Most of the time, I navigate to my social media apps reflexively, as though my finger and the icons are magnets. I don’t even realise I’m doing it until my thumb taps the Instagram icon on my screen. Again. And again. And again.
It’s a dirty digital habit, and it doesn’t make me happy. Maybe you can relate. Studies have repeatedly found that while social media connects us to one another, 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 into them on my desktop. I set myself a goal to only engage with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram on my laptop or work computer, hopefully offloading my biggest time suck to devices that I’m only around for part of the day.
And you know what? It’s actually sort of working. Slowly, and with some lapses, I’ve felt my compulsory need to look at social media fade. Instead of thumbing through Twitter while I’m bored waiting for the subway, I’ve picked up better, if still phone-dependent, habits—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. Baby steps!
Addictive By design
All social media is designed to keep us coming back, but that’s especially true of mobile apps. In recent years, there’s been pushback against the sticky interface design on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Features like autoplay, endless scroll, reverse chronological timelines, and push notifications were once heralded as frictionless, user-friendly design. Now they’re described as manipulative.
Desktop applications aren’t free of these hooks, but they’re less severe. Part of the reason is that social media is optimised for mobile. Facebook and Twitter might have started out as websites, but mobile usage quickly surpassed the number of people using the desktop versions. Today, a growing majority of people use Twitter and Facebook solely on their phone (54 percent for Facebook, 45 percent for Twitter). You can assume that Instagram, which didn’t introduce web profiles until two years after it launched, has even fewer desktop users.
As social media pivots to mobile, the desktop versions feel clunkier 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 feed doesn’t progress quite as neatly as when you’re using a very simple finger swipe gesture,” he says. “You have to scroll the mouse or do something that requires a little extra effort, and even that little bit of 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 in general. It’s also made me appreciate why these apps were so compelling in the first place. I used to rely on apps as a way to stave off boredom, and in the process, the apps themselves became boring, too. Now, I feel like I’m catching up on something I actually want to read. I’m not cured: Sometimes, I catch myself tapping on my phone’s Twitter icon only to find the login screen. And there’s still the problem of posting (good luck making an Instagram story on your laptop). But the point of my experiment isn’t to abolish social media; it’s to better understand why I’m using it in the first place.
“Part of the battle is teaching yourself you don’t need these apps as much as you think you do,” Alter says. And it’s true. I no longer feel like I need the apps, but it’s nice to know I still want them.