Benjamin Halpern has nine children and, as a licensed social worker, he knows the importance of giving them individual attention. So he spends one day a month one-on-one with each of his kids. And every one of them recently asked him for the same thing: “Please put away your smartphone.”
That isn’t always easy to do. The combination of social media apps and a phone that’s basically a pocket-sized computer is addictive. The lure of news that’s constantly updated, as well as photos, games, jokes, and celebrity gossip, keeps many of us cycling through our favorite apps. There’s always something new to see. Always.
For many people, social media is also a key work tool. Photographers post on Instagram, writers tweet out links to their stories, and LinkedIn connects businesspeople of all types. Mr. Halpern, for example, is also an author and speaker who builds his clientele by posting videos and interacting with potential clients.
Because of its work applications, quitting social media cold turkey isn’t possible for many of us. But can we do something to lessen its hold? Public health professionals often use harm reduction strategies to reduce the potential damage of addictive behaviors.
There are harm reduction strategies for social media addicts too. Mr. Halpern adopted a pretty extreme approach; he replaced his smartphone with an old-fashioned flip phone and a tablet computer. The tablet lets him update his social media presence for work, but it’s too large to carry around with him all the time. Meanwhile, when it’s important, his kids and clients can still reach him by texting or even making an old-fashioned telephone voice call.
For most people, the real problem is not the actual apps, catching up with friends on Facebook, or reading the news. The disruption comes from the desire to keep checking the apps all day for new messages, and how that desire interrupts your other projects. If you feel a compulsion to do so, don’t feel bad—it’s by design. A lot of smart people spend their entire careers figuring out ingenious ways to keep you on their app for longer and longer stretches of time.
If we can figure out how to limit that disruption, you can get the benefits of social media without losing productivity.
Dr. Dion Metzger, MD, a psychiatrist and social media expert, focuses on notifications. Those are the sounds, numbers, emblems, and badges that alert you to new content on your apps. “We’re almost slaves to the notifications,” she observes. “If you hear the ding, you’re automatically going to check it.” Of course, now that you’re staring at your phone, you’re likely going to check your other favorite apps too. Before you know it, an hour has gone by.
You can adjust notifications very precisely on each app on each device: turn off or change the sound, block the new-activity indicator, or stop the app from sending you emails every time you get a new reply. You can even change your smartphone’s display to grayscale instead of color. Have you noticed that notifications often appear in red? Your body is hardwired to respond to the color of freshly spilled blood. Getting rid of color defangs that technique.
Do Not Disturb
Metzger recommends something much easier, though: use the Do Not Disturb feature, which works for all apps on your phone and is easy to turn on and off. Unlike airplane mode, you’ll still receive messages and updates, but you won’t know about them until you open each app. This reduces the compulsion to check those new messages and puts you back in charge, Metzger tells The FruitGuys. You can set check-in times that fit your schedule instead of being manipulated by the app maker’s profit-driven desire to maximize your time online.
Do Not Disturb blocks notifications from all of your apps but allows for a few exceptions—typically phone calls from people on your favorites list and repeat calls within three minutes. You can add an auto-reply message, and schedule set times or configure it to engage automatically while driving.
On iPhones, you can activate Do Not Disturb via Settings => Do Not Disturb. On newer Android phones, go to Settings => Sound and Notifications => Do Not Disturb.
The goal is to set boundaries for yourself, clear rules that cap the time spent on these deliberately sucking programs. If you’re at work, one obvious rule is to check social media only on your own time—before and after work, at lunch, and during breaks.
Metzger notes that for many people who check their phone all day, limits like these might “increase your productivity so much that you’d actually be able to go home earlier.” Wanting to check in before you begin your workday may motivate you to get to the office a bit earlier, too.
Some people take a “social media Sabbath,” skipping apps one day a week. Dr. Metzger hasn’t found this to be very effective. “I’d rather see you come up with strategies to reduce your distractions going forward.” If you want to take a break, she suggests a longer stretch—a week, a month. It’s like an addiction to alcohol, gambling, or drugs:“If you’re away from it for a while, you’re like, ‘Wow, my withdrawal isn’t that bad.’”
It’s also possible to remove apps entirely, as many people are doing given privacy concerns. If living without, say, Facebook seems impossible, know that most teenagers wouldn’t be caught dead using such an outdated social media platform. Who even remembers MySpace, or Friendster?
Whether you change phones like Benjamin Halpern did, restrict notifications, or limit yourself to using them for half an hour a day, social media apps are an addiction that you can definitely control. Now if you’ll excuse me, someone on the Internet is wrong, and I have to tell them exactly how.
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books: 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books: 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog Taoish.org and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog of Chinese philosophy.