Our phone vibrates with a Twitter notification and we do a stealth check even though we’re in a business meeting. Our heart speeds up at the sight of three new ‘likes’ on our latest Facebook status. We can’t get through the first course of our dinner without Instagramming our plate.

Are we addicted to social media?

Certainly some of our behaviour resembles addiction, and many of us would acknowledge that it would be hard to get through the day without connecting. But is this necessarily problematic? After all, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms are useful business and promotion tools, they’re fun, and they help people reconnect and stay in touch.

When and how does it become an addiction?

In a recent Télé-Québec appearance, Dr. Joe Flanders, director of the Numinus Clinic, joined several experts to discuss social media addiction. According to the experts, excessive social media use veers toward addiction when it begins to interfere with functioning–at work, in relationships, and in other activities. That is, if your Facebook habits get you into trouble with your boss, and your partner is upset because you can’t get through breakfast without Instagram, there’s a problem.

Brain imaging research clearly demonstrates that the areas of the brain involved with rewards light up when an individual with a gambling problem is presented with an image of a casino, or a long-time smoker is presented with an image of a cigarette. Dr. Flanders suspects that, for avid social media users, the same areas of the brain would respond to an image of an iPhone with a little red Facebook notification. What’s more, he added, social media notifications occur on what psychologists call an ‘intermittent reinforcement schedule.’ Intermittent reinforcement means that you never know when you’ll be rewarded with a comment or a ‘like.’ This random reinforcement is more powerful than consistent reward–and keeps us coming back.

Mindfulness and Social Media

Mindfulness is a great tool for managing social media use. Here are some tips:

1) Set aside a specific and limited time. We’ve all had the experience of arriving at the office and thinking, “I’ll just check Facebook for a second before starting work,” and then getting lost for an hour, commenting on photos and status updates. Planning times to connect and times to disconnect can help us gain back our time. For example, resolve to set aside 30 minutes after supper to post all of your Instagram photos from that day, rather than posting as you go along. Decide that 8 to 9pm is your Twitter hour, after which you’ll disconnect.

2) Notice whether or not you’re checking in with social media on purpose or simply out of boredom or habit.
Do you actually want or need to know what’s happening on Facebook, or are you just at loose ends or avoiding your work? Whereas conscious and intentional social media use can connect us with others and enrich our lives, mindless use can disconnect us from ourselves, from each other, and from the present moment. Before checking in, ask yourself whether or not using this particular moment for social media is consistent with your values, your priorities, and your intentions for the day.

3) Notice whether or not your impulse to connect on social media corresponds with emotional cues. In a recent Conan O’Brien appearance, comedian Louis C. K. hilariously hypothesized that we use social media to avoid the discomfort that arises when we’re alone, feeling down, or aren’t busy. Many of us are uncomfortable with the void, and we connect to relieve the discomfort. When Louis C. K. suggested that we “need to build the ability to be [ourselves] and not be doing something. To just sit there… when the emptiness creeps in…” he was describing mindfulness. As he put it, “That’s being a person.”

Louis C.K. went on to describe an episode of sadness that “hit him like a truck.” Sounding like a mindfulness guru, the comedian recounted how, when he met the sadness with openness and acceptance, the sadness moved through him and was replaced by a profound happiness. His point: When we fear and refuse to feel unpleasant emotion, we get stuck in a semi-present avoidance state–which prevents us from living fully and from experiencing pure positive emotions. We miss out on the happiness and equanimity that develops when we’re willing to experience whatever arises, good or bad. Next time you feel the urge to Tweet or Instagram, take a second to tune in to how you’re doing emotionally. Are you sad, angry, frustrated, or jealous? Can you–even just for a minute–sit with the experience, by yourself? What happens?

4) Use the same technology you use for social media to help you be more mindful. Numerous websites and apps to support mindfulness practice have been developed. Try programming your computer to ring a bell once an hour to remind you to take a few mindful breaths, or downloading a brief guided meditation onto your phone.

Mindfulness doesn’t mean avoiding social media. It simply means avoiding automatic and habitual social media use, and making wise and conscious choices about when and how to use it.