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Your Social Media Addiction Isn’t Accidental — Here’s The Proof

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During my last semester at university, I took a course titled “Data, Social Media, and Free Speech”. Our professor made it very clear to us in the beginning of the course itself that we were absolutely not allowed to use our smartphones or laptops throughout the one-and-a-half hours of class time. Yet, to his dismay, he frequently caught students sneaking a peek at their phones, almost as if they couldn’t help but look at those tiny screens, much like drug addicts have absolutely no control over their drug habits.

Recent research shows that on an average, we tap, swipe, type and click on our phones about 2,617 times a day, and the heaviest users touch their phones a whopping 5,427 times a day. Per year, that translates to nearly 1 million touches on an average, and for the less restrained, almost 2 million. This poses the question: When and how did we become so dependent on technology? What is it about social media that makes us keep coming back for more?

The answer lies in what can be identified as the attention economy (aka the attention industry), an economy which monopolises our attention. Our addiction is a direct result of the intention of tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, who build ‘sticky’ products that people can’t stop using, and therefore become profitable.

Think about it. Likes on Facebook or Instagram make you feel better about yourself, urging you to post and update more content in order to gain repeated social validation. Snapchat’s ‘Snapstreaks’ feature was designed to ensure you open and use the app at least once a day, encouraging near-constant communication amongst users, due to the fear of missing out on a ‘snapstreak’. LinkedIn exploits a need for social reciprocity to widen its user base, masquerading as a formal communications network. And even YouTube and Netflix autoplay videos and next episodes, depriving users of a choice on whether or not they want to keep watching, hence creating a generation of ‘binge-watchers’, hooked to their screens, watching an entire season of a TV show in just one day.

But believe it or not, the race to commodify human attention has been on for quite some time now, and possibly emerged during the first World War. As Tim Wu, describes in his book “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads”, back in 1914 when Britain could only mobilise 7,00,000 men to fight the war – as compared to Germany’s 4.5 million – the British Government embarked on a journey to recruit young men to its army with the use of a systematic propaganda. It printed around 50 million big, colourful, eye grabbing posters and plastered them almost everywhere, held rallies and parades, and screened patriotic films on huge film projectors all over the country. The result? Millions of men, convinced by the government’s persuasion and their ‘new-found’ patriotism, marched towards their deaths in what we call the First World War today.

Wu thinks that’s the moment we realised the true power of capturing human attention and hence emerged the “attention merchants”, an industry hell-bent on doing anything and everything to harness the power of human attention. His book tells us the story of the extraordinarily successful attempts by advertisers to occupy more and more of our attention over the past 100 years, drawing our attention to the technologies and platforms that have made it possible for the media to penetrate into our daily lives on such an extreme level over the years. Consequently, it’s no surprise that technologies of our generation such as the smartphone and the internet are using the same approach as the British Propaganda, capturing our attention with new gimmicks every day, making sure we’re hooked to our devices till the last minute in order to generate almost unimaginable profit margins for tech companies.

Interestingly, Justin Rosenstein, a software programmer, has banned himself from using Snapchat and Instagram, restricted his Facebook usage and as a more radical step, made his assistant set up parental controls on his iPhone to prevent him from installing any apps. He is particularly aware of the allure of the concept of “likes”, and the psychology behind it, which he describes as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure which can be as hollow as they are seductive”. After all, Rosenstein was the Facebook engineer who created the ‘Like’ button in the first place.

It seems that even tech giants quickly realised the danger that looms over our heads, as most of them have since then made conscious efforts to curb their social media/gadget usage. Mark Zuckerberg has a team of moderators and employees who control his Facebook feed for him. The most senior executives from Twitter barely ever tweet themselves, one having only sent out four tweets since he joined. Apple’s co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs used to limit how much technology his kids used at home, a practice which even the current CEO Tim Cook follows with his nephew. But what can we do to keep our own usage in check?

To start with, we too should make conscious efforts to limit our internet/smartphone usage. Obviously, it’s easier said than done; the whole concept of addiction has the underlying principle of impulses built into it. So, if you think you’re addicted to your smartphone, or just simply want to reduce its usage, here are some tips you could try to curb that addiction:

  1. As ridiculous as it sounds, set your phone to greyscale. Former Google Designer Tristan Harris believes that “stripping your phone away of its colour can make your phone less enticing”, since “we’re simple animals, excited by bright colours”. Read more about it here.
  2. Turn off your phone’s vibration/notification ringtones. Notifications derail our attention drastically, so if you can, block notifications for all social media apps, or at least the ones you know you can live without getting instant updates from.
  3. Taking it one step further, delete all apps which add no significant value to your life. Do you really need all those apps on your phone? How many of them do you really use? Take a moment to think about it. If you don’t use it, delete it. And if you know your triggers, remove those apps from your home screen, so that you don’t have instant access to them as soon as you unlock your phone.
  4. Most importantly, keep yourself on a schedule. Make a conscious effort to restrict your smartphone usage, whether it’s by setting alarms which allow you to check your phone only when the alarm goes off, by installing an app which tracks and restricts your screen time, or just by your own willpower to stay away from your gadgets, even if it’s only possible during the weekends or while you’re on vacation.

These tech companies aren’t going to give up their endless efforts to make sure you stay addicted to their products, but that doesn’t mean you should remain stuck in the vicious cycle of your addiction. Be smart, recognise the problem, and give yourself a chance at a tech-free life, ridding yourself of the stress and anxiety produced by the constant use of these technologies.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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