Think about the last time you picked up your phone and opened social media. Can you remember what your goal was? Were you trying to reply to a text message or an email? Check your Instagram notifications? If you can’t remember any reason at all, that’s OK. For most people who use social media regularly, scrolling through news feeds and opening social media apps unconsciously is pretty normal.
It’s also part of the reason why hearing statistics about screen time can be surprising. According to a 2020 study from Vision Direct, the average adult in the United States spends 17 hours a day looking at screens. Nope, that’s not a typo.
As someone who makes part of my income from social media partnerships and affiliate sales, Instagram (and social media as a whole) is not only part of my day-to-day screen time, but also my job. This makes it all too easy to scroll for hours, comparing not only my life to the lives of others, but also my partnerships, following, and engagement. Though I’ve accepted (and often joy) that being on social media is part of my job, I hated feeling powerless to this mindless, compulsive scrolling.
If the habit of logging on without understanding quite why sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone — and there’s actually a scientific explanation for it. According to behavioral scientist Susan Weinschenk, scrolling is actually a “seeking” behavior, and what people are usually seeking is a dopamine spike. “With every photo you scroll through… you are feeding the loop which just makes you want more,” Weinschenk wrote in a 2018 article for Psychology Today.
Toward the end of 2020, I found myself trying to “feed the loop” more and more. I would sign on Instagram to post a piece of sponsored content or to go through my messages — and then I simply wouldn’t close the app. It was a cycle that left me feeling like I’d just wasted valuable time that I could have used to do something else.
I didn’t want to stop using social media altogether — and given that it’s a core component of my job, that isn’t really an option — but I wanted to use it intentionally.
First, I assessed my relationship with social media:
I like to think I have a healthy respect for social media, which has both positive and negative aspects. I appreciate that platforms such as Instagram and Twitter have brought me friends, career opportunities, and valuable perspectives from strangers that I may never have known otherwise.
Though freelance writing takes up most of my days, I also make a portion of my income from brand sponsorships and affiliate sales on my personal Instagram account. I enjoy this type of work, but it also makes it easy for the line between healthy social media consumption and compulsive social media consumption to blur. And from my firsthand experience, the dual privilege of having a following on a platform like Instagram and making money from it has led me to think differently about the content I might want to produce and the time I spend scrolling through my feed.
Over time, I’ve found that I open up my Instagram app compulsively, but it’s harder to check out from posting, commenting, and liking. Personally, I have good days and bad days when it comes to the social media-induced comparison cycle that many people (influencers included) are used to — the one that makes comparing your life and career to strangers’ on the internet all too easy. The worst type of days, though, are the ones when I can feel myself scrolling and consuming content in a way that feels both mindless and unnecessary.
So as I entered the new year, I created some new social media goals for myself that, for the first time in a long time, had nothing to do with follower counts or affiliate sales. Instead, they were all about intention. Here’s what worked for me, and why it cut my screen time almost in half.
Goal 1: Stop Using My Phone in Bed
Before I stopped using my phone in bed (a goal that conveniently coincided with my commitment to a new bedtime routine), I would spend hours wasting time on Instagram or Reddit before I’d go to sleep. I’d tell myself I’d watch Reels for a few minutes and before I knew it, a couple hours had passed. Not only did this affect the quality of my sleep, but it also meant that my phone was right next to me when I woke up in the morning, which often led to me starting my day with 45 minutes of mindless scrolling, too.
Goal 2: Create Social Time Blocks
As part of my goal to be more thoughtful about how I spent time on social media, I decided to create what I dubbed “social blocks.” Twice a day, I would set a timer on my phone for 30 minutes. I often write a reminder to have the blocks into my daily to-do list like anything else: Journal, exercise, a.m. social media block, lunch, p.m. social media block, etc.
And when it is time to open my apps, I focus on how I spend my time on social media. Whether I’m posting sponsored content, engaging with other accounts I admire, or just scrolling, I let myself be fully engaged in social media for those 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, I either allow myself to extend the timer if I feel like I need to, or put my phone out of reach (or on airplane mode).
At first, I thought that one total hour of social media per day wouldn’t be nearly enough to accomplish everything I felt like I had to do. Once I started doing the experiment, though, I realized that it was plenty of time — too much, even. The difference was that, for the first time, I wasn’t on social media and writing a story and making lunch and having a conversation and shopping online. I was focused and engaged.
Here’s the truth of it: It’s way too easy to spend hours on an app like Instagram while simultaneously doing anything else in your life. They’re designed that way! But when I set my sights on my two goals, I realized that I was much less likely to respond to my DMs, comments, and any other messages in between all my other work. I found that saving them for specific times a day helped me focus more on replies, and I started spending more time being thoughtful about how I interacted with other people’s content. I felt more inspired by what I was seeing in my feed, and more empowered to unfollow the accounts that weren’t inspiring me.
Within a week, my screen time had fallen 20 percent. Eventually, it went down as much as 40 percent from what it was before I started setting social timers. I was getting more work done in less time, and I felt more present in relationships than ever. Even better, I felt more content than I had in years, and being intentional about how I spent time on social media boosted my confidence.
This isn’t to say I wouldn’t log on Instagram without even realizing it — it’s a hard habit to break! Eventually, knowing that I had a social block later in the day helped me curb my impulse to scroll for too long, or to quickly reply to direct messages in a spare moment. Instead, I’d remind myself that there’s a time for that, and that that time was not right now.
I still struggle to stick to the timer rule, but I find comfort in knowing that the habit is there. I go back to it when I need to reset, refocus, or find myself falling into the deep, dark social media comparison spiral. I still find myself “feeding the loop” every now and then, but I also know now that I can break the cycle, and that makes all the difference.