How to Overcome Your Digital Addiction

Computer science professor says our drive for social approval is one factor behind the rise of digital addiction
October 21, 2019 Updated: October 26, 2019

In a 2016 essay, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” Andrew Sullivan explored his debilitating digital addiction. His subtitle likely reads true for many people: “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.”

There is at least a bit of Sullivan in many of us, judging by the popularity of computer science professor Cal Newport’s latest book “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.”

Many of us need to ask ourselves if we are mindlessly spending too much time online and not enough time in the real world.

If your online habits are interfering with your productivity, your leisure time, or your relationships, Newport deserves your rapt attention. Newport has already written several of the most important professional and personal development books of the past decade. In “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love,” Newport debunks the conventional wisdom that following your passion leads to success. In “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” Newport convincingly argues that we’ve fooled ourselves into believing we are effective multitaskers, when in fact we would all benefit by more distraction-free concentration.

Some scoff at the idea of social media addiction, thinking of addiction as something afflicting drug or alcohol abusers.

But Facebook and other social media sites are designed to addict you. They use, in Newport’s words, “intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval” as tools to get you to use their products at the expense of better uses of your time.

Former Google engineer Tristan Harris likened the frequent checking of your phone to using a slot machine: “Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?'”

When you post, Newport asks, “Will you get likes (or hearts or retweets), or will it languish with no feedback? The former creates what one Facebook engineer calls “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure.” In 2017 during an Axios event in Philadelphia, Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, described Facebook’s objective as “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” to hijack our attention.

“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Parker recalls the company asking itself. The answer, recounted Parker, was features like the “like” button, which would give users “a little dopamine hit” to keep them engaged.

If you aren’t a Facebook user, don’t think you’re immune to digital addiction, Newport says.

“Many people have the experience of visiting a content website for a specific purpose—say, for example, going to a newspaper site to check the weather forecast—and then find themselves thirty minutes later still mindlessly following trails of links, skipping from one headline to another. This behavior can also be sparked by unpredictable feedback: most articles end up duds, but occasionally you’ll land on one that creates a strong emotion, be it righteous anger or laughter.

Another factor reinforcing behavioral addiction is the drive for social approval, Newport says.

“If lots of people click the little heart icon under your latest Instagram post, it feels like the tribe is showing you approval—which we’re adapted to strongly crave,” he writes.

Meanwhile, “a lack of positive feedback creates a sense of distress.”

With this sense of distress, Newport says people can develop an urgent need to constantly monitor what seems like vital information about their social standing.

Toward a Philosophy of Technology Use

If your attention has been hijacked, Newport is convinced you need a philosophy of technology use.

This philosophy should be “rooted in your deep values,” he writes. It should provide clarity about what digital tools you should use and how you should use them. Equally important, he writes, is that it “enables you to confidently ignore everything else.”

Newport recommends digital minimalism: “A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

Most of us, Newport observes, deploy our digital life with an unquestioned maximalist mindset, ready to start using any technology that catches our attention if there is a potential for benefit.

The maximalist is like a politician who looks at the benefits of a program without ever considering its costs.

“Techno-maximalism,” Newport writes, “contends more is better when it comes to technology—more connections, more information, more options.”

On the surface, Newport writes, techno-maximalism seems to dovetail with liberal humanism’s aim to offer individuals an ever-expanding sense of personal freedom. This makes it seem “vaguely illiberal to avoid a popular social media platform or decline to follow the latest online chatter.”

On the contrary, Newport says, a techno-maximalism approach may not be leading you to freedom.

“Outsourcing your autonomy to an attention economy conglomerate—as you do when you mindlessly sign up for whatever new hot service emerges from the Silicon Valley venture capitalist class—is the opposite of freedom, and will likely degrade your individuality.”

Newport says these are low-value activities. Rather than provide freedom, they clutter up our time and attention, to our detriment and someone else’s benefit.

Out of a fear of “missing out on small things,” are we “diminishing the large things” that “make a good life good”?

Awareness of an issue is the foundation for change. The next step is behavioral change. Newport provides many suggestions for behavioral change that may inspire our own. Here are just a few:

Are you cluttering your life with devices, apps, and services? These offer small benefits but can keep us socially isolated. A solution is to be more intentional about technology use.

For example, I gave up on Twitter many years ago; it just took too much of my time and attention. Newport observes that when people evaluate the tools and habits of their digital lives, they often overlook the side effects, and focus on the benefits.

“Maintaining an active presence on Twitter, for example, might occasionally open up an interesting new connection or expose you to an idea you hadn’t heard before. How much of your time and attention … must be sacrificed to earn the small profit of occasional connections and new ideas that is earned by cultivating a significant presence on Twitter?”

Newport exhorts us to treasure our time as a valuable and finite substance. Each digital activity must be measured against the time we trade for the value it gives us versus the value we could get from other activities.

Take social media apps off your phone. Having removed these apps, you won’t be tempted to browse their feeds as a knee-jerk response to boredom,” says Newport.

He points out that you can still gain the benefits of those sites through your computer browser.

Millennials and others are struggling with face-to-face communications. Newport, building on the work of MIT professor Sherry Turkle, points out that digital interactions are no substitute for face-to-face conversations. Face-to-face, in Turkle’s words, is “where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.”

Digital interaction makes a connection but doesn’t truly count as conversation because this highly sanitized form of connection is devoid of the immense volume of information we provide each other through our tone, body language, and eye contact.

Newport points to a crucial element of lasting change: “[By] cultivating a high-quality leisure life first, it will become easier to minimize low-quality digital diversions later.”

In other words, look for better ways to enjoy free time. Otherwise, you will be subject to the ease and allure of digital temptation.

“It’s now easy to fill the gaps between work and caring for your family and sleep by pulling out a smartphone or tablet, and numbing yourself with mindless swiping and tapping,” writes Newport.

His recommendation: “Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption.”

Build things and fix things. Write something. Compose something. Learn to cook. Turn back toward long-abandoned hobbies. Discover new hobbies. You may have abandoned the piano or guitar years ago, but you can begin again.

Newport endorses activities that require structured social interaction in the real world.

For example, Newport waxes eloquently about the camaraderie in today’s CrossFit community. Major parts of my leisure life were hiking club and bicycling club—at least until my 30s. Clubs such as the Appalachian Mountain Club still thrive in today’s digital era.

It’s easy to see why we use social media, but the question we rarely ask is how we use it. Newport writes, “Once people start thinking seriously about the [how], they tend to recognize that they’re spending way too much time online.”

Consider the fact that Facebook had fewer than a million users ten years ago, Newport says. Now the social media giant has two billion users and is the fifth most valuable company in the United States, with a market capitalization larger than ExxonMobil.

“Extracting eyeball minutes, the key resource for companies like Google and Facebook, has become significantly more lucrative than extracting oil,” says Newport.

Newport’s book helps us examine how we use technology well, with practical advice about how to be selective and intentional with our digital time and ensure that it yields valuable returns.

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of  “The Inner-Work of Leadership.” To receive Barry’s essays, subscribe to Mindset Shifts at BarryBrownstein.com. This article was originally published on the Foundation for Economic Education.

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