In the battle for our attention against Facebook and Google, the answer is mindfulness

Think back to pre-pandemic times. Imagine being in the food court of a mall, or in a Starbucks, or at the kind of restaurant that invites you to rip peanuts out of their shells and discard those shells on the floor while waiting for your food. As of late, we’re more likely to see these settings featured in movies than in-person. However, the movies and TV shows usually get one detail wrong about these public spaces of food-adjacent socialization. Watch a movie or TV show, and you’ll notice that phones only seem to be used by background characters to do phone things of yesteryear, such as “calling.” Characters that aren’t “calling” friends are busy having inaudible conversations, or a character by themself may be using their phone to text. Snap back to reality, though, and you’ll find these same sorts of places feature a lot less inaudible conversation, and a lot more people and children staring at their personal Internet-equipped devices, seemingly unaware of all that exists around them. Yes, that’s right, I just used a whole paragraph to make the boomer observation that “these young folks are just so glued to their phones these days.” Although I would like to point out that, “these days,” it’s not just “young folks.” In 2019, Pew Research surveyed that, of the 96% of American adults who own cell phones, 81% own a smartphone. In adults ages 18-29, the smartphone-owning percentage was up to 96%.

Smartphone use is not inherently bad, and I am certainly guilty of being, at times, more interested in what my screen has to show me than what is outside, or who is across the table. As a society, though, collectively, we don’t like the idea of being addicted to our smartphones. Now and then, when we wake up for a moment, and look around, we may feel a bit sad, having come back from being lost in our phones, only to see that everyone else is still so distant. Scrolling through Instagram, while perhaps enjoyable, is so far from being present. When we spend too much time being entertained by what our screen has to offer, we feel empty, and yet, we get worse and worse at turning away, because, in order to harvest more of our data and keep us engaged, apps such as Facebook and services such as Google must get better at hooking us and keeping us in their realm of surveillance. All in all, our inability to do what is best for ourselves is no match to the ability of Silicon Valley to keep us coming back, and so, we succumb.

I was born in 2000, and have had a smartphone since I could drive. I have had a Facebook account, an Instagram account, a Twitter handle or two, a Tumblr, a Snapchat account, and a few other social media profiles that have faded into the abyss of social media companies that tried too hard. Due to the purposefully addicting nature of social media, I have wrestled with phone addiction, and I continue to. I have gone back and forth on having social media accounts, and currently, I have no Twitter or Snapchat, and my Facebook and Instagram accounts are both disabled. This is an option Mark Zuckerberg prefers because it makes it practically inevitable that I will one day return as a user, because my history of posts will forever stay buried just below the surface. When my Facebook account was still active, I unfriended everyone, in an effort to take away its addictive power (successful), and on Instagram, I unfollowed everyone but a close friend (unsuccessful). The reason I stayed on at all was usually in order to use the messaging platform to chat with folks whose number I didn’t have. When I still had Snapchat, I appreciated the ability to easily send high quality photo messages, because, as an Android user, photos don’t usually send well on SMS. Now that I am not a user of any social media, (unless you count YouTube,) I barely think of them, and it’s blissful. Honestly, if you go without them for just a few days, you’ll probably forget they exist. In their absence, though, other things always fill their place.

If a person is aware of their phone addiction long enough, they’ll realize at some point that it is not a battle against social media, but a battle against the mind’s desire for dopamine. I say this because if you delete social media, you will not, in most cases, gain that time to read about Surveillance Capitalism, discuss physics with an 8-year-old, or memorize the names of every country. In the absence of social media, your brain will quickly find something else to satisfy its constant thirst for dopamine. For me, this has materialized in as silly of obsessions as checking the weather app on my phone more often than could ever be necessary, checking my email, or, more relatably, checking the news. Our brain teaches us to do these things because every time we see some novel bit of information, we get dopamine, and the more interesting or surprising the information is, the more dopamine we receive. Over time, when it comes to phone addiction, our brain prioritizes use of apps that deliver more consistently engaging information in an infinitely scrollable format, such as Facebook or Instagram, and places more chat-based platforms, such as Snapchat, in a lower priority category. For our own wellbeing, it is perhaps only necessary to know this, and learn how to subvert it (hint: delete the apps). For the wellbeing of society, though, and for purposes of activism, it is essential to note that these things are the way they are because the CEOs and monetization departments of these companies have made them this way, on purpose. They want us to be addicted, and they are winning, and our collective addiction to their services makes up the vast majority of their success and, thus, wealth.

The more I wrestle with phone addiction, the more I am convinced that the only real cure is mindfulness. In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thích Nhất Hạnh writes, “Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women.” In the same way, though on a smaller scale, it is clear that, even if we delete every social media account we have, the roots of our addiction will stay, and other things will quickly fill the void. In order to do away with phone addiction, we must practice looking deeper into ourselves; we must be with our addiction. If you do this enough, you will likely arrive at something of an answer: we don’t like being bored, and, moreso, we don’t like being alone with our own thoughts.

In the 1990 book Peace is Every Step, Thích Nhất Hạnh writes about the human desire to escape one’s self. “We feel that there is a vacuum in us, and we don’t want to confront it. We don’t like being so busy, but every time we have a spare moment, we are afraid of being alone with ourselves, we want to escape. Either we turn on the television, pick up the telephone, read a novel, go out with a friend, or take the car and go somewhere. Our civilization teaches us to act this way and provides us with many things we can use to lose touch with ourselves. Wherever we go, our self will be with us. We cannot escape.” In 1990, there was no way Thay could have predicted where the widespread use of smartphones would be taking us thirty years later, though he has written a bit about technology since then.

If you want to become un-addicted to social media, delete your accounts. After this, though, take steps to become more comfortable being alone with yourself. When you are confronted with the necessity of waiting, resist the urge to pull out your phone. In a restaurant, in a waiting room, or in the restroom, it is perfectly fine to sit, doing nothing. When you are confronted with silence, resist the urge to fill it with music, or a podcast, or an audiobook, at least some portion of the time. When you are confronted with the presence of strangers or people you don’t enjoy being around, resist the urge to interact with others online, or check the news.

Our ability to resist addiction to our phones has a direct correlation with our willingness to be bored—to be alone with ourselves—and our ability to practice mindfulness—to be aware when we are simply running, metaphorically, from ourselves. Only once we have this willingness and this ability will we have any chance of winning the battle against Silicon Valley in the fight for our attention.

Here are inspirational resources that may help, sorted by accessibility.

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