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Why Can’t We Put Our Phone Down?

We, the modern day tech-zombies, are literally scrolling our brains away. It's time to reverse the downfall.

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According to many, scrolling is the new smoking. Most of us are addicted. Few among us realize it. Even fewer try to break the addiction.

Some call it the modern tool for mass hypnosis.

I personally agree with Adam Alter, author of Irresistible, on that our relationship with smartphone scrolling is neither addictive nor hypnotic, it’s of compulsion. In case of compulsion, indulgence doesn’t give us immediate pleasure (as opposed to addiction) but only provides temporary relief from restless anxiety. 

But scrolling is fun, right? It’s a good—as well as easy—way to kill time, and if you are fairly productive in your life, why should you care about scrolling your brain away anyway?

Here’s why you should care —

A ‘Lost Day’ Isn’t Fun

There’s a difference between a wasted day and a lost day.

A wasted day could be one where you did something that didn’t add up to your future goals. Perhaps you spent a day watching a web-series rather than working on your project. Or you did not complete your to-do list because you were distracted or you felt lazy.

A wasted day is simply an unproductive day.

Whereas, a lost day is one where you lose your sense of self and surroundings—a day in which your virtual life takes over your real life.

Lost days are not only unproductive in terms of work, but also unproductive in terms being and living.

How Mindless Scrolling Creates Lost Days

On the outside, we’ve long forgotten to look around on our commute to work, most of us don’t even look at people they’re having dinner with—the reason is an electronic device clutched in our hands at all moments.

Half of our reality is washed away the moment we choose to prefer screens over our physical environment.

But on the inside, scrolling is a great tool to numb our mind.

Watching memes on social media or funny cat videos on YouTube have become our go to solutions whenever we need to forget our problems and anxiety. On the other hand, a random scroll through our social media feeds leaves us feeling envy to distressed to happy to angry to nostalgic in just 10-15 seconds—all at once—while not really feeling or thinking anything at all. Before a feeling is processed or a thought is comprehended, we move on to the next item on the feed. 

This way the other half of our reality—our thoughts and feelings—are washed away as well. 

That being said, let us look now into the different types of scrolling rabbit holes and ways to come out of the hypnosis with our sanity intact.

The Dangers of Different Types of Scrolling

1. Social Media 

The apps we use the most can reveal a lot about our mind. For example— 

Instagram – Boredom

Facebook – Seeking social validation

WhatsApp or other instant messaging apps – Loneliness

and so on…

You can be sure of the fact that each time you mindlessly pick up your phone, you are running away from an emotion. 

What’s the Danger?

The “News Feed Experiment” conducted by Facebook on almost 700,000 users, became the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks. It showed that we mirror the moods of the posts we see on our feeds. Thus, in most cases, social media apps do not help us feel any better, rather they reinforce (and also exaggerate) the very emotions we try to avoid when we unlock our phones.

2. Search Engines (or the Self-learning Trap of the Internet)

Mindless web-browsing can cause attentional free fall just as easily as social media. The “digital gravity” of search engines are much higher than social media sites, thanks to the hyper-links that work as a rabbit hole of online learning.

There have been numerous times when I started researching a particular topic, but after 2-3 hours I found myself reading something not even vaguely related to what I set out to learn. The rise of YouTube made it easier for us to enter a zombie-like state and lose hours on consuming random content because watching a video is less cognitively demanding than reading.

What’s the Danger?

Being a social media minimalist, I’d always felt (secretly) proud of my “productive use” of screen time. Then one day I realized the time I spent on reading “useful things” on the internet didn’t make me nearly half as informed as I would be if I had spent the time reading real books.

I lost hours worth of knowledge and real life experience on reading things that I neither wanted to nor needed to know in the first place. 

Moreover, the fact that Google has an answer for everything, has lowered the quality of our questions. The crazy (read that as stupid) “Buzzfeed questions” we ask Google, we wouldn’t normally ask a real person.

For YouTube, I leave it to you to consider how terrible you feel after you finish watching random videos for 2-4 hours. (If it makes you feel any better, we’ve all been there.)

3. Online Shopping Apps

Compulsive scrolling through shopping apps astonishes me the most. Neither do we get an emotional high from shopping sites like the ones we get from social media, nor does it entertain us like YouTube. It doesn’t even give us the illusion of learning like web browsing does.

Yet, you must have noticed how easy it is to lose track of time while window shopping on eBay or Amazon.

Shopping apps are the prime example of how easy it is to induce addiction just by removing friction from a task. Scrolling through thousands of options doesn’t cost you any effort or mental-physical involvement. You only have to move your thumbs up and down the screen like a machine.

What’s the Danger?

Well, it might not cost effort on your part, but it costs you decision fatigue, and general overwhelm—none of which are desirable.

So, why are we addicted to scrolling when the potential harm is more than the benefits?

Is There a Ghost in the Machine?

Of course there is—not just one, but many.

Behind every app we use, there are thousands of engineers who have worked hard to make the app acutely addictive. The stock prices of the companies that run the apps depend on the amount of time you spend on that app.

They use the data you generate to make the apps more customized for you, so that you spend more time on the app, and as you spend more time on the app, the more data they generate—it creates a vicious cycle where your attention is being monetized.

The data is also sold for targeted advertisements. And so, your movement on one app helps another app to customize their feed so that next time you’ll spend more time on that app as well.

What’s the Way Out?

Few solutions that worked for me to drastically reduce my screen time are:

— Setting app timers and strictly adhering to the pre-set time has made my social media time more intentional.

— I always browse with a set of questions in hand that I need to find answers to. I also fix the amount of time I’m going to spend browsing before I set out. Having these constraints prevents me from falling too far down the rabbit hole of search engines. 

— I only open shopping apps when I’ve a need to purchase something.

— For social media, The Minimalists recommend keeping the number of people you follow to a minimum or muting the notifications for most. That way the apps will show you “You are all caught up” within a few minutes. (I haven’t tried this, but it sounds a pretty good strategy to me.)

Final Thoughts

The apps are not the problem. It is our ignorance that we gave way to the ghosts in the machine to hack into our minds.

Going on a digital detox once in two months won’t help you get rid of the habit of scrolling. You must come up with a solution that’s sustainable, not extreme.

Train yourself to spend your time on creating screen-free memories—good or bad, happy or sad—feel real emotions, do things whose effect lasts longer than a few seconds.


The article was originally published on TheRedefinedSelf.com.


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