Here’s Why You Can’t Stop Scrolling and What You Can Do About It
Subtly Explaining Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning Through Your Use of Social Media
📚 Table of Contents
- A Brief Introduction to You, Yes, You…
- Why This Happens
- What Powers Your Addiction To Your Phone
- Why You Should Care
- What You Can Do To Reduce Your Screen Time
👋 A Brief Introduction to You, Yes You…
It’s 11:48 pm and you have a project that’s due at midnight that you should have started a few hours ago.
Well, I mean, you did start a few hours ago, but now you’re wondering why you’ve haven’t got anything done and how you’re now “deep” into the Tiktok “For You Page,” instead of working.
Even though you know that the scroll is infinite and continuous, you just keep doing it anyways, hoping that you’ll get to the end of it. Oh, now you remember why you’re on Tiktok, it’s all because you ended up giving in to an urge to check Tiktok 25 minutes into your work session, where you said that you’re only going to check it for 5 minutes. Four hours later, and you’re nowhere near done with that project.
The funny part is that this happens to almost everyone else with all of the other social media platforms, eg. Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Twitter, and more. No matter what you try and do to combat this issue, it happens again and again and again. You keep following into the rabbit hole and by the time you realize it, hours have passed. Unless you figure out why this is and actively take action to combat this, this will be a forever struggle. Keep reading to find out why this is, how the tech works, and what you can do to reduce your social media usage along with screen time.
🤔 Why is this?
Simply put, your favourite social media platforms have teams of software engineers implementing advice from psychologists on how to keep you glued to their platforms.
Oftentimes, these apps and websites are designed in a way to pull you towards the platform (i.e. in the form of a notification, or inducing Fear Of Missing Out/FOMO, etc.) and providing you dopamine hits, (i.e. in the form of likes, follows and comments)!
This cycle continues on and on for as long as you use the platform. This rollercoaster effect pulls you even closer to these platforms as you subconsciously look for another shot of dopamine.
Ok, now that you realized that you might have a problem (being addicted to your phone and social media platforms), there are a few more steps before you can truly allow yourself to get out of this.
Let’s start off with what you do on your (smart) phone: communicating with others, consuming content, sharing content, and that’s about it. In fact, the average teenager spends 7 hours and 22 minutes on their phones a day while the average adult spends 3 hours and 30 minutes a day on their phones. Whew, that’s a lot.
Then came along our favourite Mark Zuckerberg, who launched Facemash in 2003 (a “Hot or Not” site for Harvard Students) which later evolved into Facebook, slowly evolving to how we know it today (as a platform with over 2.7 billion active users in 2020).
Soon after, Youtube, Twitter, Linkedin, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat, and Tiktok were born over many years. All of them serving as social media platforms; places where users could share content, and actively participate, in the hopes of going viral (#popular).
As the number of the users on these platforms increased and exponentially grew over time, so did the amount of data that users created while the companies collected it all. Numerous acquisitions, such as the Instagram and WhatsApp buyout, further increased the amount of data individual companies needed to collect, sort through, and process (most importantly had access to).
Take for example: Facebook alone has 5 new petabytes of data generated daily or Youtube, where more than 500 hours of video are uploaded every single minute. That’s astronomical amounts of content and data.
No single human can consume or sort through that many articles, images, and videos. On top of that, storing data is expensive. Time is valuable. Companies are in the business to make money.
So what do they do? They analyze data, design algorithms, create customized feeds, recommendations, and experiences that keep users on their platforms so that these platforms can serve ads that make companies money.
Digital ads spending is at an all-time high ($384 billion industry), and it’s not going to slow in growth any time soon.
📱What Powers Your Addiction To Your Phone
Let’s start with what an algorithm is? Well, here’s Wikipedia’s definition:
In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is a finite sequence of well-defined, computer-implementable instructions, typically to solve a class of problems or to perform a computation. — Wikipedia
Pretty simple, eh? If you didn’t get that, essentially it’s a mathematical and logistical way to solve problems with instructions. Often, these are written in programming languages so that computers can run and execute processes.
Well… what about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning (AI, ML & DL), what’s all that?
Artificial Intelligence is an umbrella term for the concept of machines replicating natural human intelligence, on either a specific task (Artificial Narrow Intelligence) or on a general scale (Artificial General Intelligence).
Some of the headlines and most popular mentions of AI might include OpenAI creating GPT-3 (eg. disguising itself as a Reddit user and going undetected for days), or Google DeepMind where a computer beat the world’s best Go player. Those references might blow your mind right now, but it’s only a sliver of what’s being done, and what’s possible in the future with AI. Artificial Intelligence is huge and simply using the term “AI” doesn’t do the whole subject proper justice.
Going deeper, Machine Learning, however, is the study of computer algorithms that improve iteratively or sometimes automatically over time with experience. Some examples of Machine Learning algorithms include:
- Supervised Learning (Linear & Logistical Regression, Decision Tree, Random Forest, KNN’s and more)
- Unsupervised Learning (Apriori, K-means, Clustering, Anomaly Detection, Neural Networks and more)
- Reinforcement Learning (Markov Decision Process).
Going even deeper, Deep Learning is the application of Artificial Intelligence but one that uses neural networks, which in a way replicate the way our brains learn and function (hence the naming convention).
Essentially, Deep Learning can be used in detecting objects, recognizing speech, translating languages, making decisions, generating personalized recommendations, and more! Oftentimes, Deep Learning Models can learn without the need for human supervision. Examples include:
- Convolutional Neural Networks (CNN’s, used frequently for image recognition)
- Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN’s, used frequently for image/artwork/music/video generation)
- Recurrent Neural Networks (RNN’s), used frequently for Natural Language Processing (NLP), and Speech Recognition)
In layman terms, algorithms can also be thought of as the backbone of all personalized feeds on social media platforms.
Take for example use of the algorithms and Deep Neural Networks that are tasked with coming up with your Youtube Recommendations, Home Page, and “Up Next” videos. Here’s the common consensus on how the algorithm works.
- Input: Initially feeds your input variables into the algorithm (watch history, watch time for previous videos, personal interests, previous engagement to different types of content, relevancy, potentially even political beliefs, and more)
- Processing/Weights and Biases: Looks up and sorts through all of Youtube’s database (video corpus) of existing videos, picks a few hundred of the best candidates and then ranks them by assigning a score to each video that the algorithm could display to you
- Outputs: Displays a list of videos that you are most likely to click on, watch, and lead to you stay on Youtube thus spending more time on the platform. That in turn makes Youtube (Google/Alphabet) more, ahem, money!
Furthermore, here’s a paper and a website (by Facebook) that explains how Facebook uses AI to improve user experience and keep you hooked. Fun fact: it blew my mind! The major services that they provide that leverage (use) machine learning include the (algorithms for) News Feed, Ads, Search, Sigma, Lumos, Facer, Speech Recognition, and Language Translation. That’s not even everything!
Once again, I’m going to repeat this since it’s crucial to remember!
What’s insane is that there are teams of software engineers, psychologists and product managers that devote their lives towards creating, maintaining and optimizing these algorithms to ensure that they keep you on the platform for as long as possible, milking as much money out of you through ads.
Algorithms are oftentimes developed and used alongside Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning techniques.
All of what I’ve talked about so far with algorithms, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning, are all being applied today (to a certain degree) on your favourite social media platforms. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tiktok, Youtube, and even Netflix got you hooked.
💁♂️ Why You Should Care
The list on why you should care is endless and I’m sure you might have some idea. Before I say anything, take a quick pause though, think about why you should care about how you might be spending upwards of 5 hours on your phone daily. Have you thought about it? Yes? Awesome! If not, well that’s on you!
I’ll just rapid-fire some of the negative implications of spending almost 5 hours a day on your phone!
- Lower mental health: Research has shown that there is a strong link between heavy social media use and lower mental health, namely, “increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts.” (HelpGuide.org).
- Lack of Time: We all only have 24 hours in a day (unless you’re magical and live by different standards of the time; if so please hit me up; I want to get to know you). Subtract sleep, your daily commitments (work or school), alongside time for food, and your other activities. However, by using your phone for over 5 hours, you’ve essentially made your day only 19 hours long or less. That leaves almost zero time at all for relaxation, self-reflection, or time to pursue your dreams and aspirations.
- Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO): Being a part of social media platforms also induces huge FOMO, where you constantly feel like you’re missing out on something if you don’t check your phone for the latest tweets, posts, and messages. Even when you do check, you can end up feeling even more left out since all of your friends are posting about their very best moments, and all of their exciting lives, making you feel insecure and inadequate.
- Isolation and Loneliness: On top of everything else, it’s also been found that social media makes us feel incredibly lonely even though we’re more connected than ever.
- Subtracts From Real Life Experiences: Since you don’t have time left due to the amount of time you’re spending on your phone, along with being constantly distracted, you simply don’t live as meaningful of a life (subjective, yes I know, but change my mind)! The world is your oyster and we’re only here for a limited time (for now), it’s time for us to make the most of it!
🛠 What You Can Do To Reduce Your Screen Time
Many strategies exist to help you spend significantly reduce the average daily time that you spend on your phone. Here are some recommended strategies that I’ve found to be personally helpful:
- Track your usage: iPhones and (some) Android devices have built-in features like Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing, respectively, that help you track your usage in time. This allows you to simply be aware and start to be more conscious of how you spend your time. However, if your phone does not have built-in support for usage tracking, you can install apps like StayFree (Android) or ActionDash (Android) to lend you a hand.
- Set Goals: Now that you know how much time you spend on your phone, it’s time to set S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Timely) on what you’ll do to reduce the time spent. I recommend starting with reducing an hour of screen time over the next month and see how that goes! Compare how you feel before and after, and let me know down below in the comments!
- Turn Off Notifications: Notifications are extremely distracting, especially when we’re trying to get work done, which is why I almost have zero notifications for my devices, and instead I schedule timed, 5-minute phone checks every hour. It allows me to deeply concentrate on what I’m working on and makes me feel more present and grounded!
- Delete Distracting Apps: I’ve actually deleted most of my social media apps and only re-download them when I need them, or I simply access it from the browser. When I do redownload, it’s to end up post something. All my communication exists through SMS or messaging web apps via my desktop browser.
- Block Distracting Apps: For those that you that still have to access a few apps for work or to stay in touch with others, I actually recommend simply setting time limits or completely block access with passcodes to remind yourselves to steer clear of them.
- Install Apps To Help You Focus: I’m a heavy user of The Pomodoro Technique or variations of it, depending on the task. Sometimes I’ll set the timer to include 25–90 minutes of focus and paired with 5–10 minutes of break. I end up doing this with an app called Forest (iOS, Android, Chrome Extension) that blocks distracting apps or websites to help me stay on task and track the amount of time I spend on work. Alternatively, you can also use an app called Freedom (iOS, Android, Windows, macOS, and Linux) which is a much more robust version of Forest. I absolutely love and have used both, highly recommend.
- Participate In A Digital Detox: If you’re up for the challenge, you can even completely abstain from using your devices for a set period (24 hours, a week, a month, or even a season if you’re feeling bold)! I highly recommend it, and have even tried this previously with awesome outcomes and results!
- Install Extensions that Remove Feeds: For those of you that use social media apps to stay connected with others during this pandemic, I recommend sticking to use the website versions and installing browser extensions to remove the feeds so you can focus on staying in touch with friends.
- Or my personal favourite: Refuse to charge your phone. Very simple and straight forward. Just refuse to charge your phone and you’ll never use it. Locking your phone away in a brute force fashion works as well!
To sum up, here’s everything that we’ve discussed! We’ve gone over:
- How we often lose ourselves in social media, and how we’re addicted to our phones
- How and why this happens
- The technological backbone that powers our generation’s addiction to technology
- Why we should care that we’re spending almost 7 hours on average on our phones
- Techniques and action items that you can apply to get out of that loop
This was super long to read and if you got to the very bottom, I thank you very much! Your support means so much to me!
👋 About Me!
Hey, hello! My name is Kevin Liu, a 15-year old Innovator at The Knowledge Society in Toronto (a human accelerator dedicated to helping high school students develop the skills, network and mindset to solve the world’s biggest problems). I write articles, make videos, record podcast episodes, work on developing my legendary skillset and more!
My mission is to impact millions if not billions in the years to come in the industries of healthcare, education, and climate change, through the use of emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Self Driving Cars, Gene Editing, Cellular Agriculture, Quantum Computing, and more!
If you’d like to follow my work, please check out some of the links I have here!
Until next time… make sure that you keep that screen time to a devastatingly low amount. I’ll be watching! 😉