Social Media – Tool or Distraction? A Practical Guide for Students

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In the last two decades, we’ve seen an explosion in technology. And while all technologies can be harnessed for good, there’s also a way to misuse any tool. I’m not arguing against the use of social media. Med School Insiders, after all, has a presence on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. On one hand, there are angry luddites condemning social media, and on the other hand, you have addicted students who are oblivious to the detrimental effects of their social media use. As with most things in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

 

Is Social Media Addiction a Problem?

After taking a brief peak at the literature, it is abundantly clear that social media addiction is a serious problem. And it’s not that surprising. Some of the smartest minds are working at top tech companies, purposely designing products to grab your attention and keep you on their platform. After all, that translates to more revenue.

Until recently, I found it difficult to understand how social media addiction was a problem for so many people. Throughout college, medical school, and residency, I simply didn’t find myself using social media much. I was too busy (#gunnerlife), and Facebook just wasn’t that appealing to me. But then, I started Med School Insiders, and in doing so, I created an Instagram, Twitter, and downloaded the YouTube Studio and Google Analytics apps on my phone. No longer in residency and with much more control over how I spent my time and used my devices (it’s tough to use social media while working in the hospital), I found myself unhappy with the amount of time I spent on these apps, and more specifically the level to which they distracted me from focusing on meaningful work.

It’s been demonstrated that the constant barrage on our attention from these distractions slowly erodes our ability to focus and get meaningful work done. I found my own capacity for Deep Work (excellent book) becoming fragmented. Was I becoming addicted?

According to the literature, you may be addicted to social media if any of the following apply to you: you’re preoccupied by social media, you use it to reduce negative feelings, you gradually use it more and more in order to get the same pleasure from it, which is essentially building tolerance, you suffer distress if you’re prohibited from using social media, or you sacrifice other obligations or cause harm to other life areas because of your social media use. It’s ok, you’re not alone. A lot of us are addicted to social media. But fear not, I’ve got the antidote.

 

How to Cure Your Addiction (& Still Use Social Media)

I’ve heard multiple people recommend 30 day detoxes from social media. As a physician, I detest the words “detox” and “cleanse”. But that’s besides the point. Quitting social media for 30 days to reset your relationship with your phone and computer is not a bad idea — it’s just not that realistic. Instead, I suggest you do the following:

1 | Delete Social Media Apps for Only ONE Day

Staying away from social media for 30 days is setting the bar too high. To successfully implement behavior change, you have to start small, otherwise you’re likely to cave and fail on achieving your goal, regressing back to your initial state. I recommend beginning this process with deleting Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media apps you use from your phone for just one day.

Doing so will set the bar low enough that it is easy and feasible to achieve, but it will also give you a taste of what life is like without constant dopamine snacks and hits to your attention. As someone who has done the 1 day delete, I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s a nice change and helps the following tips fall into place.

2 | Refine Your Inputs

They say you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. I say you’re the average of all your inputs. Now that you’ve taken a brief break away from social media, come back to it with a fresh perspective and the ability to more accurately determine what is bringing you value. Ruthlessly unsubscribe and unfollow accounts on Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, Reddit, and any other sites that are distracting you and not providing value. Remember, be aggressive. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there later if you change your mind and want to resubscribe.

These platforms are ultimately tools and it comes down to how you use them. I am an avid user of Reddit, but I’ve unsubscribed to most of the default subreddits, because frankly, dank memes don’t bring me lasting happiness. /r/personalfinance, /r/cycling, and /r/medicine, on the other hand, teach me useful information. I went over how I slashed 50% of my YouTube subscriptions and how I determine which channels to follow on my personal channel.

3 | Reclaim Your Attention

There is an art and science to setting up your phone for maximal productivity and minimal distraction. I’ll be going over a more in-depth guide in a future video. For now, disable notifications for all social media apps. That means no lock screen notifications, no badges, and no sounds. This will prevent you from being distracted every time someone likes or comments on a new post.

Taking this a step further, remove any distracting emails from your inbox. I personally have a filter set up that automatically archives all emails from Facebook. Requesting to receive fewer emails from Facebook was not effective at actually stopping attention seeking spammy emails from blasting my inbox. Shocking.

4 | Implement Systems to Block Future You

This comes down to a few different tactics.

First, let’s talk about your phone, since that’s where most of our social media usage time is based. My go-to technique is completely free and surprisingly effective — move your phone out of sight. Sounds stupidly simple, right? I am constantly amazed at how effective it is. If I’m working, I now make sure I don’t leave my phone on the table or desk, as I’m much more likely to mindlessly pick it up and check for new updates. Instead, put it in another room or elsewhere out of your line of sight.

Second, block future you from using the app too much. An easy first step is to move the apps off the home screen, so that finding them takes additional work, which hopefully is enough of a friction point to make you aware and provide you a brief moment to catch yourself if you’re acting impulsively. Additionally, Android and iOS devices both come with features that can limit your usage of certain apps. On my iPhone, I use Screen Time to limit the amount of time I can spend on social media and … other distracting apps (Diego, please put Tinder and Bumble app icons here to complete the joke)

On my computer, I use an app called Focus that blocks all my browsers from visiting any predefined set of distracting websites. Focus is only available on Mac, but I’ve also heard great things about Freedom which is available on PC.

 

Still Not Convinced?

The hardest part in any behavior change is just starting. If you’ve made it this far, this likely isn’t the first time that you’ve heard of social media addiction and been encouraged to consider curbing your social media use. I’m not saying you need to quit, but a controlled rather than compulsive relationship is going to help you. With this healthier approach, you won’t only be a more effective and productive student, but you’ll also be happier and less stressed, as supported by the literature.

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