Most of the time, I navigate to my social media apps on reflex, like my finger and the icons are magnets. I don’t even realize I’m doing it until my thumb touches the Instagram icon on my screen. Again. And even. And even.
It’s a dirty digital habit, and it doesn’t make me happy. Maybe you can understand. Studies have repeatedly shown that while social media connects us to each other, it also makes us feel bad. And yet, we do it anyway. We do it because we can’t stop.
So last month I tried something new. I logged out of my social media accounts on my phone and logged in on my computer. I’ve made it a goal to only interact with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram on my laptop or work computer, hoping to offload my biggest time onto devices I’m only on for part of the day.
And you know what? It’s actually a kind of work. Slowly, and with a few hiccups, I felt my obligatory need to watch social media fade away. Instead of flipping through Twitter while I’m bored waiting for the subway, I’ve picked up better habits, albeit still dependent on the phone: checking the New York Times app, listening to podcasts, playing mobile backgammon. Instead of waking up and scrolling through Instagram, then Twitter, then my email, I wake up and only check my email. No baby!
Addictive By Design
All social media is designed to keep us coming back, but that’s especially true for mobile apps. In recent years, the sticky interface design has been pushed to platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Features like autoplay, endless scrolling, reverse timelines, and push notifications were once advertised as a user-friendly, frictionless design. Today, they are called manipulators.
Desktop apps aren’t exempt from these hooks, but they are less severe. Part of the reason is that social media is optimized for mobile. Facebook and Twitter may have started as websites, but mobile usage quickly overtook the number of people using the desktop versions. Today, a growing majority of people use Twitter and Facebook only on their phone (54% for Facebook, 45% for Twitter). You can assume that Instagram, which only introduced web profiles two years after its launch, has even fewer desktop users.
As social media shifts to mobile, desktop versions feel bulkier and less exciting. It’s not as fun to use social media on a computer — and that’s a good thing, says Adam Alter, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and author of the book Irresistible, which charts the rise of addictive technology. “The flow doesn’t progress as cleanly as when you use a very simple finger swipe gesture,” he says. “You have to scroll the mouse or do something that takes a little extra effort, and even that little extra effort can have an effect on how we experience the world.”
Now that I can’t open Instagram or Twitter on my phone, I spend a lot less time on my phone overall. It also made me realize why these apps were so compelling in the first place. I used to rely on apps to stave off boredom, and in the process the apps themselves also got boring. Now I feel like I’m catching up on something I really want to read. I’m not cured: Sometimes I catch myself tapping the Twitter icon on my phone only to find the login screen. And there remains the problem of publication (good luck creating an Instagram story on your mobile). But the goal of my experiment is not to abolish social networks; it’s to better understand why I use it in the first place.
“Part of the battle is teaching yourself that you don’t need these apps as much as you think you do,” Alter says. And that’s true. I don’t feel like I need the apps anymore, but it’s good to know I still want them.