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Social media got you? Here’s how to form a healthier relationship with it and when to retreat from it
We see it everywhere — people of all ages staring down at their blue screens.
Social media is all-consuming for many, who spend time scrolling from the moment they awaken to the moment they close their eyes to sleep.
Should social media use be legislated?
A 2019 research survey by the Pew Research Center found that 72% of Americans use some type of social media with many users returning to certain sites daily.
Freshman Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, has set out to combat big tech companies and social media addiction through his proposed Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) bill.
The bill would ban big tech companies from using methods that keep users engaged in the app like Facebook’s infinite scrolling ability to refresh the feed, YouTube’s “autoplay” feature and reward systems for engagements like Snapchat’s streaks.
If the bill passes, social media companies would have three months to stop “using practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice” according to the bill.
How about taking a literal retreat?
Companies like A-Gap, a non-profit foundation founded by Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company aimed at helping people have a better relationship with social media, are using a different approach.
Founded in 1989 in Florida, Natalie’s produces juices in over 32 states and 41 countries at stores including Kroger’s, Publix and The Fresh Market in Knoxville.
A-Gap takes individuals on retreats where organizers take away phones for the weekend and offer activities aimed at getting people to know themselves and others on a deeper connection like hiking or painting with watercolors. The retreats also offer advice on balancing life and technology.
The company did a retreat last October at Charit Creek Lodge in Jamestown, Tennessee, another one in the Nashville area in April. Two more retreats are planned with Knoxville groups.
“We’re partnering with two different groups from Knoxville for private A-Gap experiences, because we’ve sort of moved to private so that they’re doing the recruiting and we’re facilitating the weekend experience,” Executive Director Bethany Baker said.
A-Gap will partner with Crossings, a faith community located in downtown Market Square in Knoxville, and with Johnston University where their entire freshmen class will go on a retreat.
“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry,” according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
The ASAM says addiction is characterized by an inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, cravings, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.
“Social media addiction is not like heroine addiction or cocaine or even smoking in that with those kind of drugs, the addiction is pretty universal, like if you do heroine for a month, you’ll definitely get addicted,” Shteynberg said. “But with social media, it’s different for different people.”
However, Shteynberg said there are a few reasons social media is so addicting: the novelty of information, the habits some form by checking platforms daily and the hope of getting a good feeling by seeing how you are rated among peers.
People get in a cycle searching for a reward while on social media that will make them feel better by comparing themselves to others. And while this can lead to negative feelings, it’s the hope that the next time they log on, it’ll give them the same spike of dopamine they felt the first time they logged on or the last time they felt good compared to others.
“Our minds prefer distractions to concentration because concentration requires our brain to do two difficult things at once which is we have to choose what we pay attention to and we have to ignore the distractions,” Baker said. “So it’s a lot easier to mindlessly scroll through Instagram or watch Netflix or watch YouTube then actively engage.”
Baker explained that the prefrontal cortex, in charge of executive functions such as decision making, expressing personality and moderating social behavior, is like a muscle and can experience “decision fatigue” if over-used.
Doing it the right way
“Balance does not mean eliminating media use; it doesn’t necessarily mean reducing media use,” the study said. “Balance is about respecting quality of life, both online and offline.”
One suggestion is to establish media-free times, like meals or one-hour before bedtime, and zones, like bedrooms or in the car. This could help improve face-to-face conversations.
Similarly, Baker said people should practice regular unplugging and be more intentional with their time. She suggested making a charging station in one room of the house – place all the phones there while at home so you aren’t distracted.
Both Baker and Shteynberg suggested taking a break by deleting the app for a month to test how you feel.
If you feel bad, pay attention to that
“I would say that if you feel bad about using social media, then you should pay attention to that and you should think about getting your social connection and social information in other ways,” Shteynberg said. “But if you feel good, and you’re social media use is not feeling like a compulsion … and you use it sparingly, then there’s no problem.”
However, for those who really can’t control their urges, there seems to be only one solution.
“My suggestion is quit,” Shteynberg said. “For those really heavy users that feel a compulsion, that they have no control, they’ll have a really hard time limiting their use.”