Unsocial media, not so smart phones, and connecting healthily with your mobile

23 Sep 2020 - blog

It is almost inconceivable to imagine life without our mobiles. As we become a population increasingly attached to our tech, are social media, dating apps, and smartphones in general driving us away from human connection? In his article – Unsocial media, not so smart phones, and connecting healthily with your mobile – therapist Charlie Rowley delves into the dark side of smartphones and social networking, and offers some tips for managing your devices in a healthier way. What is the similarity between cocaine and ‘likes’ on Instagram? How many times per day does the average smartphone user check their phone? Did Einstein really say that about social media? Curious? Read here to find out more…

In the day and age we live in it is almost inconceivable to imagine life without our mobiles. Smartphones, such as the iPhone, which recently celebrated only its 13th birthday, have revolutionised the way in which we live and connect. This tech is seen as a necessity by many; an essential part of modern living. The average smartphone user checks their phone 63 times per day, and 71% of users report sleeping with or next to their phones. It is undeniable that technology has massively increased the scope of our lives, but there is also a very dark side to smartphones and what they give us access to. Understanding how to manage your mobile is essential for both your mental health, and your functionality in the modern world; a world, sadly, in which many appear to be more connected to their phone than to their friends and family.

Before the smartphone, connecting to people was more simple, yet dramatically less accessible. Arranging dates was predominantly a face-to-face affair, speaking to friends across the world was expensive, and organising a party required some writing. Today, it’s possible to arrange a date with the swipe of a finger, speak to someone ‘face-to-face’ on another continent for free, and throw a party for a hundred ‘friends’ with no more than a few clicks. With the rise of social media and the influx of accessible technology, it feels easy to say that the world is more connected than ever, but this is evidently not the case. There are global rises in addiction, teenage suicide rates are higher than ever, and many people are seeking validation through their online persona(s) at the expense of their real selves. So what is the problem and what can be done about it?

When it comes to managing your phone use, one of the hardest things to balance is how much is too much. In the USA as many as 10% of the population meet the criteria for social media addiction (that’s around 33 million people!) Neurochemically this makes sense. When we get a ‘like’ on Facebook or a new follower on Instagram, the dopamine release in our brain is identical to when we use cocaine or gamble. The same reward pathways of the brain fire and essentially send a chemical signal to the body, ‘this feels good’. Our phones provide a platform to a world that is both physically and psychologically addictive. The endless stream of likes and opportunities at self-promotion provide a constant source of validation, self-esteem, and attention. But herein lies one of the biggest problems with smartphones and social media usage. That validation, self-worth, and attention one gets from their posts, is for the person they are showing themselves to be, and crucially this is not often the person they actually are.

In some of the people I have treated, they presented themselves online as the ‘tough guy’ or showed off their ‘perfect’ figure, when I know and they know that they spent hours heavily editing hundreds of photos to get that one ‘perfect’ snap, or wrote fictitious messages to show off their ‘tough’ side to gain gang status. It’s also beyond scary the extent to which people will go to defend these alter egos. But, when you get validated for someone you want to be but are not, you do so at the expense of validating the real and authentic you. This is a knife-edge walk that can go very wrong very quickly, because as quickly as the likes flood your system with dopamine, the lack of likes, or indeed worse (in the form of some comments and cyberbullying), can quickly turn that good feeling into one of self-hatred and shame.

Cyberbullying and ‘grooming’ are both growing issues in smartphone users. Grooming is the action of preparing someone to meet up and do something for or to you. Both paedophiles and gangs alike use social media and smartphone apps (predominantly Snapchat) to gain the trust and respect of youths and then indoctrinate them into their world. Both can have very sinister outcomes and I have seen both angles in my work. The danger of grooming is that if someone is not feeling validated for the person they are at home, they often seek validation from external sources, and both paedophiles and gangs can be incredibly persuasive and enticing. They know how to ‘prey’ on their victims and use them accordingly. It appears easier than ever in today’s technological age to take advantage of people’s low and vulnerable self-esteem. The worst part of grooming is that the person they groom very rarely realises what is happening to them until much later down the line of abuse or escalation.

In the case of a girl (14) I worked with, she would regularly meet up with older men and exchange sexual favours for handbags or cash. She thought this was very normal because the guys she would meet would tell her she looked beautiful and that they wanted to treat her ‘nice’. She was not hearing that she was special at home with her parents so naturally was drawn to this ego boost; this validation. In the case of another boy I worked with, he was convinced that gang status meant more than anything else in the world. Why? Because they would offer him ‘protection’ from other people, gave him large amounts of money to move guns, knives, or drugs, and constantly fulfilled that feeling in him that he fitted in. He did not feel good enough and loved at home, so he went out and found people that made him feel he was enough. And even if he had to wear a ‘mask’ in order to fit into that mould, he was insecure enough that it did not matter who or what validated him. In both cases the police were involved and neither of them ever felt they were doing anything wrong or bad. This is textbook addict behaviour, but it is also indicative of the dangers of smartphones and social media and highlights the need for caution in how we manage and monitor our mobiles.

Social media accounts often give people the opportunity to hide behind the security of their laptops or mobiles. The feeling of zero accountability when posting toxic words, or shaming people online, such as posting nude photos of an ex, create a melting pot for mental health issues. You only need to look up Phoebe Prince or Océane Ebem to see how wrong this can all go at such a young age. The most tragic part of all this is that very few young people today have a healthy understanding of friendship, and so the words of relative strangers can be incredibly detrimental to one’s self-esteem, and suicidal ideation can flourish. I remember that feeling that I was really popular because I reached 2000 friends on Facebook. Then someone gave me a challenge to do in order to understand how close I really was with all my ‘friends’ – go to your friends list and see how far down the list of ‘A’ you can get before you have no idea who that person is. 6 people in I got my first reality check. Then, when I was asked to remove anyone from my ‘friends’ who I had not spoken to (physically) in the last six months, suddenly I haven’t even got 20 friends.

This is one of the saddest parts about the modern world for teenagers and young adults. They have been set up to think that the number of people who follow you speaks to your achievements and likeability, and the number of friends and matches you can accumulate on social media and dating sites show your desirability as a person. It is a desperate state of affairs that people put their insecurities so vividly on display, only to have equally desperate people validate them. I once read, ‘never before has a generation so diligently recorded themselves accomplishing so little’, and as a therapist I am inclined to agree with this statement. I have lived the vacuous ‘how many likes am I on?’ existence, and I have worked with many young adults and teens who were truly slaves to their mobiles. The usage of smartphone is increasingly becoming an epidemic. We see the ‘highlight reel’ of everyone around us, and this seldom portrays the reality.

This ‘highlight reel’ also forces us to judge our own existence on everything we see and take in around us. If your friends post a picture of them out together, you feel left out. If the person you fancy is in a picture with another good looking guy/girl, you feel inadequate. If you post a picture you feel is super cool and took you hours to create and it gets no ‘likes’, you feel like a failure and ruminate, ‘what’s the point?’! This allows others to control our destiny. We hand over our mental wellbeing to a population of relative (often complete) strangers, most of whom are in direct competition with us for others’ attention. And the sad truth is that if one gets 500 likes on their last photo, and they then receive 400 likes on their next one, they reinforce that core belief that they are a failure; the very core belief that is the reason they are acting like this in the first place.

I often say to people I work with that core beliefs are like magnets – they will attract anything that validates them and repel anything that contradicts them. In most adolescents and young adults suffering with social media and smartphone addiction, the core beliefs you almost always see are: I am a failure; I am not good enough; I am alone; I am unlovable. So when you seek validation through others it is always at the expense of feeling good enough in yourself. This is why there is a growing need to take seriously the potential dangers of smartphones. For the parents reading this, please be mindful of how your toddlers are consuming technology, for a lot of these issues start well before they open their Tik Tok account. And for the person reading this who is wondering if they are in need of help, I offer a few ways to challenge your smartphone usage to hopefully create a healthier relationship between you and your mobile.

Tips to Connect Healthily to your Mobile

  1. Put your phone on airplane mode when you sleep. Sleep hygiene is one of the most important things for your mental health, and having your phone on and buzzing away next to you means it is prioritised over the sleep you really do need.
  2. Do not use your smartphone two hours before bed. Melatonin starts to be released into the bloodstream as we approach sleep time. The use of screens blocks this production and causes us to delay the hormone production and this massively affects the quality of our sleep.
  3. Build screen-awareness. Knowing how much time you spend on which apps is important information for understanding if you are using your phone in a healthy way. iPhone has the screen time function in your settings, which can help you educate yourself on where you may be overusing.
  4. Set a timer for your social media use. ‘It takes discipline to not let social media steal your time’ – Alexis Ohanian. 30 minutes a day is plenty for your social media. That discipline will free up time for more healthy activities for your brain, such as sports, meditation, reading, music etc. Be relevant in the real world by being truly present in your life.
  5. Challenge your phone habits. It is often said that the hardest person to lie to is yourself. Investigate with honesty your motivations and intentions when using your smartphone. Are you using it to spread fiction about yourself, create an image, ‘passing time’? The telephone was invented to allow us to communicate and connect with people; try using your phone for its truly intended purpose.
  6. Keep it in your pocket. One of the most depressing things to see in today’s world is people sat at a table all on their phones. Being connected to people means being honest, vulnerable, and open with each other. It requires presence and active listening. If you find it hard to manage the distraction buzzing in your pocket, put the phone on airplane mode or switch it off when you are with other people or engaged in another activity. Think of the message you are sending when you use your phone when you are with others. Clue: this is more interesting than whatever you are bringing to the table.
  7. What are you gaining? When you post something on social media or comment on other people’s profiles, think to yourself, ‘what am I gaining by doing this?’ In her brilliant Ted Talk, Luvvie Ajayi says you should ask yourself three things when saying anything online: 1) Do you mean it? 2) Can you defend it? 3) Are you saying it with love? If the answer to all three is yes then go for it. If the answer is no to any, challenge yourself and think, ‘what am I really gaining by posting this?’
  8. Turn off notifications not related to real connection. The constant buzzing and lighting up of your screen only serves to further deepen the enmeshment between you and your phone. Managing your notifications is a great way to ensure less distraction and more healthy connection.
  9. Write and read in real books. One of the most dangerous things about the smartphone is that it enables us to not have to write or read anything anymore. Reading a book off the screen enables you to keep the two separate and is better for your mental health. Writing down (by hand) your feelings is a great way to connect to yourself, and creates neurological pathways that are stronger than typing out your feelings.
  10. Stop scrolling; start living. The ‘scroll culture’ is a very damaging one for your self-esteem. You send unconscious signals to your body that you are being unproductive and ‘wasting your time’, which is exactly what you are doing. At the expense of what? Genuinely living your life. Smartphones are supposed to be there to make life easier to live, not easier to avoid living.

‘I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.’ – Albert Einstein. We are not there yet, but start managing your phone and social media in healthier ways in order to ensure we do not reach this seemingly ever-likely point. Remember you can’t think your way into new action, but you can always act your way into new thinking. Stay safe. Connect (not just to your smartphone). You are worth it. Enjoy a healthy relationship with your phone; enjoy a healthy relationship with yourself.