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The 4 Stages of Controlling Your Social Media Usage and Un-Hijacking Your Mind

The Unplug Series: Part 3

The allures, the harms, and how to take control of our minds.


It is up to us to take control of our minds and our attention. And we're up against a lot. Think millions of dollars invested in teams of engineers and tech entrepreneurs whose sole objective is to keep you hooked to their product. Now that we know the harms, and we know how these companies are targeting our attention, it's time to learn how to take action for ourselves. We owe it to our future self, who certainly will not look back and think 'man, I really wish I spent more time on Instagram competing for validation from strangers.' Your future self, your relationships, your bank account, your mental health, your opportunities, they will all thank you for choosing real life instead of distractions. So, let's do this. Here are the four stages to creating a more mindful and healthy relationship with your social media accounts. This one is part technical tips, part personal advice.

1. Control Your Notifications

how to control your social media addiction

The first step to gaining control is setting boundaries for how much the apps can interrupt your day with notifications. Notifications appear in red because red is a trigger color that instantly draws our attention. Most of our notifications are generated by machines, not actual people. Meaning the alerts the app generates to tell you about peoples birthdays, near by events, likes on your photo, etc. These are not things you need to know on an hourly basis, if at all. The first step for protecting our minds is disabling 90% of the things we allow them to notify us about. Here is a list of things I recommend you turn off notifications for:

  1. Likes. You will see all the likes of your new awesome photo when YOU decide to open the app. You don't need updates by the second on how many people spent .4 seconds to double tap your photo. It's non essential information.

  2. Other peoples post & live stream notifications. Again, we're going to see them anyways, no need for constant reminders of what the thousands of people you follow are doing all day.

  3. Follows. They'll still have followed you whether you check your phone every time or not.

  4. Birthdays, announcements, events, marketplace, videos, and other non human things. In fact, you should change your notification settings to only alert you when a real human is trying to reach you through a message or comment.

  5. All email notifications or reminders about social media. Facebook should not be allowed to email you to tell you you have a new notification about something irrelevant to you.

Here's a simple Instagram guide to all the notifications you get and how you can turn them off.

2. Control Your Newsfeed

The second step is controlling what we see when we do open up the app. This is one of the most important but most difficult steps for people because it involves making decisions that make us feel bad. It is our responsibility to construct a social media experience that is a benefit instead of a detriment to our happiness and goals. You are not obligated to follow people, or consume content that doesn't pass the test of positive value. In the name of social reciprocity, most people follow dozens of people they don't even like. In the name of maintaining an arbitrary metric of social value- 'followers', most people don't want to unfollow people they don't actually care about or who cause them negative emotion. In the name of staying relevant or cool, most people follow hundreds of celebrities, models, and influencers who cause the user to spend hours going through their photos, comparing themselves and feeling inadequate, uninteresting, and unattractive. How many times have you thought something along these lines?

'Oh my gosh, I could never look like Kim K, and everyone loves her, boys will never like me, I'm ugly'.
'Wow, I don't know how Kevin Hart manages to work so hard and do so well at every single thing he does, I'll never be that successful, I suck'.
'How in the world is this 21 year old already so successful and famous? I'm so far behind, I could never catch up to that, I should just give up.'
'All of my friends have boyfriends and look so happy and cute on Instagram (or are getting married and having kids), I feel so alone and left out and unwanted, I'll never find someone.'
'Everyone on instagram is always doing such fun and exciting things, they have such happy lives, I'm so boring, why would anyone care about me?'

take control of your social media use

These are every day thoughts that millions of people around the world have every minute on social media. Social comparison is a natural thing humans do, and social media turned it into a game, using our desire for status and attention against us to make money. They do not care if these thoughts spiral you into a dark hole of everything you are not and everything everyone else is (or seems to be). They don't care about the impacts on your mental health, your school work, your relationship, your future. It is up to YOU to care about that, and to make sure your social media behaviour reflects that care. If we are struggling to change our mindset when consuming the beautiful highlight reel of everyones filtered best angles and staged happy moments, we can get rid of it all together. And we should. So here are my suggestions for how you can do this:

1. Reduce the People You Follow

Go through the list of people you follow. Ask yourself these questions about each person. If they are on the negative end of any of these questions, unfollow them.

  • 1. Do I really care about this persons activities?

  • 2. Does this persons content make me feel negative?

  • 3. Do I even like this person to begin with?

The main reason a lot of people struggle with unfollowing is because of a desire to not hurt feelings. Which is fair, but not exactly important here. Your attention is one of the most valuable things you control, and you do not owe it to anyone. Be very selective and careful what and who you spend it on. We want to grant our attention to things that improve our lives and bring us joy. Don't think of unfollowing as mean, but think of it as taking a step forward for your self improvement and health. Also worth mentioning- if you can't handle the idea of hurting someones feelings with as little as an unfollow (to someone you probably aren't that close to if you want to unfollow them), I regret to inform you that you might be drastically unprepared for some of life's more serious confrontations.

2. Use the Mute Function

Even so, there are always going to be people we just don't have the heart to unfollow. Maybe it's one of your best friends, but their constant posting makes you annoyed or uncomfortable. Maybe someone who really helped you out once who you respect a lot, constantly posts about something you are not interested in at all- like, drywall or bird watching- whatever it is! In my case, I am just not interested in photos or videos of people at the gym working out. But I have lots of friends who's work and hobbies revolve around fitness. In these cases we can use the MUTE function for Instagram and the Unfollow function for Facebook. This will stop their content from making it to your feed, and they will never know you did such a thing. Win Win.

3. Use facebook newsfeed blocker for desktop.

This is a great plug in that replaces your Facebook newsfeed with an inspirational quote. It helps you use FB for the functions that serve you- messenger, business posting, checking an event, etc- without pulling you into the activities that serve them. There is a reason apps open up to the newsfeed page, and why you cannot use basic useful functions without seeing the newsfeed. This is part of the design to trap you once you opened the door.

4. Turn Your Feed Into Something Valuable Yet Kind of Boring

how to take control of your social media use
an example of my IG newsfeed

This is more of a personal suggestion, one that works for me. Now that I have muted and unfollowed literally hundreds of people, my newsfeed is filled with only the accounts I want to see. This includes some people, but mainly it includes things I'm interested in learning about or things I enjoy seeing. For me, it is travel, cooking, philosophy, some dogs, and some financial/business tips. This does two things for me.

One: It ensures that when I do get sucked into the scrolling of Instagram, that I am being sucked into a consumption of things that add value to my life.

Two: It gets boring quickly. As much as I love self improvement, philosophy quotes and photos of Hawaii only entertain you so long. So I spend less time on it all together.

For you, think about what hobbies or skills you are interested in learning more about. Guaranteed there are tons of high quality accounts that will share instructionals, tips, ideas, and more for you to learn from. It's time to fill your feed with stuff that elevates you.

3. Control Your Need of Sharing

how to control your social media use
SUR-FAKE - Antoine Geiger

How and what you share is totally up to you. It is not my place to tell you what is cool, what matters, or what you should post. Everyone has different goals, a different perspective, and gets different things out of their social media use. What I am about to share is my personal thoughts on sharing on social media according to my goals. Posting in a way that preserves my time, is in line with my objectives for social media, is authentic, and helps me stand out from all the noise. These are not meant as a 'you should do it like me', and definitely not intended as a strategy for social media fame. But these strategies helped me get away from constantly posting online, being wrapped up in the metrics of it all, and being happier with the value of what I do put out there.

1. Establish Your Goals with Social Media

Social media is here to stay and i'm not advocating people throw their phones out the window. I still have it, and most people reading this will still have it. The goal is using it more than it uses us. Take some time to establish why YOU want to use social media, and what you want to get out of it. If you could design your complete interaction and experience with your apps, what would that look like? What would you use it for, for how long, and how would you feel afterwards? For most people (who's goal isn't to accomplish instagram fame) this would look something like: talking to my friends, seeing my friends posts, posting important/interesting things about myself, promoting myself/ my business/ my craft, learning, having a laugh. Set your own goals and values. Then, think about all the ways you use social media that deviate from this purpose, and try to limit that part. Even just being more aware of this will help you catch yourself when you scroll or post astray.

how to control your social media use
'omg i just love this leaf' (Decoy)

Personal example: My main goal for posting on social media is to promote myself and my business. But I noticed that I was posting a lot of selfies when I wore a cute outfit. The reason? Just like everyone else- I felt beautiful and I wanted to show everyone I was beautiful. Feeling desirable is a human need and there's nothing wrong with that- but I didn't want to let Instagram be the exploiter of that need, or to be the validator of my beauty or value. In addition, these posts were not in line with my goals to promote myself for business reasons. And they actually detracted from the value of the meaningful things I shared. So I stopped doing it. Today I almost never think about taking selfies, but back then, it felt like if I ever looked nice and didn't share it on social media, it was a waste. Just thinking about all the time I've saved in the last six months not taking 59 photos for the best angle, editing them to remove my acne, finding the right filter, finding a smart caption as a decoy for looking for superficial validation, crashing IG and having to do it all over again, just for a bunch of people to see it for a few seconds before seeing all the other selfies on their page- we'll let's say I don't miss it.

I retrained my brain to devalue the outsourcing of beauty validation to a bunch of strangers online by posting cute selfies.

-something I was probably taught from seeing so many other beautiful instagram models doing it, which made me think 'oh this is how I use social media, that's what is cool'. But social media can be defined by your own terms. It just takes a bit of self awareness, honesty, and planning. I'm not saying it is wrong to share beautiful selfies- I am just saying to assess your motivations, and be aware of whatever strays from that.

2. Resist the urge to post unimportant things on your story.

One of the best things Instagram ever did for TSIA (Time Spent In App) was copy Snapchats 24 hour story feature. With regular posts, we had to curate what we shared because it was a statement. We selected the best thing to share out of many options, and lot's of rubbish didn't make the cut. That was a problem for instagram- think of all that stuff not being put on instagram and drawing eyeballs! So what do you do when the standards of sharing are too high? You lower the standards.

social media addiction

On stories, there is almost nothing that doesn't make the cut. Stories gave people the previously delusional idea that everything they do is interesting and worth sharing, and that everyone wants to see it. People now use whatever they can as a way to tell the world something about who they are and what they're doing. Today, things that are completely mundane, average, uninteresting, are shared hundreds of millions of times a day. Morning coffee. Driving on a sunny day. Driving on a rainy day. Seeing a random dog. Eating literally anything. Getting dressed. Doing makeup. Cleaning. Reading. 500 million people a day post a story on Instagram, and 99% of it doesn't contribute to anything useful. (no offense)

Do these things really share something unique about you? Do they really make a difference in how people feel about you? Constant posting make us feel that we are winning at a game of self image, but the real winner is the social media company. They know that we eat this stuff up- the opportunity to talk about ourselves. And they know that with all those hundreds of millions of people sharing unimportant things every hour of the day, they can slip in hundreds of millions of ads. Remember who the functions serve. It was not put there to liberate the people from a generations old struggle to share constant cat memes. Before you post something on your story, ask yourself 'does this message truly matter to me, or will it matter to the people who see it? Is this in line with my goals for social media? If no, resist. Eventually, you will get out of the habit of seeing every minute as a photo shoot.

That being said, every now and then you're going to find a hilarious meme or just be feeling a certain picture and want to share it- and that's okay. It's not about restricting yourself past what feels authentic either- just about having honest boundaries for your wellbeing.

"Don't stop expressing yourself, but be reasonable about the time and energy devoted to it. Don't thoughtlessly give up deeper intellectual pursuits or fun times with real world friends for a fleeting Instagram dopamine hit. Don't fall into the trap of working too hard for the insatiable beast that is social media."
"All social media users should be conscious of how much time they devote to less-than-authentic persona building and answering the demands of a real or imagined online audience."
-Guy P. Harrison.

3. Less is more: a strategy for posting in saturated times

social media addiction

99% of what is posted on social media is noise. 99% of posts are not appreciated, are not read, and certainly aren't perceived the way the poster intended. And because so many people are posting meaningless things, we've learned to overlook them in a race to reach the end of the bottomless pit that is social media scrolling. Seeing content isn't even the goal for people anymore. Distracting themselves and escaping reality with immediate, rapid, and constant consumption is the goal.

So how do we stand out in a virtual world full of noise? And how do we make sure our energy investment in social media is most effective?

Two ways. Post less, and post only what is most important or meaningful. If you're the person who posts every single day about regular things, sorry to break it to you but most people are steam scrolling past your photo. You've saturated their feed too much, you've become ordinary. There are hundreds of people your followers follow that are desperately doing the exact same thing. People listen more when you speak less. This is ancient wisdom. So continue to share the things that matter and continue celebrating yourself- but let people miss you a little bit. Don't fill up their cup with the things that are only so-so cool. And when you do share that thing that is meaningful- an accomplishment, a piece of poetry, a skill, or even a selfie, you can bet that more people will listen and engage.

4. Control Your Phone Menu

If you control the menu, you control the choices. The goal is to organize your phone screen in a way that respects your intentions and goals regarding what you want to get out of your screen time. A place that promotes the thoughts and actions we want to have, and discourages the ones we wan't to reduce.

1. Create the ideal home screen

Your home screen should only have tools that you use every day for a function (camera, notes, calendar, maps). In addition, it can have 'aspirational apps', apps that we want to spend more time on (language, meditation, podcasts, etc). All the social media apps should be moved off the first page. We open apps a lot of the time just because we see them there. Do you ever decide you've had enough social media scrolling, exited the app, only to tap it immediately again? That's not from conscious choice. The motion is so engrained that our fingers just do it. Moving them off the home page will help you use the useful functions of your phone without being sidetracked.

2. Go greyscale

Grey is boring. Turning off the bright shiny colors that reward us when we open our phone will make opening the apps less enticing.

3. Charge your phone outside the bedroom

social media addiction tips

80% of social media users check their phones first thing in the morning. This sets up our concerns and thoughts for the day, which can often be negative, and starts us off with already feeling guilty about wasting time as the first thing we do. No bueno. It also plays a big role in damaging the amount and quality of sleep we get. We often set our bedtime alarm and we unconsciously click on Facebook, entering into a half hour commitment to reading things we won't even remember tomorrow. Lots of experts recommend getting a separate alarm clock and charging your phone outside of the bedroom.

Imagine if you just got rid of the scrolling that takes place right away in the morning and right before bed, and nothing else. We're talking weeks of our life spared every year for something better.

4. Use Do Not Disturb mode when working or focusing

Studies show that even having a phone present, in the same room, when it is turned off, still has a draining effect on cognitive function. That is how inseparable to these things we are at the very core. No matter how sad that is, we can do ourselves a great favor by getting it completely out of our focusing space. It is almost impossible for most people to resist stopping what they are doing immediately to check their notifications, or to check *if they got any notifications. Simply keeping it out of sight when we need to focus has a great effect on productivity.


*The knowledge in this series was learned mostly from social media authors and researchers Tristan Harris, Jonathan Haidt, and Guy P. Harrison.

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Author: Gemma Sheehan

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Quintan Barnes
Quintan Barnes
4 days ago

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