabbergasted that I allowed myself, my brain, my life, to be taken over by something for so long.