As someone who has struggled with disordered eating, I have tried — and failed — to find answers in restrictive diets. The science is clear: restrictive diets don’t work. Six years into recovery, I see familiar language cropping up in the dialogue about social media and phone “addictions” with headlines like “How a one-month phone fast changed my life!” and “Quitting social media cured my phone addiction!”
Restrictive technology detoxes seem like a recipe for disordered social media use, especially during a pandemic that forces many of our social interactions online. But maybe our phone “addictions” are disordered behaviors we can treat without restricting, cleansing or quitting technology.
To learn more, I spoke to New York-based psychology professor Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, who studies the role anxiety plays in technology use, develops digital therapeutics and advises the team for the National Day of Unplugging.
Changing the conversation
In her discussion of how digital technology affects our mental health, Dennis-Tiwary avoids the word “addiction,” but says devices are “designed to be compulsive and habit-forming.” When anxiety becomes uncomfortable, the compulsion to check notifications and engage with social media presents an easy escape.
“There’s an avoidance paradox in anxiety, which is that the more you avoid it, the more it accelerates,” she says.
Avoidance and anxiety work together in a vicious cycle. Smartphones and social media, designed with compulsivity in mind, can keep that cycle going. While our devices may not cause anxiety, they certainly work to accelerate it.
Even so, Dennis-Tiwary cautions against blaming mental health problems on social media. This kind of thinking not only misses the point, but also misses an opportunity to examine our relationship with technology.
Who we leave out
That said, advice to quit social media altogether overlooks people who rely on — and find platforms in — online communities.
“For Black communities and other communities of color, social media has been an outlet. It has been a safe space,” says Dr. Brandale Mills Cox, an Albuquerque-based market researcher who focuses on multicultural consumer markets and Black representation on screen.
She points out that, for people who have historically been denied a voice, social media presents a unique opportunity to build community and find a platform. In her research, Mills Cox has also found that people of color rely on social media in weather crises like the recent winter storms and resulting power outages in Texas and other Southern states. In these instances, communities of color are likely to turn to people they know and trust for information.
“Black people and Latinx people really rely on those individuals or those voices through their social media channels,” says Mills Cox.
So, for many, quitting social media or engaging in long social media “detoxes” is not an option. For the rest, it still may not be the best solution.
So what is the answer?
If deleting our apps and quitting our phones is not the way to build healthy relationships with digital technology, then what is? The conventional wisdom offers some nuggets: no screen time 30 minutes before bed; no phones in the bedroom; take regular breaks while you’re using screens.
Many also find answers in “unplugging” for a day — or even an hour — at a time. The National Day of Unplugging on March 5-6 provides a timely entry into the conversation around unplugging and habit building.
For creators and professionals who use social media for work, unplugging can seem daunting. The key is to start small. Alexandra Franzen, a Hawaii-based writer and consultant who has built her business without social media, spends one or two days unplugged each month. She says unplugging to her means “taking a completely tech-free day. Phone: turned off … No emails. No TV. No digital screens.” Alexandra offers numerous resources for replacing social media in your professional life.
When you do spend time on social media, Dr. Mills Cox suggests evaluating which people and online platforms are largely positive in your life — and which produce anxiety. When she finds herself fatigued by social media, Mills Cox performs a scrub of who she follows and who she allows to follow her to create a positive digital space to inhabit. And what better time than spring cleaning to give your social media accounts a deep clean, too?
In the long term, we can develop healthier relationships with technology and a better digital future for our society if we practice digital citizenship, according to Dr. Dennis-Tiwary. As digital citizens, we must learn about and understand the digital landscape in which we live. With that knowledge, we can make informed choices and advocate for ourselves and the lives we want to lead online.
Rather than living at the mercy of our phones and social media platforms, we can take control of the narrative and imagine a better digital future for ourselves.