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Is Social Media Holding You Back?

In our super-connected world, it can actually be a little tricky to maintain a healthy relationship with social media. Here you can assess your social media habits to make sure they're where they should be--and not taking over your life.

Health and fitness coach Susan Jensen’s new book, College Basic Training, is a “be-good-to-your-body guide for young women in college or going off to college,” but anyone can benefit from taking a more thoughtful approach to their physical, mental, even social health. Case in point: social media. In our super-connected world, it can actually be a little tricky to maintain a healthy relationship with social media and our “friends” within and outside it. Luckily, Susan shared the chapter from her book dealing with this subject with us. So take a read below to see if your social media habits are where they should be—and not taking over your life.

Are you constantly looking for that next photo you can post on Instagram? Is that tray of sushi too beautiful not to show your Snapchat friends? What about that steaming mocha latte? Who wouldn’t “like” that?

Once the photo is up, are you obsessed with seeing how many “likes” you have? After it’s been up for a while, are you worried about what people might think of your post—the one you once thought was too perfect not to share?

When you are at a family dinner or a meeting where you know it’s not okay to have your phone out, does feeling it buzz in your pocket make you anxious? Does it take all the willpower you have not to look at the phone screen? Or, when you don’t have your phone on you, do you feel a phantom buzz?

How often do you totally miss parts of conversation or even noteworthy material from a school lecture because you’re texting a friend or checking that Snapchat you just got? Are you perhaps guilty of shopping online during class?

Have you ever bumped into someone while you were walking and texting? Do you hang out with your phone all night? Do you check it when you wake up at 4:00 am? Or do you wake up at 4:00 am because someone else is calling you with unnecessary drama? Are your negative tweets not really messages to the world but underlying communication to a specific person you’re mad at? 

I know this was a long laundry list of questions, and I also know not all students are that deep into social media. However, you may not even realize where you stand on the media-obsessed continuum, and it can have some serious negative consequences. That’s why I strongly suggest you look at your habits closely and ask yourself these questions:

  • How much time in a day do I spend with unproductive social media?
  • Does social media cause me anxiety?
  • Do I miss segments of conversation because my phone distracts me?
  • Is it causing me to ignore my friends and family?
  • When I’m trying to study or focus, is it getting in the way of my concentration?
  • Is it feeding my procrastination?
  • Am I using it for the wrong reasons?
  • Is it affecting my sleep?
  • When I am driving, am I compelled to look at my phone or constantly change the song from my play list?

Social media can be very stimulating, exciting, and irresistible! Media addiction is not too dissimilar from drug and alcohol addiction. Some of us have a difficult time resisting things that make us feel good, no matter what the long-term consequences. For example, some people are able to have a couple of drinks or refrain from alcohol completely when it’s necessary, but others feel the need to continuously sip on something regardless of their responsibilities. Can you put your phone away for extended periods of time when you study, or are you compelled to have it on and near you at all hours of the day and night?

Anthony Wagner, coauthor of a study done at Stanford University, states, “Each time we get a message or text, our dopamine reward circuits probably get activated, since the desire for social connection is so wired into us.” Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical, so it’s no wonder we can’t stop Instagramming!

But here’s the problem: you’re not wired to be a multitasker. The idea that people, especially women, can be good at multitasking is basically a myth. The truth is no matter how good you think you are at doing two things with the same part of your brain at the same time, some information will go missing! Research shows that students who are interrupted by media technology while studying aren’t taking in the class material nearly as effectively as they could. The constant interruption causes the information received to become spotty or fragmented and not stored in the memory as deeply. Material recall is worse, and it is difficult to transfer the information to other contexts. Mistakes increase because the brain has to regroup and pick up where it left off before the interruption.

I’ll never forget the story a student told me about missing a very important presentation due to a brief distraction:

After learning a life lesson about bad attendance last semester, I was finally diligent about attending my entrepreneur class all this semester. In this class our grade was to be based on one project, which we worked on for two months. It included a final oral presentation.

We concocted a business idea, and I helped pound out a detailed business plan. I personally put in long hours creating our website and Twitter account. We then carried out the duties of our creative service, which we were proud to share.

Our big day finally came; I had stayed up all night to finish the last details of this important presentation and was exhausted. Business leaders from all over the community were coming to hear our ideas and determine if we might be worthy employees for their internship programs or businesses.

 I was going to nail this! I struggled to find the most appropriate business attire and even put the iron to the shirt on my own! I was ready, so I thought. I walked into the lecture hall and saw my group finishing up our presentation.

It turns out that I missed a minor detail in class: we were scheduled to present one hour before the class period usually started! I turned white as a ghost and felt faint. WTF! My heart sank. I had let my whole team down and embarrassed myself in front of the most influential business leaders in the city. My instructor just shook his head at me, making the situation more horrifying! Needless to say, my grade sucked in a class that I had put the most time into. I tend to learn a lot of things the hard way. I now realize that when I am in class I need to be “present” both mentally and physically.

Dr. Larry Rosen, author and researcher of media distraction in our culture, has written a book called iDisorder (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). He defines iDisorder as “changes to your brain's ability to process information and your ability to relate to the world due to your daily use of media and technology resulting in signs and symptoms of psychological disorders—such as stress, sleeplessness, and a compulsive need to check in with all of your technology.”

Dr. Rosen describes studies that display how quickly students begin losing focus in the classroom. Other windows open on nearby computers often distract students. Many answer texts and check social media sites throughout the class period. “We found that students who glanced at their Facebook page just once during a 15-minute study period performed worse than those who never looked at that page, and students who had more windows open on their computer lost more focus on their studying.”

This observation may not be Earth-shattering news to you, but my point here is I want you to become aware of how much you might compromise your learning with media distraction. Socializing is important. However, a more productive way to include your fun with social media is to award yourself a certain amount of time for this after you have studied or read for a specific number of minutes.

For example, you might tell yourself, “I’m going to read and take notes on Chapter One and then take a 10-minute break to check my emails and texts.” (And actually time the break!) Or you may tell yourself, “I am going to turn my phone off for two hours and knock off all of my homework before I check anything else on my phone or computer that is not related to my assignment.”

Experiment with boundaries you set for yourself. If you are going to study, you might as well get more bang for your buck­—n­ot only by doing the work but also by retaining the information with as much focus and brainpower as possible. Besides, you will get it done in half the time! Save the multitasking for later. Looking at YouTube videos and texting at the same time won’t hurt you in the long run, but texting and trying to listen to a class lecture at the same time will!

Have you experienced “phantom vibrations syndrome,” the feeling that your cell phone is vibrating when it really isn’t? Some researchers have indicated that this phenomenon could be the result of anxiety experienced by those who aren’t able to check their phones regularly.

Other studies indicate that heavy cell phone and computer use is linked to increased stress, trouble sleeping, and depression as well. However, the most tragic social media epidemic is distracted driving. According to Distraction.gov, “10% of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash,” and “an estimated 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that one second of distraction can literally make the difference between life and death.

Don’t be selfish. Whenever you are tempted to text or search for the perfect song on your phone, think again! In fact, put your phone on the back seat. Finish up your communication before you start the engine. If you need to make a call, pull over to a safe parking lot. Pick your music before you back up out of the driveway and settle for whatever song comes on next! Keep both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. No song or text is worth an injury or a life.

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