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My addiction: how to detox from social media

My addiction: how to detox from social media

I have a confession to make. I have a smartphone addiction.

Here it is in a picture. I titled it: The shape of addiction.

social media addiction

The shape of addiction

I have been using an app that monitors how I use my smartphone. In particular, the chart above shows me how long each session lasted in the timespan of a week.

If I use the YouTube app for 25 minutes, this session will appear in the 20โ€“30min bar.

You don’t need a magnifying glass to notice that the chart is monstrously unbalanced: most of the sessions (1666!) last less than a minute. It means opening and closing an app in a few instants.

I’m not ruling out that there are legitimate cases for such short sessions, but I’m sure most of them result from my addiction.

I often find myself grabbing my smartphone, unlocking it, opening Twitter, Instagram, or Telegram, and closing them after a couple of seconds. Moreover, given the frequency of this behavior, I will rarely find anything new to see. Yet I check them (almost?) compulsively.

the social dilemma

That social media create addiction is not a new discovery. However, Netflix recently released a documentary about the topic: The Social Dilemma.

Watching it inspired me to reflect on how I use my smartphone and write something. This article is the result. ๐Ÿ‘€

Why it is an issue

You could be look at the chart above, read my explanation, and still think:

So what? I behave the same way. What’s the issue?

Thanks for asking, my friend. Let’s see.

Effects on mental health

Social media expose us to an artificial world where it’s easy to compare yourself to others and feel you’re not good enough. But what we find on social media is not an accurate representation of reality.

Every piece of content tells only part of the story: what the author wanted to show. We don’t share anxieties, fears, problems, or the face we have when we wake up. We share successes, trips, moments of joy, and when we feel at our best.

As if that weren’t enough, a lot of content is edited to look better than it is.

When it comes to our life, instead, we see it in its entirety, always. Trips, successes, and bright moments, but also (and mainly) every shadow, failure, and mistake, without filters or editing.

When we look at other people’s lives through the lens of social media, we see a distorted version that doesn’t represent reality. It’s like looking at the promotional picture on a box of snacks: it seems perfect, but it only vaguely resembles the actual content.

Reality vs expectations

Reality vs expectations

I’m saying nothing new. We know that this is the way things are. But, instinctively, we continue comparing our lives to fake realities of which we see only the best bits.

Wasted time

As I said in another post, we often think we don’t have enough time, not because we actually have no time but because we waste it on non-priorities. Being on social media is an activity we’d hardly define a priority, but that becomes a time-sucking black hole.

Instead, every notification from a social media app represents the priority of that app, i.e., the company that owns it. How come products like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube are worth billions of dollars if we don’t pay to use them?

It’s simple: we do pay them, but not with money. We pay with time and attention. Two scarce and precious resources, now more than ever before. Choosing to spend (consciously or not) 3, 4, 5 hours a day this way means stealing them from the rest of our life.

Lower productivity

Wasting attention on social media doesn’t only mean wasting time.

The more you get distracted, and the easier it becomes to continue getting distracted. We’re less and less able to focus and stay focused for long periods. And that’s maybe one of the most relevant abilities nowadays, given that more and more people are knowledge workers.

Instead of staying focused, we compulsively check our smartphones. Instead of devoting ourselves to what we’re doing, we glance, again and again, at our phones to see if there’s anything new. Maybe a like, maybe a comment, maybe a message. Maybe any notification whatsoever. โฃ๏ธ

And the more we behave this way, the more our productivity drops: it becomes increasingly harder to carry out knowledge work (and doing it well).

Our little heads are not made for multitasking. Every time we divide our attention, we lose some. When you change your focus, your brain is forced to switch context.

Context switching is not for free because going back to the level of focus you had before takes time. The more you were focused, the more time you’ll need to get back to that state.

Goodbye, productivity.

The next time you’re about to reach out to get your phone, stop for a moment and think about what you’re feeling. Observe that instinct that pushes you to look for your phone. That unconscious habit. That instinctive, internal, visceral desire.

Stop for a few seconds and ask yourself if you think it’s acceptable to feel this compulsion for your smartphone.

The funny (“funny”) thing is that all of this happens not only when you want to be productive but also when you want to relax. We can’t even fully enjoy entertainment. I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie, from start to finish, without checking my phone.

Damage to real social relationships

While social networks help us stay in contact even when it’d be physically difficult or impossible, they’re also replacing social interactions that are possible.

Why make an effort to meet when you can open Facebook to communicate, or even just spy on what others do?

We created digital relationships that we use in place of real ones. But they’re not equivalent. We evolved in an environment where relationships were always physical, and our emotional needs stem from that.

As if that wasn’t enough, even when physical interaction survives, it’s still affected by the addiction.

Think about those times when you were with your friends, family, partner, colleagues, and you stopped for a second to notice that everyone was silent, absorbed by their smartphone.

Just as an example, Tim Kendall is one of the people interviewed in The Social Dilemma. He was Director of Monetization for Facebook and President of Pinterest, so not really a naive outsider.

Kendall admits he was a victim of the product of his work, even though he knew what was happening behind the scenes. He still developed an addiction that sucked him in even when he should’ve been spending time with his family.

Why do we become addicted to social media?

Quick answer: because that’s what they’re designed for.

Social media platforms are gold mines โ€” for the owners, not the users โ€” because they are addicting. And them being addicting hasn’t happened randomly, like alcohol or cocaine. Coca leaves were not designed to induce people to take drugs repeatedly.

It’s different when we talk about multibillion dollars companies with highly qualified employees that are paid for finding ways to keep you on the platform.

Social media are engineered to be what they are. They didn’t grow in nature on a tree near a brook among sunflowers and butterflies. ๐ŸŒป๐Ÿฆ‹

Every time a new feature is developed, the user interface is modified, or anything affecting user experience is changed, the effects of the change are measured. Are the users spending more time on the platform? Do they click more often on ads?

To answer these questions and decide whether to keep the change, companies run experiments called A/B tests.

In an A/B test, you divide the population (the users) into two groups: A and B, also known as control and treatment. Group A keeps seeing the app as it was, while group B sees the change.

You keep this setting alive for a period of data gathering. Then you analyze the data to see whether the change has had a positive impact or not.

A/B test

An A/B test

If Instagram decides to start showing you posts by profiles you don’t follow, it runs an A/B test to understand if this change goes towards its goals or not.

The users in group A will see no change: they will keep seeing only posts by profiles they follow. At the same time, the users in group B will start finding, in their feed, posts by profiles they don’t follow.

Through this experiment on real users, Instagram will evaluate scientifically if users in group B stayed more on the platform on average.

Note: this kind of experimentation is not unique of social media platforms, but you can expect it from any tech company that can run A/B tests. Even from the very Netflix that brings The Social Dilemma to your screen.

Getting clean

Fighting the addiction and getting clean means gaining hours, attention, and well-being. It means to regain the ability to consciously choose what to do with your time rather than squandering it without noticing. It means to relearn to direct your focus where you need: when studying, working, in relationships with others, and even in leisure.

Maybe you don’t think you need a clean-up; you don’t think you’re addicted. Few think so.

Often there is an illusion of being in control. Many alcoholics also say so. But there is a difference: the alcoholic must fight against a non-sentient substance, while you have to fight against multibillion-dollar companies that pay their engineers handsomely to keep you on their platforms.

I wonder who is more likely to win this battle. ๐Ÿค”

Think about Tim Kendall mentioned above. He was a victim even though he knew both the companies and the techniques they employed better than almost every other user.

Gaining awareness

As they often say, to solve a problem, you first need to realize you have it. If you’re still not sure about your behavior, you can analyze some data and get an idea of how you use your smartphone.

On Android, you can use Digital Wellbeing or Action Dash. I have installed both. The screenshot at the start of this post comes from Action Dash.

On iOS, you can use Screen Time, a feature you can find in your device’s settings.

These apps show data about your habits, e.g.:

  • The usage time per app and in total
  • The number of notifications per app and in total
  • The number of times the device is unlocked

Having a look at these metrics helps you understand the impact your smartphone has on your life.


After you realize you need to change the situation, you can decide how and how much. There are different levels of intervention.

Discouraging use

Enabling grayscale mode

It’s helpful if you want to detach from your smartphone at a specific time at night. A screen with no colors is much less attractive.

I use Digital Wellbeing to automatically turn the screen to black and white every day from 11:30PM to 7:00AM.

Hiding the icons

Is the Instagram app on your homepage just one tap away? Add some friction: throw it far away.

On iOS, you can move apps into the App Library. On Android, some launchers (like the one I use) allow you to completely hide them.

Logging out

Similar to the previous point, logging out helps by adding friction. If you need to log in every time you open Twitter, you’ll have the time to think about what you’re doing, and it’ll be easier to break the habit.

If you do, remember to disable the quick login many of these apps have (who knows why they have itโ€ฆ who knows!).

Temporary limits

Limits to the apps

The same apps to check how you use your smartphone (Digital Wellbeing, Action Dash, Screen Time) allow you to set usage limits. For example, I put a limit of 15 minutes a day for Instagram and Twitter.

Limits when focusing

Another strategy I use is setting a timer when I don’t want to touch the smartphone. If I’m working or studying, I want to stay focused on what I need to do, not get distracted over and over.

You can use any regular timer, but there are also ready-made apps. I use Forest. I plant a virtual tree that grows if I don’t use the phone and withers otherwise. Also, I throw my phone where I can’t see it: out of sight, out of mind.

forest app

One of my little forests



Take a break. At least once in a while. Uninstall that app and take a week, two weeks, a month off.

Don’t be scared. Nothing bad is going to happen; your FOMO is unjustified.

I recommended it for the news, and it’s the same for social media.


Final stage: desertion. I don’t think there’s much to explain here.

I ditched Facebook about 76000 years ago, and I miss it as much as I miss the cold weather of Turin’s winter: absolute zero.

I don’t even understand why people still use it: it just seems like an enormous pile of garbage.

Going forward

Summing up: I’m not suggesting becoming hermits and living without social media, smartphones, and technology. I’m the first to love technology. The invitation is to start reflecting on the relationship we entertain with it.

In theory, it should be a tool serving us and helping us do what we want to do. And, in large part, it is. However, a tool is a tool only when you control it, not the other way around.

It’s time to take back the helm.

Some months after this article, I decided to quit social media. I talked about it in an issue of my newsletter: My detox.