There’s No Nicotine in Social Media, So Why are You Puffing so Hard?

Who wrote this?

We are in the business of relaxing people who are tense and providing a pick-up for people who are bored or depressed. The human needs that our product fills will not go away. Thus, the only real threat to our business is that society will find other means of satisfying those needs.

If your first thought was that it might be quote from someone like Mark Zuckerberg or the guy or gal who invented Google, well, you’re not far off the mark. That snippet was actually pulled from a 1970s internal memo from tobacco company Philip Morris.

Is there really a similarity here? Well, you won’t find an Instagram patch at your local drugstore, but a number of people these days are batting around the idea that social media and cigarettes share a number of dopamine-to-your-brain addictive qualities in common. In fact, USA Today recently published an article titled: Why quitting tech and social media is harder than quitting cigarettes.

That article examined the struggle of several people to unplug from the habit-forming “matrix” of their smartphones, even just for a short period of time, and just how tough those attempts were. And the people at the core of the article aren’t simply a gaggle of oddballs, either. Social media can plant its hooks in anybody.

Researchers from the University of Vienna recently gathered together some volunteers to see how difficult it might be for them to set aside their apps and platforms for just a week. The study revealed that the participants exhibited some interesting withdrawal-like symptoms. For me, some of the most telling numbers weren’t even directly part of the study. For instance, of the 1,000 people invited to set aside their phones—again just for a couple days—only 15% of that group even wanted to attempt the week-long breakaway. And of those that did brave the ordeal, almost 60% of them “cheated” and slipped back in for a few surreptitious app-puffs during the test period.

If you do a quick Google search for “quit social media,” you’ll turn up reports from a lot of people who found that setting aside their online connections to be surprisingly unsettling. And whatever their reason for putting Facebook et al aside (during a break-up, an extended overseas trip, a social media fast, etc.) the writers posted some very similar reactions.

First, they found it very awkward to explain to friends why they unplugged. Some friends would even take the separation as a personal affront. Second, the quitters would go through a panic stage, where they’d feel like they were missing out on really vital stuff. They’d even find their hands subconsciously groping for their phone and their fingers automatically flipping to where their favorite apps used to be with a muscle-memory twitch. In a third stage, they’d slip into a boredom phase where their brains were screaming that there was absolutely nothing to do.

But given a little time, just about every blogger and article writer I read also admitted that when they went off social media, they had more actual conversations and face-to-face interactions with people; their productivity went through the roof; they gained a fresh awareness of the physical world around them  (Hey, there’s a mountain over there!); and they received a mental health boost (unplugging from a constant stream of negative comments, online trolls and toxic political commentary can do wonders).

Now, I’m not suggesting that social media is a horrible thing or that everyone needs to run quickly to the nearest exit. But, if the very idea of not looking at your phone for the next hour or so sends a surge of anxiety through your system, or the concept of accidentally leaving your phone at home makes you gasp as if you were being buried alive, well, you might want to take some baby steps to ween things back a bit.

I watched a YouTube video of a young woman who said she accidentally dropped her phone in the pool and was without it for a day-and-a-half, and subsequently, her body began to involuntarily spasm and vibrate. She realized then that she had a problem, so she began unplugging for a series of three-hour periods for her own sense of mental health. Ironically, she made a YouTube video chronicling her first three-hour ordeal: it looked painful, but ultimately rewarding.

And you could give a short separation a try, too. Who knows what new mountains you might see.