How to stop mindlessly scrolling social media

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Apps play tricks on you to turn an activity into a habit.

Snapchat and Wordle encourage repeat use with “streaks,” or the right to say how many consecutive days you’ve used the apps.

You might feel motivated to take a walk to close your Apple Watch’s digital rings that reward daily physical activity.

To encourage you to keep taking language classes, Duolingo has leaderboards that compare how you stack up against others.

Encouraging healthy behaviors like exercise or wordplay isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But even a good habit can cross the line into compulsive overuse.

Here’s how to recognize when your tech habit might be an unwelcome obsession, and practical steps to take back control.

Conduct a cost-benefit analysis

It’s hard to be clear about why we do what we do. Because of this, we need to do double duty to assess ourselves how features like streaks or leaderboards are helping and hurting us.

“Overall, is the behavior they induce in you contributing to your well-being or detrimental to you?” said Adam Alter, author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked”.

A promise of a “badge” for more training with the Peloton app could motivate you when you might otherwise be feeling lazy, Alter said. But if you’re so motivated by rewards that you ignore signs your body needs a break, then it could be an unhealthy compulsion.

If you’re concerned that a loved one is obsessing over a digital habit, you might find a quiet time to discuss your concerns and how you’ve seen the effects, suggested Anna Lembke, psychiatrist and author of “Dopamine Nation: Finding balance in the age of indulgence.”

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For example, you could tell your friend to disappear into his phone every time you talk.

Build in Cheat Days

Alter said he was compulsive to running 100 miles a month for three years – even jogging on his treadmill late at night and running through injuries. He was forced to retire after a recent illness.

Alter said he felt relief from his enforced break. Doing your favorite pastime with no purpose can be liberating, he said. It can also help to schedule days away from our habits — whether it’s running, reading the news, or scrolling Instagram.

Alter called these scheduled breaks “cheat days,” like a day off from a strict diet.

Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, said that he and his wife were tied to their devices at bedtime and that it ruined their sleep and sex life.

So Eyal bought a cheap gizmo that plugged into an outlet and would automatically turn off his internet router at home at 10pm every night.

Eyal or his wife could have dragged themselves out of bed to turn their WiFi back on. But a little exertion was enough to break her unwanted bedtime scrolling, he said.

(In another hack, this person discussed how to curb the habit of opening TikTok by installing an app that has to wait six seconds before videos play.)

This type of self-deception is not intended for people who have a more serious unhealthy tech habit that resembles drug or alcohol addiction.

Lembke said when treating people with video game or app addictions, she recommends a month’s abstinence. That’s ample time to restart the cycle of reward and pain from a digital addiction that warps our brains.

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A one-month break may not be possible or necessary for your tech habit. Lembke suggested that a day or week off might help.

When you resume this activity, make a specific plan for yourself. If Twitter is a problem for you, you might decide that you’re okay with Facebook but not Twitter. Or you may choose to turn your phone off completely every night at 6 p.m.

Set aside a limited amount of time for your habit

For young people in particular, it can be helpful to plan ahead for activities that might provide a distraction, Eyal said.

Eyal said if your teen knows they can be on YouTube for an hour at 7 p.m., they can relax without worrying about when to use their favorite app.

Eyal said he takes about 10 minutes every Sunday to block time on his weekly schedule for work commitments, family time and activities like reading a book or exercising. So that time is not interrupted, four hours are booked every weekend for “planned spontaneity” with his family.

What about digital timers?

Your iPhone or Android phone tracks how much time you spend on certain apps and allows you to set time limits. TikTok recently added a pop-up notification for teens who spend more than an hour a day on the app.

Lembke said these features aren’t effective at reducing the amount of time we spend on an app habit.

Curbing the overuse of technology can’t just be your responsibility

Lembke said tech companies, schools, social agencies and government all have a responsibility to help reset the norms on technology use.

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“If we just leave it to individuals or parents, that’s crazy. It’s too much for one person,” she said.

Lembke praised schools that have experimented with locking students’ phones so they cannot use them during the school day. She also welcomed government restrictions in some countries that limit the time young people can spend playing video games or using social media apps.

“Society always protects people from themselves,” she said.

Will you lose weight with an Apple Watch or Fitbit? Don’t count on it.

Try using grayscale to make your phone less attractive

There is a new version of the iPhone. It’s yellow. That’s it. (Honestly, my phone is covered in a case and I couldn’t even remember what color my phone was.) Anyway, take our quiz: Is a New Phone Right for You?

It can be too tempting to pick up the phone before bed to glance at email and two hours later you’re still scrolling.

Some research has found that people are happier when they charge their phone somewhere other than the bedroom overnight.

Geoffrey A. Fowler, technology columnist for The Washington Post, bought this pretty $40 box, which he keeps in his office to charge his family’s devices at night.

Like Eyal’s Wi-Fi auto-off, parking your distracting devices outside of your bedroom isn’t a magical cure for tech overuse.

But putting speed bumps in the way of bedtime phone scrolling has worked for Geoff, and it might be helpful for you.

It’s your turn. Tell me what worked for you in breaking a digital habit you didn’t like or how you encouraged your child to do so. Email me at [email protected]