Last summer, I was scandalized when my iPhone’s screen time feature reported that I had spent upwards of eight hours on Instagram in a week.
The iPhone, an impartial accountant, shared these metrics without judgement. Still, I was glad to be confronting my Instagram habit (addiction?) alone in my room. I didn’t know how I could ever justify spending eight hours on Instagram in a week to my friends, my family or a snoopy bystander in a public location.
Yes, my reckoning came in the midst of a global pandemic (yuck), but even the stand-still nature of my life and my hometown’s merciless, record-breakingly rainy summer were poor excuses. Eight hours a week would add up. Annually, at that rate, I would be spending 416 hours, or 17.33 days, or about 4.75 percent of my life on Instagram.
That would be 17.33 days spent scrolling through pictures of people I barely interacted with in high school; skipping through Instagram story after Instagram story just to make the colorful rings around peoples’ profile pictures disappear; and looking at the same memes over and over and over again, because even Instagram’s highly refined algorithms couldn’t produce enough new content to keep up with my consumption habits.
That would be 17.33 days spent sharing information about my personal life, phone usage habits and interests with Facebook every time I like a post, send a direct message or search for a profile. Last December, the Federal Trade Commission sued Facebook for anti-competitive practices, perhaps the latest in what seems like the company’s endless string of scandals. Was this who I wanted to be sharing gobs of information about myself with?
And 17.33 days spent generating ad revenue for the company and Mark Zuckerberg. As of writing, Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth was $106 billion dollars. Clearly, I don’t need to be subsidizing Yuck-erberg’s existence. He’s far richer than I am.
Most importantly, that’s 17.33 days not spent with loved ones or exercising or sleeping or learning or volunteering or doing anything else that brings me greater peace and deeper connection to the world and people around me than scrolling and clicking my way through the app. I’m no economics major, but I think that at some point the marginal cost of my time on Instagram started to outweigh the marginal benefits.
It was time for a course correction. Time for me to fight back against my Instagram addiction. But first, I needed to figure out why I was spending so much time on the app.
Social media developers, I learned, are masters at “gamification” — a variety of design strategies that use elements of basic human psychology to keep bringing you back to their apps and websites. Like most tools, gamification itself isn’t inherently bad. Many apps, for example, use gamification to help users develop important habits like regular exercise. Gamification is used to increase engagement in classrooms and employee productivity (“For a minute there, I almost forgot I’m being paid minimum wage by a distant corporation!”). But gamification can also trap unsuspecting users, like myself, in undesirable habit cycles.
If you’ve enabled Instagram (or Twitter or Pinterest or Facebook) notifications on your phone, that’s gamification. Ding! You have a new friend request. Ding! Your_Crush_1234 liked your post. Ding! Your best friend forever DMed you “lmfao” in response to the meme you sent a few minutes ago. Social media has perfected its dopamine-releasing siren call. You can’t be blamed for thinking that maybe you’ll open the app, just for a second.
Infinite scrolling is kind of cool, right? That’s gamification too. Across the social media gamut, as long as your thumb keeps moving, pretty pictures or funny text posts will just keep appearing. And this makes it just so. darn. easy. to keep scrolling, because you never have to wait for a page to load, and there are no natural stopping points.
Gamification isn’t just luring people in, it’s also eliminating their excuses to leave. Simple designs and relatively consistent layouts between sites keep people hooked by making social media more intuitive to new users. Building your network of friends makes social media exciting to join and, as that network expands, increasingly difficult to withdraw from. After all, you don’t want to lose track of those people you met at an event three years ago and haven’t spoken to since, or miss out on seeing someone’s vacation photos.
You get the gist: Social media sites have become masters at capturing and holding your attention because that’s how they remain competitive and maximize their ad revenue.
This, I think, is a shame. I think of social media as a powerful tool for good, even in its current state. When we post, we post to connect, laugh, teach, inspire and more. But because promoting thoughtful and intentional use isn’t a developer focus, social media platforms have a tendency to leave people feeling worse after spending time on them. I’ve certainly left social media feeling left out, frustrated or confused about where the last hour of my life has gone.
Which brings us back to my eight-hours-on-Instagram week. I, a fledgling adult with very little power over Facebook and its leadership, can’t influence their app design. If Instagram allowed users to toggle off features like infinite scroll and like counts, I would have taken advantage of that. But they don’t, so I had to figure out how to more actively manage my Instagram use.
I started by turning off all Instagram notifications. I unfollowed 200 accounts to declutter my feed. And I pulled up a random number generator on my laptop, wrote down the four digits it gave me, and set that number as my screen time password. Then I wrote the number down in a notebook, and forced myself to forget it. I started with a limit of 15 minutes a day, then weaned myself to five, then three, then two minutes a day. Recently, I decided to give myself just 15 minutes a week on Instagram — five minutes every Wednesday, and 10 every Saturday. I’ve calculated, and 15 minutes a week, 52 weeks a year, only adds up to 13 hours on Instagram annually. That’s… a lot less than 17.33 days.
And it’s going well. I still see posts from the people I care about. When I have a spare minute to peruse my explore page, every meme seems fresh. A quick “hey, can we text instead?” makes DMs easy to respond to, although sometimes I just log into Instagram on my computer if I’d rather respond in the app. Using Instagram on my computer might be cheating, but the Instagram website is so horrible that I’m rarely tempted to stay on it for long.
I could say that I feel more present, more engaged in my life, more confident. But there are plenty of articles like that out there in the digital universe. I’m not so sure that we need another one of those, and if I’m being entirely honest, I can’t remember how I felt one day, 30 days or 90 days into limiting my Instagram use.
But if you’re looking for guidance, the greatest endorsement I can give for limiting your social media use is simple: I don’t think I’m missing out on much. And if that ever changes, well, I’ll let you know.
Interested in learning more about gamification? Check out “Irresistible,” by Adam Alter and “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” by Nir Eyal.
Also, follow my Insta, @leankeenmachine : )
Keenan Miller | firstname.lastname@example.org