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Social Media Addiction and Biohacking Visual Perception with Digital Minimalism

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

Most of us have been sucked into the warp tunnel of digital media at one point or another. Whether we're playing video games, scrolling social media, binge-watching Netflix, or swiping on dating apps, 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 impulse control disorder:

  1. Disrupted morning routine or daily work flow

  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. Social withdrawal

  9. 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. I have no intentions of changing this problem behavior (precontemplation)

  2. I an beginning to consider changing this behavior (contemplation)

  3. I am committed to changing this behavior (preparation)

  4. I have started engaging in this new behavior (action)

  5. I have sustained this change over time (maintenance)

  6. I am no longer at much risk of relapse (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. Fewer than 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 impulse control disorder 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. The key difference here is that mindfulness and acknowledgement, rather than denial, 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.

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.

I would like to add to that list:

Have a specific goal in mind before you begin organizing.

If you're anything like me, organization can become a procrastination tactic. The moment tidying becomes used as a coping mechanism to avoid confronting fear, it stops being effective. Intention matters here.

Use the best tool to accomplish what you are trying to accomplish.

Got a reading list? GoodReads is the best social network for finding awesome titles and keeping track of your book progress.

To make your technological tools work for you rather than against you, organize your life personally and then publicly.

Use the Cloud. Google Drive, iCloud, and Microsoft OneNote 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. Make sure you make note of your progress in a Notes app such as Google Keep so you can know where you left off and continue on when you have pockets of time that you'd otherwise spend consuming media. This is a great opportunity to revisit memories, see how far you've come, and get inspired to create new content.

Week 2: Create a cloud-based Business Organizer.

Once you've committed to change, make a system. Electronic notebooks create great mental shortcuts. A Business Organizer centralizes your multi-faceted life and surfaces your plans into your awareness so you can pursue what matters most to you.

A business organizer can accelerate your life by helping you:

  • create more: become a consistent, high-quality content creator and a recognized leader in your field

  • structure programs and services

  • strategize product releases

  • queue posts in a logical order that helps you build your audience efficiently

  • plan updates to your website

  • iterate, streamline, and simplify business operations by centralizing paperwork such as tax information and SOPs, archiving content, and tracking progress

  • Decide your niche and brand pillars to specify and focus your content strategy.

  • Self-reflect. Pick up on your coping patterns for when fear comes up.

Some platforms of interest are OneNote (my personal favorite), 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, manuals, 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.

I'd be remiss to say I'm going completely paperless. Paper still has its advantages: privacy, convenience, visual flexibility, a classic feel. 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 into January 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, off-brand, no longer relevant.

  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 and organize your phone apps.

Uninstall phone apps you use less than once a week so your phone works faster.

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.

When your curiosity ignites, you can easily pore over dozens of articles for a few hours or a couple days. But chances are, you won't return to those 57 tabs you've had open for months. So go through them individually, and bookmark or save links to the important ones. The ensuing mental clarity will be well worth it. (That goes for Chrome, Ecosia, DuckDuckGo, or any other browsers you use regularly).

Week 7: Organize your music playlists.

We all know music has a powerful impact on the subconscious. In the new year, our intuition is getting louder than ever, and we're listening.

You may find you have less tolerance for music that you used to listen to and more of a discriminating ear. You might be paying more attention to the meaning behind lyrics and find that you no longer resonate with particular messages.

Now's the prime time to revamp your playlists. Split huge playlists into more specific ones, and remove songs that no longer resonate.

Sort your "Liked Songs" on Spotify by removing them or adding them to playlists for others to enjoy.

Week 8: Transfer photos and files from your old to new laptop.

Got a new phone or laptop and tons of files that aren't in the cloud? Now's the time to decide what you're transfering and taking with you into the new year. That goes for Desktop files, pictures, videos, Zoom meeting recordings, and downloads.

Week 9: Put birthdays of your friends and family into your e-calendar.

If you're like me, you run on reminders when it comes to important dates. This way, you will never miss an opportunity to tell someone you're thinking of them.

Weeks 10-11: Uninstall your most used phone apps for 2 weeks.

Start with the ones that you have a negative emotional experience with or that you notice yourself spending lots of hours on. You can always check notifications on your Desktop.

I gave my network a notice on Instagram to create accountability. Then, I started by uninstalling Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, OkCupid, and Hinge. I eventually moved to uninstalling Netflix, YouTube, Reddit, and Pinterest. What ensued was an interesting whack-a-mole experiment that revealed the apps I enjoy most and have the healthiest relationship with: Spotify and Insight Timer.

Uninstall apps you derive minimal value from relative to energy investment, and watch yourself get hours back. What will you create in with the time and space you gain?

Week 12: Organize Google Drive.

Google Docs is currently my favorite place to write articles. I start out brainstorming with OneNote folders to reveal themes in my interests (e.g. skin, detox, Alzheimer's, immunology, hormone health, microbiome, environment).

Let's say I have a series of notebook pages under the Skin theme about acne concepts, skin microbiome, anti-aging supplements, foods for clear skin, green skincare, and clean cosmetics. Right off the bat, I have identified 6 potential articles. However, long-form content helps me stay organized and write more effectively, so I merge similar topics into one page and paste it into Google Docs.

Google Drive is a haven for content creation, articles and templates alike. What if you could organize your documents, slideshows, spreadsheets, photos, and videos to remove the visual clutter, quickly find what you need, and refocus on your next move?

Long story short, at the end of this step, I had separated "active writing projects" from "everything else," and I had absolute clarity on my next move. Give it a try and let me know if you have any more organizational tips!

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