Social Media Addiction and Biohacking Visual Perception with Digital Minimalism

Most of us have been sucked into the warp tunnel of video games, social media, or dating apps at one point or another.

The screen seems to have magnetic qualities. Social media taps into our highly visual, reward-seeking tendencies—promising more popularity, more praise, more belonging, more prestige, more admiration, more respect, more knowledge, and more connection. On these creative, social platforms, we curate the pictures, videos, and words on our profiles and feeds, contorting ourselves into avatars and brands.

In hindsight, the amount of lifetime hours I spent on Balloono, The Sims 3, Tumblr, and YouTube in my youth is absurd. It got so bad that when I'd close my eyes to sleep at night, I'd still see little monkeys laying water balloon bombs in a maze, like it was burned into my vision.

Then in college, it was Instagram, Pinterest, and dating apps. Seeing perfect models with perfect lives didn't do me much good—it seemed to make me more materialistic, judgmental, depressed, and anxious, a perfect storm to fill the gap with online dating. A sociological study from Stanford University found that in 2017, around 40% of American couples met online, making it the most common way to get into a relationship (Rosenfeld, 2019). While the first iPhone was only released on June 29th, 2007, today, there are 3.3 billion smartphones users, accounting for about 42% of the population.

Unconscious use of social media seems to stir stagnation, distraction, attachment, comparison, both sides of ego (narcissism and insecurity), disgust, frustration, and isolation. Social media is evolving fast, and we're only starting to discover how it's changing our thoughts and behavior.

Symptoms of digital media addiction:

  1. Disrupted morning routine

  2. Eating with a screen on during every meal

  3. Repeatedly procrastinating on your work or goals

  4. The need to "always be on" and work

  5. Neck and back pain

  6. Tons of tabs open for weeks or months on end

  7. Binge-watching shows, videos, or podcasts

  8. You value staying in touch with old friends, but you don't reach out

  9. When you're with people, your screen is the object of attention

  10. Getting photos or videos takes priority over experiencing the moment

  11. Sleep disturbances

Now, my fixation seems to be centered around productivity. Why am I able to stay up late and skip meals while creating, working, or scrolling on my screen? Neuroscience and psychology may have some answers.

The neuroscience of time perception

"The more you think, the slower you go."

Why do hours fly by when we're consuming? Why does life feel shorter from unconsciousness? A Quartz article explains:

"Time is happening in the mind’s eye. It is related to the number of mental images the brain encounters and organizes and the state of our brains as we age. When we get older, the rate at which changes in mental images are perceived decreases because of several transforming physical features, including vision, brain complexity, and later in life, degradation of the pathways that transmit information. And this shift in image processing leads to the sense of time speeding up."

Essentially, states of consciousness interact with time dilation. Sensory flooding slows time down—it's why seconds feel interminable in a hot sauna. In contrast, sensory blunting results in increased time between thoughts, which is why we can seem to pass hours consuming entertainment. It requires so little energy investment that we passively and mindlessly gravitate towards it.

The article continues: "This effect is related to saccadic eye movement. Saccades are unconscious, jerk-like eye movements that occur a few times a second. In between saccades, your eyes fixate and the brain processes the visual information it has received. All of this happens unconsciously, without any effort on your part. In human infants, those fixation periods are shorter than in adults."

That statement brings insight to how infants absorb the world like sponges and why time feels so slow to kids. We're still learning how exactly screens affect children's sensory and perceptual development.

In essence, your attention is amplified by your visual patterns. Although at least 40% of our brain is devoted to visual processing, "where you look" can also be more broadly applied to all the senses. We can choose to immerse and build rituals that enhance our focus and help us experience and remember life more vibrantly. I don't need a picture of the beach to remember the smell of sea salt in the air, the warmth of the sun, my toes in the sand, the breeze rolling through, the seagulls chirping.

Time also seems to speed up as you get older since you're more experienced and things are less new. To develop deep appreciation for life, you have to practice dropping deeply into the present moment and cultivate emotions a child would have—pure awe, wonder, and curiosity. That vastness is often diminished by a little rectangular screen transfixing our fovea.

What about workaholics? I often delay sleep and meals when I get deep into my work. When I'm done for the night, my mind is so active that it's harder to fall asleep. While obsessions can often take precedence over basic needs, our brains work less well when we're hungry, tired, or sick. Fatigue muddles visual saccades, delays them, and crosses signals that are responsible for seeing and making sense of information, so be sure to give your body the rest and fuel it needs.

The psychology of habit change

The theory of planned behavior (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975) states that our intentions are determined by our:

  • Attitudes: how do I feel about doing this?

  • Subjective norms: will other people support me?

  • Perceived behavioral control: how much do I believe in my ability to succeed?

The transtheoretical model (Prochaska & DiClements, 1983) incorporates the power of intention, outlining six steps in behavior change:

  1. Precontemplation

  2. Contemplation

  3. Preparation

  4. Action

  5. Maintenance

  6. Termination

During the first three stages, we're working through thoughts and emotions, suggesting half the battle is changing our minds and how we think about our behavior. The extent to which we intend to change a behavior is the activation barrier we must cross. It can be a gradual, nonlinear process, from consideration to commitment. At any point, relapse can take us back to square one. Only 20% of former smokers and alcoholics reach the final step, termination, at which point there is no longer much risk of relapse.

Importantly, however, many addiction patterns, like eating disorders, form around our need to survive (i.e., obtain food), and extreme or complete restriction may backfire by altering biological feedback loops, such as metabolism, hormone levels, and ability to handle stress. Mindfulness, which is distinct from the denial often associated with drug and alcohol abuse, allows you to engage consciously with these types of "vices."

In recognition that social media is a tool that can be used or misused, I provide specific exercises that may be more useful and helpful for other content creators.

How to break free of Internet addiction

The key spiritual concepts here are free will, attention, and intention.

The link between attention training and memory

Meditation and gratitude practice train attention so you can live more of your life. When you pay attention, your senses are amplified, time seems to slow down, and you remember more. Meditation and gratitude also modulate the stress response and decrease depression and anxiety.

As observed by EEG, meditators spend more time than non-meditators in alpha, theta, and gamma frequencies, associated with creativity, intuition, bliss, imagination, inspiration, problem-solving, and peak performance. (To learn more, see Modulate Your Frequency). In this state of increased awareness, it's easier to manifest your highest self in the present.

Creating and moving can also be meditative—this includes art, music, dance, journaling, yoga, and so on.

You are enough.

To heal our social media starts with the standard the individual places on themselves for what they consume and put out into the world. You don't have to share or view anything. It's your journey, and you write your story.

It's okay to let go. Let go of the past, of judging, of perfectionism. Let go of guilt, of feeling like you wasted time, of feeling like you're missing out. You have now. Every day is a new day.

2020 Electronic Detox: Practical guide to re-evaluating our relationship with technology

Nick Wignal writes of three main principles of digital minimalism:

  1. Technology use should be intentional, not habitual.

  2. Technology is for making stuff, not feeling better.

  3. Technology should never come before people.

To make our technological tools work for us rather than against us, we have to address how we use them personally and then publicly.

Each week, I will add a new challenge to this page. Each challenge should take no more than a few hours, and they're meant to be completed in short bursts.

If you're not already, I recommend using cloud-based apps like Google Drive, iCloud, and Microsoft OneNote, which sync automatically. For best results, make sure you are using personal devices on a stable Internet connection.

Week 1: Go through your phone's camera roll and delete photos that don't bring you joy.

The ultimate goal of technological minimalism is to bring more concentrated, meaningful joy. We dilute our most transformative memories by filling our storage space with photos, selfies, downloads, and screenshots that we no longer care about.

Johnny Harris made a compelling YouTube video about the benefits of deleting photos, called "How to Remember Your Life."

I started from my oldest photos and worked my way forwards, doing a little bit every day so that I wouldn't fatigue and make too many excuses to save pointless photos. I am enjoying the process of decluttering and reliving old memories.

Week 2: Create a cloud-based Life Organizer.

Electronic notebooks create great mental shortcuts. A Life Organizer centralizes your multi-faceted life and surfaces your plans into your awareness so you can pursue what matters most to you.

A life organizer can accelerate your life by helping you:

  • know what makes you, you: think about how your values, personality, and strengths play into your passions and calling

  • strengthen your compass: have a greater sense of direction and what you want in life

  • live consciously: articulate your intentions, focus your efforts, and harness motivation

  • refine your routine: develop a daily and weekly flow that works best for you

  • track your goals: strategize, track your progress, and persevere on your projects

  • create more: become a consistent, high-quality content creator to attract an audience

This exercise epitomizes the realization that continually iterating and simplifying our lives helps us level up. As we grow, our priorities change and our vision evolves accordingly. Each year, you can copy and paste the pages into a new notebook and revise it with peace of mind that you will be able to look back and be amazed at your progress.

Some platforms of interest are OneNote (which I personally use), EverNote, Trello (for collaborations), Todoist (for tasks), and Batterii (for businesses). 

Week 3: Go as paperless as possible, Marie Kondo style.

Most of my clutter is caused by piling papers—old notes, flyers, magazines, cards, half-used notebooks, mail, receipts, tags, etc. As a writer, artist, and visual learner, I find paper to be one of the most grueling aspects of tidying up. I pride myself on my meticulous class notes, colorful study guides, and aesthetic infographics. (To learn more about the KonMari method, see my path to minimalism).

I'd be remiss to say I'm going completely paperless. Scientific research often necessitates data recording on hard copy data sheets. But wherever feasible, I'm using cloud-based notebooks like OneNote to scan and upload paper information.

Note I'm considering all class notes paper, but I'm treating my old writing, artwork, and poster projects separately, as mementos.

Week 4: Set your Desktop in order.

My desktop rolling over from December 2019 was a cluttered mess of photos saved from the Internet, scattered files, and apps I downloaded but never used.

  1. Delete old photos or files you no longer resonate with, you don't intend to use, or that you don't like. Reasons for deleting could be low quality, generic, uninteresting.

  2. Working through one folder at a time, sort files by creating new sub-folders. For example, a folder named "blog photos" could be organized into sub-folders like "quotes," "space," and "mushrooms."

  3. Find shared folder categories. Merge and delete redundant folders and photos, particularly if you restored back-ups. Keep the higher quality photo.

  4. Archive files you're not currently using. For example, if you recently graduated, move your old class notes to an "Archive" folder.

Week 5: Uninstall useless apps

Uninstall phone apps you use less than once a week. Feel free to also uninstall apps that you also derive minimal value from relative to energy investment, like Facebook, Snapchat, OKCupid, TikTok, or whatever the cool kids are using these days.

Afterwards, organize your phone icons so you can find what you need quickly while also keeping distraction out of sight, out of mind. Sometimes, nothing works better than good old-fashioned airplane mode and sticking your phone in a drawer.

Week 6: Close your tabs—phone and desktop.