Imagine going to McDonald’s every single day. Think about what would happen to your body if you ate a hamburger, french fries and soda combo daily for a year. The thought of it might send shivers down your spine — but, unbeknownst to you, you might be doing something similarly nasty to your brain.
Society has become addicted to smartphones. Walk around a public area, such as a food court, and count the number of people with their faces glued to a screen. Pay attention to what happens when a traffic light turns red: people immediately look down to the phone sitting on their lap — despite distracted driving being illegal in Washington. The examples are countless and illustrate the point that these devices have become like another limb on the human body.
Smartphones are extremely useful, and their utility is undeniable in today’s world. The concerns arise when you think about how exactly they are being used and for what purposes.
Data from GlobalWebIndex suggests that people spend around two hours every day using social networks like Facebook or Twitter. While these accounts are created for the purpose of keeping in touch with friends and family, this type of content is a tiny fraction of what you actually get. Open your apps and scroll down for a minute, then consider how much value you got from that distraction.
Is it worth it to spend so much time and energy just so you can be up-to-date with the latest meme, viral video or Kylie Jenner Instagram photo? You might not realize it, but the time wasted on these low-value activities quickly add up, amounting to what Cal Newport — a computer scientist and self-improvement books author — categorizes as “cognitive junk food.”
Akin to what an order of salty and greasy fries does, the frequent consumption of social media makes your brain crave for some sort of quick stimulus. Repeating this process will engrain it into your brain as a habit, making it harder to break from. Tristan Harris, an ex-Google design ethicist, compared a smartphone to a slot machine. The constant bombardment of digital noise such as likes, followers and tweets is perceived by people as rewards, therefore inciting them to keep coming back for more. There is even a modern phenomenon caused by this: phantom vibration syndrome, in which people believe they feel the vibration of their phone cueing an alert when there wasn’t any.
Every social media website and app has been engineered to exploit the human weakness of not being able to resist temptation. As a result, people are becoming more easily distracted, unable to be “bored” for a few seconds — and more importantly, they are being stripped of their ability to do deep work.
Newport coined the idea of deep work, which basically represents the ability to deliberately and completely focus on something challenging and maintain that concentration until the end of the session. According to him, this is the “killer-app” of our current economy, and individuals who practice this methodology will be farther ahead than those who rest on their laurels. However, this deep work won’t be possible when the people of our generation can’t seem to go one minute without looking at their smartphone.
As students, a constant state of distraction is a recipe for disaster. We are required to read, learn and master challenging concepts in a small amount of time. Because these activities take serious effort and are not always fun, we are prone to engage in shallower, low-effort distractions that take away valuable time. Take the very realistic example of a student who does homework, checks their Facebook for a few minutes, then goes back to “studying.” Restoring concentration and returning to the original task after a seemingly innocent distraction can take a whooping 23 minutes and 15 seconds according to a study from the University of California Irvine. Practices like this — which are very common — then become the source of frequent student problems like procrastination, stress and high anxiety.
Smartphones are a double-edged sword. Like any addiction, it is hard to admit you have one. You might think it doesn’t affect you, but consider how long you would be able to go without using your phone. Once you are aware of the time wasted on low-value activities, think about doing something about it. The idea is not to completely get rid of social media, but to reduce unnecessary time spent on it. How can you do this?
Consider listening to an engaging podcast or audiobook in your free time. Your phone can be the best book reader in the market, so use it to read more often. If what you truly crave and need is some sort of entertainment, use the time to catch up on an interesting show you’ve heard of. And if you want to develop your ability to do deep focus, resist the urge to check your phone the second you become bored. These are all activities that hold more value than meaninglessly scrolling down or swiping left and right. Put simply: give your thumbs a break.
At the beginning of the year, I made the goal of drastically reducing cognitive junk food-like activities. In the three months since then, I have stuck to virtually all my new year resolutions, including reading two books outside of school per month, working out five days a week and maintaining a high GPA while dealing with a busy schedule. This would be much harder to accomplish if two hours of my day were devoted to checking my phone constantly.
I recommend people to go on a cognitive junk food detox. Spent minimal time on social media and other internet time-wasting activities, and see what it does for you. At worst, you might miss out on what your favorite celebrity did last week. At best, you might find new time for things that are truly of high value to you while also developing your ability to avoid useless distractions. This will prepare you better for the future.