Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina

Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina, author of 'Homo Distractus: Fight for Your Choices and Identity in the Digital Age', explains why getting off social media can be so difficult.

Three years ago I ditched my senior career in digital marketing in London together with my smartphone. I needed a break from the gadget as I kept checking it all the time, slept and bathed with it (as pretty much everyone around me did). I just couldn’t resist checking one more time my mailbox or Facebook, and only realized I needed to do something about it, when I started having pain in my right thumb because of endless scrolling. 

Replacing my smartphone with a no-internet dumbphone was one of the most life-changing things I have ever done. I never realized I was so dependent on it up until I actually tried giving it up.

It took me five months from the time I took this decision to actually making it happen and moving my sim card into a dumb-phone permanently. Who would have thought that this small action would eventually lead me to doing a TED talk, writing a book and starting a business that helps people have a more balanced relationship with their devices? 

Social media was one of the biggest hooks to remain connected and keep the smartphone. I was telling myself that I need social media for work (which is partially true), but then all I was doing was going and checking likes on my new work-related posts every couple of minutes.

This surely wasn’t the most productive use of my time, but I kept doing it. So when I gave up the smartphone, I had to face my bad habits and do something about them. I started researching about the impact of technologies on us, how its design changes our behaviour. Here’s what I found. 

Are we all dopamine junkies?

Getting off social media is the most difficult thing that people can do (So well done you if you did join the Scroll Free September challenge!). We are wired to be social beings.

We receive dopamine, the neurohormone of pleasure and reward, when others recognize us, when we feel that our “social status” is elevated (for example, your boss praises you). Online we get dopamine thanks to likes or nice comments, or other ‘rewards’ that social networks give us (for example, Snapchat rewards you for keeping the conversation longer). 

We also get oxytocine, the hormone of bonding, when we connect to other people, and hear their stories or tell ours. So there’s no surprise it’s just so difficult to stop checking how somebody you met only once 10 years ago is doing on the other part of the world. Our brains are wired to stay connected! 

Technology and social media make it easier to receive dopamine than ever before? All you have to do is post a picture on Instagram, get a like or two and ta-da! – you’ve got your dopamine injection.

However, dopamine has been designed only as an indication of a useful behaviour and was never intended to have a prolonged effect. When we are overstimulated by dopamine, we become less sensitive to the pleasure it produces, and so need a new bigger dose.

So you’ll spend even more time checking for likes or researching for interesting content on Pinterest or Youtube (discovering new content is another dopamine-boosting activity).

When you suddenly stop having your dopamine injections and spend less time on social media, you may feel very lonely and maybe even lost. This is normal, you are actually starting to see real life, as painful as it may feel.

Always staying connected creates an illusion of a real connection. However, that connection is severed when we switch off. One person I interviewed for the book, Maria, realized she was living in a communication bubble when she left Facebook. 

“Out of hundreds of people who said they’d be missing me, when I was leaving the network, maybe ten stayed in touch with me through other channels in the whole year. This was very humbling for my ego,” Maria said. Clearing out connections that were just an illusion allowed Maria to focus on the relationships that were truly nurturing for her. 

Ranking vs linking

As we said, being on social media often helps us boost our social status. But this same thing may lead to anxiety and a constant need to show off. 

Ranking and linking are two opposing forces that define our social relationships, says clinical psychologist Elaine Aron. When we link to people, we want to accept them and be accepted. We don’t think about hierarchy. We don’t compete. Linking produces oxytocin which, as we said before, is responsible for bonding and attachment.

On the other hand, ranking is important for us to gain a social position. For example, when your boss praises you, your social rank gets higher. If someone tells you that you didn’t do your job well, your social rank goes down. Ranking is connected to competition, achievement, anticipation and, subsequently, dopamine.

We are wired to talk about ourselves as it helps us gain social reputation. Our self-bragging becomes a social “currency” that we can later exchange for the valuable resources we compete for – money, work, and sex. You need to be liked by others to get a good job or an attractive partner. 

However, as tech amplifies many of our traits, it also boosts narcissism to extreme levels. When not connected, we talk about ourselves about 30-40% of the time, the pleasure we get from it is similar to the pleasure we receive from food, money and sex. But when we go online, we talk about ourselves twice as much, around 80% of the time. “Selfie” culture and social media reward us with likes and shares as we document everything we do – tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming our meals, looks, thoughts. 

In our offline lives, we alternate between ranking and linking, as both of them are important for healthy socialization. However, when we are online, we are more likely to produce dopamine and look for improving our social reputation, showing our “best selves,” as opposed to linking with people.

We create posts that show us living more amazing lives than we actually do. Social media platforms are mostly designed in a way that supports ranking through measuring who has more likes, friends, reposts and so on.

Would your experience of Facebook be different if you didn’t see the number of friends or likes under your posts or those of your friends?

In China, young people can spend an equivalent of a month’s rent on purchasing virtual icons, like luxury cars or a “noble” title, to attach to their social media profile. They spend real money on buying virtual icons to improve their social status.

The amount of time we spend on social networking sites posting selfies, or editing them to make them look better, correlates with traits like narcissism and psychopathy. This doesn’t mean that social networks cause these things, but they offer a way for them to be expressed freely and thus make them more socially acceptable.

It becomes a vicious circle. When we see our friends’ posts driven by the same desire to improve their social rank, we think they lead amazing lives, and it’s just us who aren’t doing well. Even close friends and roommates, who have more insights into the real lives of the person, overestimate other people’s happiness. The more we underestimate the sadness of others, the lonelier and more alienated we feel. This is especially true for teenagers who are concerned about establishing their social status.

Probably for this reason an increase in Facebook use may lead to an increase in unhappiness, as people compare themselves to others all the time. “The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time”.

Having a break

When we are obsessed with improving our social status and showing our “best selves,” we don’t have enough time to really inquire about what happens to the others or connect with them. 

This is why it’s a good idea to take a break from social media once in a while. It gives you a chance to audit your own life and social connections and decide what to focus on. 

I myself signed up for Scroll Free September. It’s really difficult and highly disciplining. It reminds me about all this time and attention that I could find a better use for – if I am a bit more mindful about how I use technology. 

Some of you may fail during this September – please, know this is ok. As long as you are sticking to it, your brain is rewiring itself. As a reader of my book wrote to me last week, “I’ve been trying to finish my doctoral thesis and have realized through your book that it’s not Ritalin or coffee I need, it’s to log out of the damned Facehole and stay out of it, and remember that every time I resist my brain is rewiring itself in the right direction”. 

*About the author:
Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina is an author of Homo Distractus: Fight for Your Choices and Identity in the digital age. She is a TEDx speaker, Huffington Post blogger, organizer of the first mindful tech festival Focus Inside and founder of tech life balance consultancy Consciously Digital.