They say the first step to managing an addiction is admitting you have a problem: “Hi! I’m Gretchen, and I’m addicted to Instagram… and Tumblr… and Pinterest…” They are the first apps I open when I wake up in the morning (along with my email), and I probably spend an embarrassing amount of time on them throughout the day—I’ve even been guilty of having Pinterest open on my computer and on my phone at the same time! In fact, I can’t remember the last time I had to wait in line for something or kill time at a bus stop and I didn’t hit up my top three apps to make the time go faster.
It’s really no surprise that apps are specifically designed to be addictive. It’s part of the business model and a key component towards getting that sweet advertising money. A quick google search will pull up loads of research on the phycology behind what makes some apps more addicting than other, particularly social media. Push Notifications. Likes. Follows. Comments. Many people feel a dopamine rush when they see people like or comment on a post. (Remember back to elementary school talent shows and how exciting it was to have your friends cheer you on during your performance? Or that time a stranger gave you a random compliment that just made your day? I imagine that being around the same level of dopamine rush as social media likes.) Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook) are probably two of the most addictive social media applications because of their strategy behind push notifications (delaying pushes purposefully to lull you into checking the app more frequently in search of that sweet sweet dopamine feeling.)
I like Pinterest and Tumblr for a very specific reason. It’s the same reason I spend time on Apartment Thearpy, or DesignLoveFest, or a few of the other blogs I love: I’m a dreamer searching for my identity as an adult. I spend hours looking at photos of clothing, vacation spots, home design, etc. imagining the life that goes along with that apartment, or that bikini, or that bedding. Am I boho chic or a Scandinavian minimalist? Am I the type of person who carries around an umbrella? Wears skirts and heels? Spends her weekend in ath-leisure? Vacations in the Caribbean, packing only the clothes that fit into an Away carryon? Am I the type that eats smoothie bowls, color organizes her bookshelf, uses Korean face masks, and always has her toe nails beautifully painted? Or am I the type to wear a French minimalist wardrobe? Or maybe I’m the type who buys most her clothes from REI and spends her weekends hiking? The more content I browse the closer I am to figuring out what I like and dislike—so the theory goes. My addiction orginially sprang from my constant search to figure out who I want to be as an adult, to make a vision board to help guide my decisions going forward, and to establish my personal style so I stop feeling angry at how my wardrobe somehow still looks the same as when I was 18.
Instagram is similar—I’m naturally attracted to visual mediums. My Instagram addictions has a whole ‘nother level to it, though. Over the years, my joy and self-worth around Instagram has becoming increasingly more connected to the social aspect. Did this post get at least 100 likes? Am I constantly growing my following? How can I get more story views? What started as just a silly way to post photos of funny signs I found taped up throughout the city has turned into a branding tool. Suddenly I’m no-longer just sharing things with my friends, I’m sticking to an editorial calendar, tracking what-type of post do the best, when the best time to post is, and trying to establish a theme so my Instagram has a cohesive look. I’m following way more people then ever before and using the app as a way to promote my writing and connect with other bloggers and a psychologically treacherous barometer for my success.
As my need to be using apps in my career as grown, so has inclination to indulge in my addiction. Managing my screen time has becomes more and more challenging.
It occurred to me not too long ago that I may spend a little too much time on my phone. When I compare my habits now to pre-iPhone-owning-college-Grechen, the difference makes me feel a little embarrassed. (I once gave myself a minor panic attack when I accidentally left it at home, and find myself constantly checking that it’s still in my bag anytime I’m out.) My sudden self-consciousness about just how much time I spend on my phone coupled with a hyperawareness of how constant push notifications have gotten started causing me a bit of anxiety. I need to figure out a better balance between my real life and my phone life. I started off with a very simple change: I turned off push notifications for everything. No more Twitter notification, no more Facebook popups, absolutely no LinkedIn alerts. ESPN? I allow the score popups but removed the notification sound. The result? I felt more relaxed now that my phone isn’t constantly nagging me and I felt like I took control back—I get to decided when and for how ling I’m using an app! Nevertheless, I still felt like I was spending an absurd amount of time on my device. I needed to go further, so I decided to Marie Kondo my app collection: Does this app truly bring me joy? If not, delete it! I got ruthless about it, even going as far as to delete the app version of LinkedIn and Facebook off my phone (for the record, I kept Facebook Messanger but only because I have friends who live abroad who prefer that messaging platform. I only get on my Facebook page about once a month now, and would shut it down all together if it wasn’t for the fact that I need it for work.)
While all this has helped me cut down on the amount of apps I’m spending time on, it doesn’t really address my two top time wasters: Pinterest and Instagram. In order to truly cut down on my screen time, I needed to set daily time limits for myself. This is a little more complicated because I do use Pinterest as a resource and Instagram as tool for my brand (follow my Instagram for cool pics!). Plus reaching for my phone and scrolling through those apps has become such a reflex, I can’t even stop myself from doing it when I have zero cell reception. After deciding on a reasonable amount of time to spend daily on each of theses apps, set out in search of an app to hold me accountable for it. I found apps to track my usage and apps to set parent controls, but neither quite worked for what I wanted (I did find one app that seem like exactly what I wanted, but it’s $8.99 a month to use it and I refuse to pay that on principle). What I ended up doing is turning on the parent controls builtin to my iPhone. This allows me to set alarms that automatically sound and alert and close my app after I’ve used it for a set amount of time. Unfortunately this only work for each individual time you set it rather than setting a time limit for an entire 24 hour period.
But maybe my issue isn’t the exact amount of time I’m spending on these addictive app but the way I’m spending time on these apps. Perhaps my worry over my phone attachment is unwarranted. After all, my phone is a tool I can use to create content, network, and manage my brand. (Okay… so I’m not totally unwarranted; I do need to spend more time taking physical breaks from using my phone. That’s just a fact.) But I do think there’s an important distinction between addictively checking apps time and time again—like a squirrel franticly trying to remember where he hid his nuts—and using apps in a way that brings me joy. Not the type of rushing dopamine-driven joy that diminishing with each use forcing me to use it more and more and more to get that same feeling (like an Instagram junky), but real joy. For me, this is this difference between using an app for social validation and using an app just for me. The difference between pinning things to my wall because I feel inspired by it and constantly monitoring my monthly views. Or between creating an Instagram theme because I find the coordinating colors satisfying and peacocking to attract more followers. Perhaps instead of trying to parent myself to managing my physical screen time, I’ll find the natural balance I’m striving to achieve and take control of my app addiction if I simply change my priorities. (Insert gif of Ron Weasley here)
GRETCHEN IS A WRITER-BASED IN PORTLAND, ORE. SHE GOT HER START AS A JOURNALIST WORKING ON THE SUSTAINABLE FASHION AND RESTAURANT BEAT BEFORE MOVING INTO COPYWRITING AND ADVERTISING WORK. SHE CURRENTLY BLOGS AND WORKS AS A FREELANCE WRITER.