Chief strategy officer Brad Berens digs into social media addiction, why it’s hard to break free, and where there are hopeful signs.


By Brad Berens

I keep a list of nagging questions like, “why can’t Google organize all my different video services (HBO, Starz, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc.) so I can browse through all of my viewing options at the same time?”

The obvious answer is that Google wants users to watch movies on YouTube and subscribe to its YouTube Red or YouTube TV services, so the company’s explicit mission — “Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” — blinks in the face of possible revenue.

A more urgent question from my list concerns social media: why can’t I block Facebook (or Twitter or Instagram…) for a set amount of time at the service level, rather than have to log out of each service across all my devices and hope that I have the willpower not to log back in?

I confess that I’m easily distracted. While anything online can be a distraction, for me social media is crack to the rest of the web’s chardonnay.

And I’m not alone.

A service called Freedom purports to help people become more productive by blocking distracting sites and services across all their devices. To use it, one must subscribe to the service for $6.99 per month (or get a whopping discount at $29 per year) and then install the software in every device that provides acute distraction.

Freedom is flexible: the sports-obsessed might choose to block ESPN while the social media addicted might block Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the like. The Freedom user can schedule times that the alluring services are open or shut, making it difficult to, say, check one’s Facebook status just one more time before buckling down to work on something like, oh, a biweekly column.

Freedom is an exercise in irony across two dimensions. First, it’s ironic that 650,000 people feel the need to pay money in order to stop themselves from logging onto websites and services that are by and large free.

Second, Freedom will really only work for info addicts who live alone.

I’m fortunate enough to be married and to live with my wife and children: each of us has at least two internet-connected devices — a laptop and a smartphone — and there are old computers and tablets lying around the house in a kind of electronic elephant’s graveyard.

If I’m truly battling digital catnip (get thee behind me, Facebook!), and I’ve installed Freedom on my desktop computer, laptop, tablet and smartphone, then the challenge is that there are at least nine other devices within easy reach that function as express lanes to Distractionville. Even if I installed Freedom on every device in the house, I can’t block my entire family’s access to social media just to preserve my own productivity.

Let’s take a step back to my original question: why doesn’t Facebook itself make it possible for users to click one button in order to pause their access to Facebook (or Twitter, et cetera) in order to get things done? That would be the ethical thing to do, but, as the brouhaha about Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 U.S. election has revealed, Facebook is first and foremost interested in making money from its users activities, not their health, well being, or happiness.


With OOOIO, instead of gorging on ephemeral social media at all times, people might decide that — just as it isn’t healthy to eat McDonald’s for every meal — it’s important to pay attention to our information and media diet. . .even though French Fries sure are yummy.


Tristan Harris, a design ethicist, has famously observed that what many users consider a simple exercise in self-control is in reality an epic mismatch:

The ‘I don’t have enough willpower’ conversation misses the fact that there are 1,000 people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down the self-regulation that you have.

Some possible good news?

Despite the power imbalance in the war for our attention, both our work at the Center and other research shows hopeful signs. We see gradual but steady increases in the percentage of Americans who feel ignored because of other people’s technology use, which means that people are aware and annoyed that they’re being ignored.

Likewise, the existence of services like Freedom as well as numberless articles and books about mindfulness and information overload suggest that people have a growing awareness that long Facebook sessions aren’t time well spent. Finally, Nielsen’s recent numbers show a slow but steady decline in time-spent per user on Facebook.

The always-on quality of social media gave rise to FOMO, or “fear of missing out,” where anxious users couldn’t stop checking social media to see what was happening. Today, I think we are seeing the birth of OOOIO, or “opting out of information overload” (I pronounce it “oy-oh”).

With OOOIO, instead of reflexively checking social media every time an empty moment arrives, people might choose to sit in stillness because boredom really isn’t that bad (it’s also where most good ideas come from).

With OOOIO, instead of having a smartphone on the table or desk in front of you at all times, people might realize that this is a brain drain and put it away for a while.

With OOOIO, instead of gorging on ephemeral social media at all times, people might decide that — just as it isn’t healthy to eat McDonald’s for every meal — it’s important to pay attention to our information and media diet. . .even though French Fries sure are yummy.

The trick with OOOIO is that it has to be premeditated: once you fall into a Facebook trance it’s hard to climb out. It’s better not to start in the first place.



Brad Berens is the Center’s Chief Strategy Officer.




See all columns from the Center.

May 16, 2018