Technology and Your Mental Health

Personal Technology

How do we lessen social media’s grip? Geoffrey A. Fowler talks to psychologists and neuroscientists who recommend techniques for coping

Mindlessly checking Facebook makes you an awful lot like a lab rat.

You probably remember the rat that habitually presses a lever hoping for a pellet. It’s never sure when a reward will come, so it’s compelled to just keep pressing. When you check your phone, your brain gets its own little zing: Someone might be talking about you on Facebook! No? Reload. Maybe Donald Trump tweeted again! Reload. Maybe your Instagram got a heart! Reload. Reload. Reload.

But you’re no rat. Human brains are able to ignore rewards and resist the clever ways apps hijack our brains, if we learn a few coping skills.

Are Facebook or Twitter “addictions”? Though the emerging scientific research on social media doesn’t agree on that term, the evidence that we aren’t coping well is on display at dinner tables where everyone is staring at screens—and even at crosswalks, where distracted pedestrians walk into traffic. Don’t just blame the millennials. A new Nielsen study found Americans age 35 to 49 spend nearly seven hours a week on social media, more than younger generations.

I became mindful of my bad habits in the early morning. Pre-coffee, half awake, I’d be lying there for an hour with my phone, getting sucked into the President Trump vortex on Facebook. So I called up psychologists, brain scientists and app designers studying our behaviors for advice on what would actually help me pull back from the brink.

Surprisingly, they didn’t recommend a cold-turkey digital detox. That might make you more anxious and could even cause you to miss something of genuine importance. What you need are skills to manage social media as a part of your life.

Limit the Triggers

Our brains are wired to “voraciously feed on information,” says University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, co-author of the 2016 book “The Distracted Mind.” So why let social media companies decide when they should tempt you? Turn off app notifications on your phone and computer, particularly ones for live video broadcasts, whose see-it-while-you-can alerts are designed to engender a fear of missing out.

To further stem the temptations, try what I call the digital Paleo Diet: Do serious work only on tech that was available before the year 2000. Make your main work devices completely off-limits to social media so distractions aren’t even possible. Don’t log into Facebook or even install the app. (For extra help, try the News Feed Eradicator for Facebook browser plugin.)

Hide your phone when you’re working, driving or doing important socializing. Studies have shown even the presence of a phone, on silent, can cause poor academic performance or less-meaningful face-to-face interaction.

Avoid Distraction Quicksand

When you’re on Twitter or Facebook, it’s easy to read one article, then another, then another. Nir Eyal, author of the 2014 book “Hooked”: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” and a consultant to app makers, says he forbids himself to read anything right away. Instead, he saves articles to a service called Pocket, which reads them aloud while he’s at the gym.

We do ourselves a disservice when we use social media as a break from serious work, says Dr. Gazzaley. Our brains need a chance to just be empty. Research suggests the best way to help your brain focus is exercise, even for a short period. Just staring into space would be better than refreshing Facebook.

Set Boundaries

If social media causes you to ignore loved ones at the dinner table, or even in the bedroom, you need to establish times when social media is off limits. Setting rules is also important for parents, says Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California. “You want your kids to learn the same skills that you want to learn yourself, which is to use [social media] in a way that is healthy and beneficial,” she says.

Tech can help if you find it too easy to ignore those rules. Some of the newest Wi-Fi routers have parental controls that allow you to limit internet access on certain devices. Website and app blockers such as Freedom, SelfControl or Unplugged on phones might also do the trick.

If you’re able to set aside just a single block of time each day, or each week, to catch up on social media, let your friends know you’re making a change. Then they won’t take offense when you don’t respond right away.

Make New Norms

Not that long ago, it would be a fireable offense to visibly ignore a meeting or class; now, many openly scroll away on phones or laptops. Bosses could set a better work culture by providing charging stations at meetings where everyone could leave their phones, then focus on the discussion at hand. Comedy clubs and some other public venues are doing the same, with check-in stations or sealed bags for phones.

Mr. Eyal suggests you could also try shaming friends who have bad habits—if you do it politely. If someone is ignoring you at dinner, say, “Is everything OK?” The answer might start an important conversation.

Tech Should Help

The social-media industry has a responsibility here, too. Since companies usually know exactly how much time users spend on their apps, Mr. Eyal makes the modest proposal that they reach out to offer help to people who demonstrate problem behavior.

And for the rest of us, let’s encourage app makers that support a philosophy called Time Well Spent, created in part by former Google designer Tristan Harris. It says app makers should make interfaces more helpful, not more demanding of our time.

This much is clear: In an economy dependent on extracting more and more of our attention, we’re the ones who lose.

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at geoffrey.fowler@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications Nir Eyal is the author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” and a consultant to app makers. An earlier version of this article misspelled his name. (Feb. 1, 2017