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Social Media Addiction and Biohacking Visual Perception with Digital Minimalism

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.