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The Smartphone Withdrawal Effect

Understand this phenomenon before you try to use your phone less. Its lessons can help you get over any bad habit.

The Smartphone Withdrawal Effect


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Last week, I appeared on the Fox News show Jesse Watters Primetime to discuss the impacts of smartphones and social media. My appearance was timed to the Kids Online Safety Act. Here’s the clip.

Catch up quick on what’s happening with social media regulation:

  • The Kids Online Safety Act is a bill introduced in the US Senate.
  • It aims to protect minors from the harms of social media.
  • The bill has bipartisan support. It led to a rare Kumbaya moment with senators. Politicians who generally agree on nothing are … agreeing on something!
  • Last Wednesday (1/31), Senators dragged the leaders of Meta/Facebook, X, TikTok, Discord, and Snap to DC and pressured them to take action. The Senators went HARD.

You can read the full bill here, but here are its highlights. The bill would:

  • Limit people’s ability to communicate with minors.
  • Limit the features that result in compulsive use of social media platforms.
  • Limit minors from sharing their geolocation.
  • Include options to easily delete apps or limit time on them.
  • Give parents the ability to monitor kids’ social media.
  • Make overprotection on the apps the default setting.
  • Force social media companies to release reports detailing immediate and foreseeable harms to minors and how they’re preventing those harms.
  • Fund the National Academy of Sciences to conduct at least five comprehensive studies on the risks and harms to minors who use social media.

One argument tech CEOs make time and time again when they’re pulled into hearings is that social media doesn’t cause mental health issues in young people.

Today’s post examines why it does. To understand this, we need to understand a wild phenomenon with smartphone and social media use.

Let’s call it “the withdrawal effect.” It applies to smartphone and social media overuse—and many other behaviors we overdo at the expense of our health and sanity.

Today, we’ll dive into the science of social media/smartphones and mental health—and what the withdrawal effect can tell us about quitting any bad habit.

Does social media cause issues in young people?

In short

New data strongly suggests social media causes mental health issues. These issues likely also impact adults, but to a lesser extent.

The details

Politicians drag social media executives up to Capitol Hill every year or two.

The executives run the same playbook every time. They argue there isn’t a causal link between social media and mental health issues.

  • I.e., Social media use is only correlated with the rise in mental health issues in young people.
  • They’re basically saying “yes, mental health issues among young people are rising. But you can’t prove that we’re at fault. There could be other factors causing the rise. So you can’t regulate us.”

For example, Zuckerberg, in his opening statement, said:

“The existing body of scientific work has not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health outcomes.”

He says the same thing every hearing. And he may have been correct in some of his past hearings. But he doesn’t seem to be anymore.

The NYU Scholar Jon Haidt wrote a great post about this topic. But the main point is this:

  • Up until roughly 2020, the research on social media and mental health was still murky.
  • But we now have many strong studies. Haidt wrote: “There is now a great deal of evidence that social media is a substantial cause, not just a tiny correlate, of depression and anxiety, and therefore of behaviors related to depression and anxiety, including self-harm and suicide.”
In short

Mental health issues in young people began spiking in roughly 2012, when smartphones became popular.

The details

Right before the rise of smart phones and social media, in 2011, young people didn’t have perfect mental health.

For example, mental health issues began climbing in generations born after 1990, which is when helicopter parenting became a thing. (I wrote about this in The Comfort Crisis.)

But starting around 2012, mental health issues boomed. This is when smartphones and social media became ubiquitous among young people.

The stats on this are many things. None of them good. Tragic, heinous, ugly, etc. Here are some figures on teen mental health trends from the CDC’s recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

  • 57% of girls and 29% of boys reported experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year” in 2021.

    • In 2011, those numbers were 36% for girls and 21% for boys.

    • That’s a 58% and 38% increase over just one decade.

  • 30% of girls and 22% of boys “seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year.”

    • In 2011, those figures were 10% and 13%, respectively.

    • That’s a 200% and 69% increase.

  • These increases aren’t entirely due to COVID-19. The issues began growing around 2012, although it’s likely that COVID was an accelerant.

Why studies now show social media causes mental health issues in young people

In short

The newer studies strongly suggest social media is causing all those mental health issues in young people.

The details

The data is clearer than it was five years ago. We now have a series of 40 longitudinal studies on the impact of social media on mental health.

“Longitudinal studies” studies look at a massive groups of people and track them over time.

In these studies, researchers monitor young people and see what happens when they stop using social media.

Of the 40 longitudinal studies, 25 suggest that quitting social media improves mental health. So you might think the data is inconclusive—25 out of 40 isn’t perfect.

But there’s a “gotcha gotcha,” as my wife would say.

  • The studies that don’t find any benefits of quitting social media are all short. They look at how mental health changed within a week of quitting social media.
  • The studies that do find a strong effect are all longer—they monitor how mental health changed over a month or more.

Enter what I call “the social media withdrawal effect.”

The social media withdrawal effect

In short

When you quit social media or use your phone less, you get a sort of hangover or withdrawal effect. Your life sucks for a bit—but then it gets much better.

The details

To understand why only the longer-term studies show benefits to quitting social media, you have to understand addiction and what it’s like getting over it.

I don’t believe people do anything that doesn’t benefit them somehow. This applies to all addictive behaviors.

For example:

  • Drinking or drug use makes people more social or relieves stress, sadness, or boredom.
  • Using social media relieves boredom or scratches the human social itch. It also gives us an easy distraction from all types of psychological discomfort. (Learn more on this by reading “5 Ways to Leverage the Power of Emotions.”)

Most people can drink, use social media, or even do drugs without any long-term repercussions.

A behavior only becomes an “addiction” once it starts causing long-term problems.

Yet the addictive behavior—whether substance use or social media use—still provides relief in the short term. This is why quitting addiction isn’t easy.

Here’s some text I pulled from the chapter on addiction in my recent book, Scarcity Brain.

Addiction … is a learned behavior that once worked well but begins to backfire. (For an addicted person), using a drug or drinking still relieves discomfort, provides stimulation, and solves problems in the short term. But it starts creating long-term problems. The more often we repeat it, the deeper we learn it, the harder it is to break. Meanwhile, the problems pile up.

So when a person quits, they lose their coping mechanism. They lose something that relieves their problems in the short term. They have to sit in the discomfort of their problem. And that sucks!

Their life actually gets worse for a while. Much worse. They experience a sort of withdrawal effect.

But eventually, the discomfort wears off. Along the way, they find other, more productive ways to cope. And their life starts getting better—way, way better.

This is why those short-term studies show no mental health benefits to quitting social media.

It takes awhile for the hell of quitting to wear off. You need to look at long-term effects.

The Takeaway

If smartphone and social media use is causing problems for young people (or you!), quitting or using it less will be hard. But only for a while.

Your life will eventually improve—far beyond what you could imagine.

You must go through short-term discomfort to get a long-term benefit.

This doesn’t just apply to smartphone use.

It applies to any behavior that provides relief in the short term but leads to long-term problems. Substance use, bad relationships, gambling, etc, etc, etc, (insert hundreds of other things a person could get hooked on).

Have fun, don’t die, embrace short-term discomfort to get a long-term benefit.


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