Are you ready to hibernate, socially?

One of my favourite mental health tips relates to disconnecting. Not necessarily from people, although we will have our moments, but from our devices.

As a therapist in Seoul as well as lecturer and speaker on mental health topics, I have had the opportunity to share with diverse clients and audiences various tips relevant to psychotherapy, counseling, and self-care. When I get to the last portion, I often remark how I have avoided for over ten years having a data plan (a claim I could proudly make until very recently) - and this was almost always met with gasps of disbelief. I imagine to many, scrolling through social media feeds is an easy and “fun” way to spend time while waiting for a commute on a crowded Seoul subway line or when pretending to look busy when with others or alone.

“Fun”, you notice. Quotation marks. Well, pause and take a moment to think about whether the experience of scrolling through your feeds has truly given you happiness and joy.

Even though social media has been linked to dopamine, generally known as our happy hormone, it is not a direct correlation that the name may mislead you into concluding. The relationship is not more social media, more happiness.

Dopamine is one of the contributing factors behind addictive behaviours. The craving for a sugar rush*, drugs, and alcohol. Very simply summarised, these substances trigger the release of dopamine, which gives a sense of pleasure. The hedonistic experience from the use of these substances promotes us to pursue the substance again, in order to re-experience the pleasure, and this encourages the initial steps toward a cycle of addiction.

*Not coincidentally, sugar has been suggested to contribute to recurrent depression.

Social media can be added to this list of substances. Social media platforms have been well-devised with a variable or random reinforcement schedule to keep users wanting. One of the most influential of behavioural psychologists B. F. Skinner** discovered that a random reinforcement or a variable interval schedule of reward (versus a consistent reward scheme) keeps people persisting. The random pattern means that people are unable to forecast when the reward would arrive, so they keep going until they receive a reward. A clear example of this is gambling behaviour, like with slot machines. Unpredictable rewards keep people going.

**For those interested in learning more from the man himself, Skinner’s original 1957 paper is available here.

Rewards off social media are similarly unpredictable. We will not know who, if any, will like our Facebook post. When we post something on social media, we keep waiting for the reward: a like, a reaction, or an affirmative comment. We keep checking in to see if more people have liked our post since 3 minutes ago. When we see a like, we get a temporary rush but that fades quickly, and we realise we need more. We return to checking in again, and again, and again, to see if more rewards have come in. When we don’t see a like, likewise (pun intended), we return to checking in again, and again, determined to keep checking until our behaviour is rewarded.

The intermittent, random pattern of virtual rewards keeps us hooked on that social media outlet and it is difficult for us to cease the behaviour, since we cannot easily figure out when the rewards will stop. Who knows, someone could like my photo tomorrow night. And how would I find that out if I didn’t check...

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Start a social media detox.

In my previous post, the negative impact of smartphones on our concentration and task performance was mentioned. That and inoculating ourselves against social media addiction are excellent reasons to start a social media hibernation. Beyond these two points lies yet another convincingly persuasive mental health reason.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced depression as the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, with an estimated 300 million people afflicted. According to their numbers, in 2015, 1.9 million people (4.1% of the population) in South Korea reported a depressive disorder.

Articles often draw attention to the link between social media and mental health. The Harvard Business Review shares how Facebook use is negatively associated with overall well-being, while Forbes summarises empirical findings suggesting the positive association between social media usage and depression in young adults. On top of this, the term Facebook depression has been created to connote the kind of depression brought about by Facebook usage.

Before we continue on this topic, there is no better way to test this out than to try it yourself. Set aside a few hours - or a few days, for those up for a challenge - and disconnect from your favourite social media platforms. Note how you spend that time instead and how your internal experience is like during that period. When you log-in again after that stipulated period, again, note how you feel inside. What emotions do you sense? What is your body telling you? Do you feel relief or tightness?

You are the best gauge of how you feel.

If this little experiment is too brief, extend the time frame.

If this challenge is too simple, watch this space. In celebration of the Australian Psychological Society’s Psychology Week 2017, more updates on why social media use is linked to depression, in addition to self-care tidbits on how to thrive in this digital age (the present Psychology Week theme) will be posted.

Until then, why not challenge yourself to see how long you can remain on a social media cleanse?

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