On Social Media

The Wellness Diaries – Part 3

It can happen as often as several times a day.

I see my kids ensnared by their phones when they should be paying attention to something else, and I conclude that social media is an evil beast with no redeeming features.

Then, one of them does something cool.

This time, it was Kobi, at breakfast. He strolled out of his room, on the verge of being late for school, looking down at his phone the entire time that he prepared a bowl of cereal. I felt my blood pressure slowly rise.

Then Rachel tossed him a banana. Eat this, she said, it’s nutritious.

He examined the banana, flipped it over with the stem pointing down, gave the bottom a little pinch, and smoothly peeled the banana from bottom to top.

Now, bananas are a pretty common fruit, but in my 50-some-odd years around them, I had honestly never seen anyone do that before.

Why did you peel the banana that way? I asked.

Because it smooshes the end less than the other way, he explained. It’s true, it did.

And where did you learn that? I asked.

TikTok, he said.

Of course.

Let’s start with the basics: social media is an addictive behavior which stimulates the mesolimbic, dopaminergic reward system – the lizard brain.

This is a very ancient and powerful system that is extremely hard to resist. If you were to think of your smartphone as a leech-like parasite that latches on and sucks up your attention while keeping you paralyzed with little hits of dopamine, you would be close to the truth.

As with most such behaviors it helps to think in terms of two criteria: harm done, and opportunity cost.

As far as harm done, the studies are surprisingly mixed.

While the evidence seems to point to an increased rate of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and other mental health evils – especially among adolescent girls – it is mostly circumstantial evidence, based on correlations and associations, not proven cause and effect.

When it comes to opportunity cost, the calculus appears a little more clear-cut.

As most people know from their own empiric experience – and definitely if they have kids – almost any use of time, other than criminal activity, feels like a better use than social media, effectively turning opportunity cost into a priori fact.

Still, when thinking about social media, it behooves us not to fall into the “things were better in my day!” trap.

As others have pointed out, before the advent of social media television was the new evil; before television it was comic books; all the way back to Socrates.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates criticizes writing as a fad that is inferior to spoken dialogue and verbal discourse. Only a simpleton, he maintained, would trust his thoughts to writing, which destroys memory and weakens the mind.

It may help to see social media as analogous to another industry that has spent billions of dollars figuring out how to addict the masses for astronomical profits – junk food.

As a prescriptive tool, the analogy can work like this: First, recognize that these are addictive foods with little nutritional value, just as social media is an addictive behavior with little social value.

Second, try to indulge in these foods only as a treat and only after a regular healthful meal, just as you should try to indulge in social media only as a treat and only after a more beneficial activity like school, sports, work, or reading.

Third, periodically cut these foods out completely in order to detox your body, just as you should periodically go on a social media-free diet to detox your mind.

Easier said than done in both cases, I know.

Social media is also subject to something called a network effect, whereby members of a group who do not indulge are nevertheless affected by the behavior of those who do.

Imagine a group of girls at a sleep-over interacting with each other in real life. Now imagine that all except one pull out their phones and go on snapchat. The one without a phone is hardly better off – if anything she will feel the most lonely and left out.

As a general rule when counseling parents, I like to focus on increasing the positives more than reducing the negatives.

With social media, the idea is to fill the day with as many beneficial activities as humanly possible. These may include sports, arts, reading, or even having a dog, using time that would otherwise be spent online.

A side benefit, if you are lucky, is that your child may develop a real enthusiasm for one of these activities. That means a big chunk of the remaining screen time will be devoted to learning tips and tricks on TikTok and YouTube – dog training videos, for example, or soccer clips – a great use of the internet.

Sometimes restricting and banning is the only solution.

Arguably the most insidious thing about our phones is the way they weasel their way into beneficial activities, encroaching upon and corrupting them. A great example that I recently read about is real-time sports gambling, a diabolical scheme to separate you from your money while drawing your attention away from the field and toward your little screen.

The dinner table is another great example of how we allow phones to steal our attention from the here and now. In this case, the adults are at least as guilty as the kids.

Last week we were at a dinner party in Israel. Later, Rachel pointed out that we, the Americans, were the only ones with our phones out. If this is a cultural difference, it’s one that we should learn from: if you want to be where you are, put away your phone.

I am guided here by two basic principles, moderation and incrementalism.

Moderation is an ancient virtue, dating back to Aristotle, Buddha and Maimonides. One application is to accept that social media is here to stay, and strive to tame the beast, not to kill it.

This principle can also be applied directly to social media itself, as a generally benign phenomenon, but malignant at the extremes: overuse is a red flag, but certain limited exposures can do outsize damage – violent pornography, anorexia, and suicide sites are three extreme examples.

Incrementalism is more of a practical strategy for any lifestyle change: to reduce social media start low, go slow, and set up the environment so that you are swimming with, not against the current.

The key is to be patient, persistent, and alert to silver linings – like the pleasant surprise of how to peel a banana.

Dr. Bertie Bregman
Dr. Bertie Bregman
Full Stack Family Medicine is a newsletter about what it’s really like to practice medicine and run a medical practice in New York City.
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