Sugar and social media

For the last one (or is it two?) weeks, I’ve been off all social media. For the last three weeks or so, until a friend baked a wonderful brownie on Wednesday, I was off sugars as well. And I find that my mind reacts similarly to sugar and to social media.

Essentially, the more frequently I’ve been consuming them, the more receptive my mind is to them. I’ve written this in the context of twitter recently – having been largely off Twitter for the last one month or so, I started enjoying my weekly logins less and less with time. Without regular use of the platform, there was no sense of belonging. When you were missing most of the things on the platform anyway, there was no fear of missing out.

So when I logged in to twitter two weekends back, I’d logged out within ten minutes. I haven’t logged in since (though this has since been coopted into a wider social media blackout).

It is similar with sugar. I’d written something similar to this eleven years back, though not to the same effect. Back then again (in the middle of what has been my greatest ever weight loss episode) I ran a consistent calorie deficit for two months, being strictly off sugars and fatty foods. After two months, when I tasted some sweets, I found myself facing a sugar high, and then being unable to have more sugars.

While I got back to sugars soon after that (massive weight loss having been achieved), I’ve periodically gone on and off them. I’m currently in an “off” period, though I’ve periodically “cheated”. And each time I’ve cheated I’ve felt the same as I did when I logged in to twitter – wondered what the big deal with sugar is and why I bother eating it at all.

Last Sunday it was my father-in-law’s birthday, and I broke my “no sugar” rule to eat a piece of his birthday cake. I couldn’t go beyond one piece, though. It was a mixture of disgust with myself and “what’s the big deal with this?” that I felt. It was a similar story on Tuesday, when I similarly couldn’t go beyond one piece of my daughter’s birthday cake (to be fair, it was excessively sweet).

On Wednesday, though, that changed. My friend’s brownie was delicious, and I ended up bingeing on it. And having consumed that much sugar, I continued thulping sugars for the next two days. It took some enormous willpower yesterday morning to get myself off sugars once again.

With social media that is similar. Whenever I go off it, as long as my visits back are short, I fail to get excited by it. However, every time I go beyond a threshold (maybe two hours of twitter in a stretch?) I’m addicted once again.

This may not sound like two many data points, but the moral of this story that I would like to draw is that social media is like sugar. Treat your social media consumption like you treat your consumption of sugar. At least if you’re like me, they affect your mind in the same way.

Tautological Claims

Sometimes the media can’t easily reason on what led to something that they consider to be negative. In such cases they resort to tautologies. One version of this was seen in the late 2000s, during the Global Financial Crisis. The crisis “was caused by greed”, claimed many a story. “It is because of the greed of a handful of bankers that we have to suffer”, they said.

Fast forward ten to twelve years later, and the global financial crisis is behind us (though many economies aren’t yet doing as well as they were before that crisis). The big problem that a lot of people are facing is addiction – to their smartphones, to apps, to social media, and so on. Once again, media at large seems to have been unable to reason effectively on why this addiction is happening. And so once again, they are resulting in “tautologies”.

“Apps are engineered so that you engage more with them”, they say. If you ask the product manager in charge of the app, you will find out that his metric is to increase user engagement, and make sure people spend more time on the app. “Apps use psychological tools to make you spend more time on them”, the outlets write, as if that is a bad thing.

However, if you are an overstretched product manager hard-pressed to increase engagement, there is no surprise that you would use every possible method – logical and psychological, to do so. And if that means relying on psychological research that talks about how to increase addiction, so be it!

It is tautological that social media companies “want to increase engagement” or “want to increase the amount of time people spend on the platforms”, and that they will try to achieve these goals. So when media agencies talk about these goals as something to be scared about, it’s like they’re bullshitting – there’s absolutely no information that is being added in such headlines.

It is similar to how a decade and a bit ago the same media decided to blame a fundamental human tendency – greed – for the financial crisis.

Social Media Addiction

Two months back I completely went off social media. I deleted the instagram app from my phone and logged out of Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook on my computer. I needed a detox. And I found myself far more focussed and happier after I did that. And I started writing more here.

My first month off social media was strict. No social media under any circumstance. This was necessary to get rid of the addiction. Then, since I came back from the Maldives trip, I’ve been logging into various social media accounts on and off (about once a day on average) just to see if there are any messages and to browse a bit.

I only do it from my computer, and at a time when I’m not fully working. And as soon as the session is over I make sure I log out immediately. So the instinctive adrenaline-seeking opening of social media tabs is met by a login screen, which is friction, and I close the tab. So far so good.

In my infrequent returns to social media I’ve found that the most “harmless” are LinkedIn and Facebook (it might help that I don’t follow anyone on the latter, and if I want to check out what’s happening in someone’s life I need to explicitly go to their profile rather than them appearing on my timeline). LinkedIn is inane. Two or three posts will tell you it’s a waste of time, and I quickly log out. Facebook is again nothing spectacular.

Twitter is occasionally interesting, and I end up scrolling for a fair bit. For the most part I’m looking for interesting articles rather than look at twitter arguments and fights. I’m convinced ┬áthat twitter statements and arguments don’t add much value – they’re most likely ill thought out. Instead a link to a longer form piece leads me to better fleshed out arguments, whether I like it or not.

Mostly after a little bit of twitter scrolling, I find enough pieces of outrage, or news/political stuff that I get tired and log out. It’s only when I really need an adrenaline rush and don’t mind people cribbing that I stay on twitter for a bit of a long time (over five minutes).

Instagram, on the other hand, is like smoking cigarettes. When I smoked my first cigarette in 2004 I felt weak in the knees and a sort of high. It was in my final year of college, so I’d had enough friends tell me that cigarette smoking is addictive. And my first cigarette told my why exactly it was addictive.

So I made a policy decision at that moment that I’d limit myself to a total of one cigarette a year. I’ve probably averaged half a cigarette a year since then. My last one was in 2016.

Instagram is really addictive. It’s full of pictures, and if you avoid the really whiny accounts there is little negativity or politics. People make an effort to look nice, and take nice pictures, for instagram. So there is a lot of beauty in there. And if I choose to, especially when I’m logging in after a long time, I can keep at it for hours.

Instead I need to be conscious that it’s addictive (like my one cigarette a year rule), and pull myself away and force myself to log out. This also means that while I open twitter about once a day, Instagram is less than once a week.

I wonder what this means about the sustainability of social networks!