Internet Cultured: I’m addicted to social media

I’m going to make a general statement that countless other digitally-focused writers have shared: I’m addicted to my phone and, more specifically, to social media.

I’ve avoided admitting that dependency for a while now. Not because I was ashamed — considering it’s a widespread disease that affects more than 210 million people worldwide — but because I tried convincing myself that I wasn’t. Addicted just felt like too strong of a word, something most would associate with alcoholics or regular drug users. I thought, surely I’m not as bad as them. Surely I find my life valuable beyond my narcissism-driven scrolling habits. Surely, even though I consider social media my profession, my world wouldn’t end without it, right?

These are common internal inquiries shared by young, avid technology users (well, maybe not the last one, but you get the idea). Such concerns are sensible. No one wants to admit their humanity is tied to an inherently inhuman device. Objectively, our phones and social media are simply supposed to be extensions of ourselves, but when we constantly have this technology in our hands, pockets, backpacks and at our bedside tables, the line between extension and essential becomes increasingly blurred.

As a case study, a casual stroll through USC Village reveals how our phones are absolutely interwoven with our everyday lives — checking email, communicating with friends, mobile-ordering food, listening to music, you name it. Though, I imagine most people, if approached, would vigorously defend their digital habits, arguing they could exist independently from their phones if they wanted to. Alright, bet.

I came to the conclusion that I had an addiction when I began closely observing, not how I spent my free time, but rather how I occupied the commercial breaks between my scheduled activities. Many people — myself included— fall prey to checking social media first thing in the morning and last thing before going to sleep (check out Erik Pickersgill’s haunting photo series on this specific phenomenon for a memorable visual), but what about all the other moments in between? Walking to class. Getting bored at work. Waiting to meet friends. Eating food alone. Avoiding eye contact with passersby. These activities all had one thing in common: When I had the opportunity to momentarily unplug, I chose otherwise.

This past week, I decided to test this newfound theory on myself and assess how I felt. On four separate days, especially when I was anxious about the day’s to-do list, the first thing I did in the morning was delete Instagram from my phone. Then, come the evenings on those same four days, I re-downloaded the app to my device.

Between deletion and download, I noticed how frequently I motioned to check Instagram and how impulsive the action itself was. Once I remembered I didn’t have the app, I usually substituted the desire with a different app — namely Twitter or Snapchat, which I honestly don’t even like that much. To some degree, I realized it wasn’t about the app itself but instead the act of scrolling. I would get bored of those apps more quickly than with Instagram, so I was able to get off my phone more and focus better throughout the day. Every once in a while, though, there was a ticking thought in the back of my mind, reminding me of my countdown to when I could download Instagram again. This “reward” at the end of the day always proved temporarily satisfying but overall underwhelming, leaving me to wonder why that moment had such an enticing buildup in the first place. And repeat.

After my diagnosis, I found myself having more conversations with my peers about their social media consumption routines. Since Apple released its screen time feature in 2018, more individuals have been adopting methods to curb their digital intake, considering the average person spends three hours and 15 minutes per day on their phone. Some have placed time limits on certain apps — but, let’s be honest, the restriction is easily bypassed. One of my friends turned their display to black and white and claimed their screen time was cut in half, and many more have reverted to this option to counter our biological tendency toward colorful objects. On the flip side, many social media lovers have chosen to embrace how much time they spend on their phones because of how necessary they are to their livelihoods. For instance, one of my TikTok influencer friends with more than 900,000 followers admitted to spending double digit hours on her phone at times. For myself, I usually fall around the average screen time, so placing my phone in a different room or removing apps usually does the trick.

Whether a user opts in or out of these features, what we’re seeing is a reintroduction of choice with society’s technological habits, which is the real breadwinner in my eyes. Personally, I couldn’t care less if you spend two or 12 hours a day on your phone as long as it is by your will that the deed is done.

When I wrote this column, I did indeed delete Instagram and Snapchat off my phone for the day. Have I already checked Instagram via desktop a couple of times? Maybe, but I suppose old habits die hard. Moving forward, my goal is simply to be mindful of where my attention is going and encourage my readers to do the same. So, if you catch me endlessly scrolling through TikToks in my downtime, please slap my phone out of my hand. Until next time, fellow internet addicts.

Rowan Born is a junior majoring in journalism and law, history and culture. She is also the social media director of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Internet Cultured,” runs every other Monday.