During a recent study skills workshop I overheard a conversation between a tutor and a student that got me thinking. The tutor was recommending that the student turn off her cell phone while studying for final exams, and the student was resisting doing so because she was afraid she’d lose her streaks on Snapchat.

The tutor pointed out that turning off her cell phone temporarily would have many short- and long-term benefits for the student. However, she kept insisting that her Snapchat streaks were too important to risk breaking. She couldn’t really explain why it was so important to keep her streaks going, but clearly it was.

I know social media dominates our lives these days, but I started wondering if this could ever change. Could this student ever be convinced to let Snapchat go in favor of focusing her time on school and school alone?

Recognizing the issue

Breaking our attachment to our devices must begin with awareness. And the first thing we have to become aware of is that social media apps are designed to cultivate addiction.

There are mechanisms in the human brain that cause people to become addicted to substances like drugs and alcohol or to behaviors like gambling and shopping. The apps on our electronic devices are designed to appeal to these same parts of the brain.

Sure, Snapchat may seem like it improves our lives by making us more connected, but its actual purpose has nothing to do with users’ happiness. The primary goal of most apps is to get us hooked. Why? Because then we’ll keep using them, which is what allows the companies who design them to get advertisers, increase revenue, and stay in business.

Why is this a problem?

This perspective may sound cynical, but it forces us to recognize the downside of social media. So, what is the cost of cell phone addiction?

  • Our attention is finite. We only have so much attention we can devote in a given day. If we spend too much of that attention on social media, we risk running out of the attention we need to devote to school or work.
  • Attachment to our electronic devices causes us anxiety. Researchers have found that stress hormones are released into the bloodstream if we are addicted to our phones and then have to spend time away from them.
  • Time on social media and other apps steals time that we could otherwise spend building important skills in areas including academics, health, and relationships.

How can we change our habits?

We’re not going to remove social media from our lives completely, but we can develop healthier relationships to our phones. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Commit to keeping certain rooms and certain times of the day tech-free. For example, you could choose to keep your phone out of the bathroom and maybe even out of the bedroom! You could also promise to keep your phone turned off (on airplane mode) from 9pm to 9am as well as during meals.
  • Get a regular alarm clock, so you don’t have to use your phone as an alarm. That way you can keep your phone out of the bedroom and be less tempted to use it first thing in the morning or late at night.
  • Replace social media with a new activity. If you notice you’re craving social media or wishing you could turn on your phone during a tech-free time, try exercising, reading or talking face-to-face with a friend instead.

Recommended Reading

It’s not just teens who have trouble with cell phone addiction. Read here about one adult who can really relate to this problem.

Worried that life will seem boring without 24-hour social media access? Read about the value of embracing boredom here.

Parent Forum

Support your child’s healthy cell phone behavior with these tips for parents.