Social media is a slot machine. It’s emotionally addictive. Every time there’s a notification, an impulse manifests to check it. To open it up and see if it’s important. Every time there is a lull in our day, we open up our phones and refresh a social media application.
The acronym FOMO stands for the Fear Of Missing Out. Now that we can stay in contact with everyone at all times of the day, we are suddenly so aware of all the fun things we aren’t apart of. FOMO makes people feel alone and isolated if they spend a night at home, and wake up the next morning to a deluge of Snap Stories chronicling the fun night that all their friends had.
FOMO encourages us to scroll endlessly through our various news feeds. Gazing longingly at the perfectly edited Instagram, or attempting to decrypt your friends most recent tweet. Before the internet caused us all to become hyperconnected, missing out on events was a common occurrence. Now that everything is published to an online platform the second it happens, FOMO is a rampant and very real part of our lives.
To combat FOMO, some resort to endlessly looking at their phone. Every second something new is posted on twitter, these provide a momentary distraction from the emptiness of doing nothing. Nobody can just do nothing anymore. It’s rare to see someone just being. I believe that the rate people look at their phones, is boarding on unhealthy.
Personally, I find myself drawn to my phone. A lot. It’s my connection to my friends, to my job, to my life. It contains my texts, my calendar, my email, my photos, my camera, my audiobooks, my music, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and oh so much more. When it’s all laid out like that, it’s a wonder that there ever is a time when i’m not looking at my phone.
Over the years my relationship with my phone has waxed and waned. There are times when I completely lose myself in my phone, utilizing it to it’s maximum potential. Every part of my life is stored on my phone, and it felt good. Everything is centralized. I had control over all of my accounts, all my interactions, all in one place.
Then all of a sudden, my phone starts leaving a sour after taste. These are the times when I realize I’m relying too heavily on my gizmos and gadgets. I try deleting apps, or changing my wallpaper to the humorous text “Stop looking at your phone and do something”. I was able to keep up these phone fasts for weeks or months on end, but I eventually I fall back into the same routine.
I would catch myself wistfully eyeing my phone as it rests next to me on my desk. My head would snap towards it every now and then, expecting to see the glow of a notification on the screen. My eyes would catch a glimmer in my peripheries and convince my brain that it was a notification and I’d glance in my phones direction, only to realize that my phone was facedown on the table. My brain would compel me to turn it over just to see the lack of notifications. This is why I describe my phone as a slot machine.
A slot machine is one of the largest generators of income for casinos, largely due to the fact that they have such a low payout rate, and that they’re highly addictive. You pull a lever, and get an outcome. The act of pulling the lever, or pushing the button, makes the player feel like they have control. Except that control is exactly what they don’t have. Slot machines are rigged so that they house always wins, and that the user will alway lose. You may receive a monetary payout once in a while, but in the grand scheme of things, you lose.
My phone is a social media slot machine. There are countless applications that are essentially streams of user generated content. That is a slot machine. Between Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Youtube, Imgur, LinkedIn, etc. there has to be some new content you think to yourself as you slide your phone out of your pocket. You open up one app… and you’re lost.
A Facebook post links to a Youtube video that encourages you to check out a Tumblr page that rants about a recent Twitter exchange between mega super stars that reminds you to start listening to their most recent album…. It never ends. Much like the gambler, you find yourself in a twilight zone where time ceases to exist, or even matter for that sake, and the entertainment just never ends. You look up from your phone and realize that 30 minutes have passed, and you’ve done nothing. Thinking back, you can’t even remember what you’ve done. The last half an hour has been lost.
If that was the whole story it would be bad enough, but notifications are an entirely different beast. You’re minding your own business, reading a book or cooking dinner. Your phone buzzes, almost inaudibly on the counter. FOMO takes over, what if that was important? Whatever it is, it’s something for you. You’re currently behind. You’re missing out. Even if you have a shred of will power to resist, the itch persists in the back of your skull. You mull over who you’ve texted recently that hasn’t responded yet. Could it be your parents, checking up on you? What if it’s your significant other… that could be extremely important. It could be an urgent work email, or it could be spam. It could be a celebrity replying to your tweet, or another bot attempting to phish your password. It could be all of those or none of them. The problem is now there’s a red dot on one of your apps and you need to do something about it. That’s an addiction.
Not only are notifications a stimulus that kick start the habit of checking your phone, but the act of checking a notification in and of itself is pulling a lever on yet another slot machine. You’re no longer gambling on if there’s content, but rather on how good the content will be. Is this email from: your boss, loved one, stranger, or is it that news letter that you’ve been desperately trying to unsubscribe from. You’ll never know until you check.
People have quite an interesting selective memory. How common rumors and myths originate illustrates this point. For example, many police officers will assert that more crime happens during a full moon, or midwives will swear that there are more babies delivered during a full moon. It has been proven that neither of these claims hold water, but why do they exist in the first place? It seems that people can’t help but find correlation between events, and do so with ease because they selectively remember only the data points that agree with their mental model. The policeman remembers the nights when he had to deal with a lot of crime, and then looked up and saw a full moon. That was an event, a memorable event. Stopping a lot of crime and then not seeing a moon isn’t an event, it’s normal, it’s forgettable. Thus when the policeman recalls, he can only remember the nights when there was a lot of crime during a full moon. This selective memory of special events is exactly why gambling is such an issue.
A gambler can remember with vivid accuracy all the times that they won big. The hand they had in the poker game, or the pre-game ritual that occurred before a big game. However, all the times that they lost are pushed back, out of the minds eye. Nobody dwells on their losses, but it’s important to remember that they exist.
Tangentially, reading other’s CVs is an intimidating and humbling experience, especially when they are more successful than you. However, a resume is a place to brag, not to divulge failures. You see the successes of famous people, but rarely hear of their set backs, road blocks and failures of epic proportions that ended up steering them towards where they are today. An interested experiment is the anti-resume which highlights all your short comings over the years. It’s a weird thing to publish, but I believe it has it’s importance nonetheless.
Returning to addictive mobile applications, everyone can remember the time they checked their phone and saw a text from their crush. That can vividly stand out in your memory, or seeing a deluge of likes and comments on your most recent Instagram picture. Much like the gambler, all the losses, all the times where the notifications were less than stellar, slip out of mind. There’s no reason to remember them, so we don’t. It’s almost as if they no longer exist.
We remember all the amazing times that social media has given us. We remember the first eye-opening video we watched on youtube. The time a photo garnered a record number of likes. That one time we happened to meet someone through social media and develop an instant connection.
We forget all the flame wars we’ve witnessed in angry comment sections. We forget about the boring youtube videos that we could never finish. We forget all the times that the red dot was just a bot following us on twitter. We put out of mind the days that we completely wasted whilst on our phones. Those moments existed, but are pretty much gone now. Gone from our current decision making process. Not there to stop us from reaching towards our phone.
It may appear that I’m saying there is something wrong with being attached to your phone all the time. There isn’t. Feel free to spend every second every day glued to a screen. Bury yourself in social media, watching your followers fluctuate. I’ve spent many years obsessed with my phone. Since I was effectively raised a luddite (an article for another day), the ability to have everything at my finger tips is addicting.
What I’ve realized, quite recently actually, is how closely my behavior mimicked that of an addict. My reliance on my phone was unhealthy. I used it for everything. I couldn’t fold clothes without first reaching for my phone to put on the right music. I didn’t like it. I wanted a change.
I mentioned before that I’ve previously taken measures to reduce my reliance on my phone, but I’ve always kept the essentials. I’ve always had Facebook and Facebook Messenger. What if someone needs to contact me? What if something happens that I need to be aware of? Since I downloaded Instagram, it hasn’t left my front page. I excused it by admitting my love for beautiful images. I do love beauty and design and gorgeous things, but I refresh it too often. I’ve flirted on and off with Snapchat, having it for a while, and deleting it for another while. Snapchat is the embodiment of FOMO as the Snap Story feature is used exclusively to show off what a wonderful time you’re having with all your friends. I enjoyed it when it was all fun and games but no I don’t want to see the concert / club / cottage / country that you’re currently at. Imgur has always been my guilty pleasure app. It’s literally a never ending stream of funny content, designed to kill time.
I’ve deleted all of them. My phone has no more social media. Facebook, gone. LinkedIn, gone. Snapchat, gone. Messenger, gone. Telegram, gone. Slack, gone. Instagram, gone. Imgur, gone. Strava, gone. Gone gone gone: all the apps that I’ve already forgotten about.
My phone can no longer give me notifications from social media. The only notifications I receive from my mobile now are from texts messages, emails and my calendar. I also disable the email notifications at most hours of the day, which essentially reduces my phone to a device for texting. If someone needs to get a hold of me, they text or call. It’s that simple.
Now that there are no notifications being generated by my phone, the desire to look at it has diminished. Pair that with keeping my phone out of sight, either in a pocket or bag, and I’ve significantly reduced how much I use my phone. I can tell because instead of having to charge my phone throughout the day, it lasts the entire day and is at about 60% when I fall asleep.
Have I missed out on anything important since I’ve made this change? Not at all. I haven’t lost touch with my social media accounts, I simply use my laptop to manage them. This forces the act of checking social media to become a one time event, not a slot machine. It doesn’t allow me to check anything while waiting in public.
My newly found free time is currently being put towards sleeping more, reading more and living more. I’m using Audible to listen to audiobooks while commuting by bicycle. I have a bookshelf of physical books, that I’m working through when I have the time at home. I get to cook more , a task which I’ve taken quite a liking to. Since my job requires me to stare at a screen for hours on end, it’s fitting that I do everything in my power to reduce my screen time when not at work. Although technology is amazing, life happens beyond the screen.