How to Overcome Your Digital Addiction

October 23, 2019

In a 2016 essay, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” Andrew Sullivan explored his debilitating digital addiction. His subtitle likely reads true for many people: “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.”

Many of us need to ask ourselves if we are mindlessly spending too much time online and not enough time in the real world.

If your online habits are interfering with your productivity, your leisure time, or your relationships, Newport deserves your rapt attention. Newport has already written several of the most important professional and personal development books of the past decade. In “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love,” Newport debunks the conventional wisdom that following your passion leads to success. In “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” Newport convincingly argues that we’ve fooled ourselves into believing we are effective multitaskers, when in fact we would all benefit by more distraction-free concentration.

You May Be Addicted

Some scoff at the idea of social media addiction, thinking of addiction as something afflicting drug or alcohol abusers.

But Facebook and other social media sites are designed to addict you. They use, in Newport’s words, “intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval” as tools to get you to use their products at the expense of better uses of your time.

Former Google engineer Tristan Harris likened the frequent checking of your phone to using a slot machine: “Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’”

When you post, Newport asks, “Will you get likes (or hearts or retweets), or will it languish with no feedback? The former creates what one Facebook engineer calls “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure.” In 2017 during an Axios event in Philadelphia, Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, described Facebook’s objective as “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” to hijack our attention.

“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Parker recalls the company asking itself. The answer, recounted Parker, was features like the “like” button, which would give users “a little dopamine hit” to keep them engaged.

If you aren’t a Facebook user, don’t think you’re immune to digital addiction, Newport says.

“Many people have the experience of visiting a content website for a specific purpose—say, for example, going to a newspaper site to check the weather forecast—and then find themselves thirty minutes later still mindlessly following trails of links, skipping from one headline to another. This behavior can also be sparked by unpredictable feedback: most articles end up duds, but occasionally you’ll land on one that creates a strong emotion, be it righteous anger or laughter.

Another factor reinforcing behavioral addiction is the drive for social approval, Newport says.

“If lots of people click the little heart icon under your latest Instagram post, it feels like the tribe is showing you approval—which we’re adapted to strongly crave,” he writes.

Meanwhile, “a lack of positive feedback creates a sense of distress.”

With this sense of distress, Newport says people can develop an urgent need to constantly monitor what seems like vital information about their social standing.

Toward a Philosophy of Technology Use

If your attention has been hijacked, Newport is convinced you need a philosophy of technology use.

This philosophy should be “rooted in your deep values,” he writes. It should provide clarity about what digital tools you should use and how you should use them. Equally important, he writes, is that it “enables you to confidently ignore everything else.”

Newport recommends digital minimalism: “A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

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