Phone life balance


Social media may have started as a way to bring people together. Perhaps one could argue that it might have combated issues like loneliness and depression. The first one, called Six Degrees, was created in 1997 and it was the first place you could make a profile and make friends with other users. We know very well all of the platforms that came after that - including Facebook, Snapchat, Tribe, Twitter, Viber, Vimeo - built on a simple idea that for social connectedness a person does not need to be dependent on where you live or your financial means to visit friends and family, instead all one needs is a connection to the internet.

As social media took off, new mental health issues started emerging and the very platforms that were created to bring humans together were at the core of these conversations. With any open platform, you launch the product and wait and see how society reacts, but you have no idea whether it’s going to be a positive or negative impact. And in the case of social media, there are clearly both. Facebook enabled the Arab Spring, but also Donald Trump.

Despite positive impacts of microblogging and the empathy associated with people reacting to what you post, as people spent more time on the platform, low self-esteem, anxiety depression and loneliness have risen, along with FOMO. People have an opportunity to edit, crop, and maintain the exact image that they wanted others to see. Like curating art in a museum. And the more time you spend on it, the more ownership you feel.

Interestingly, last Friday Andy sent our team this chart about time spent on social media in Q3 2018, the first quarter where time spent had dipped since 2014:


Another helpful slice of the data is breaking down device usage by age group. For example, in the 18-64 age range, we talk about work-life balance frequently, but not about phone-life balance:


Is time spent on social media a bad thing? Is it confounded by the time we spent on our devices as a whole, social media being just one component of it? I’m more intrigued that this shift happened in just the last four years, and curious whether people will continue shifting their time time away from social media. If so, to what?

Personally, I don’t think that social media is going away, because humans are inherently curious and crave social connections. However, the number of hours in a day are the same, and the way those hours are distributed is constantly changing. Apple released a new feature on the iPhone that lets people track how much social media usage they engage in, and it’s broken down by apps on your phone. Every week the numbers shock me. The reason for the shock is that those aren’t conscious hours that I spend scrolling, it’s a cumulative sum of the minutes between the subway stop to work, when I’m waiting for my coffee at the cafe on the corner, or (largely) right before I fall asleep:


There are three potential explanations that stand out to me:

  1. People are consciously made aware of the time they spend on social media and are therefore making concerted efforts to dial it back. More and more, first dates where people pick up their phone are an automatic sign of incompatibility, people are openly judgemental of “influencer culture”, and there are now apps like Offtime, Moment, BreakFree, and Flipd that can help people cut down their time spent mindlessly scrolling. The fact that we need productivity apps to keep us off social media apps is very telling of human self-control. We need technology to prevent us from

  2. The decline in time spent on social media is less about conscious decisions, but rather new products and apps taking people’s attention away. One argument is that audio forms of content such as podcasts and music will overtake social media because people can consume it passively. Podcasting has seen a 40% increase in consumption and weekly fans listen to an average of seven shows. Or perhaps, shifting to new social apps that aren’t being tracked yet (e.g. Vero, Tik Tok,, Houseparty, and Caffeine) or even gaming (there are over 200 million total Fortnite players!).

    1. Speaking of Caffeine and gaming, with massive growth this sector, a sub-thought here is whether gaming will be social media 2.0? You can become a champion, perform live on various media platforms, and communicate with people you don’t know online. Currently it is a completely separate category from social media but there are definitely some similarities in online behavior and time spent.

  3. Of course, our increased focus on privacy is another key driver. Facebook and Google being called to testify in congress and people believing that they are getting targeted ads on Instagram after they said something to their friend *in person* are making us increasingly of what we’re sharing online. Only 9% of social media users are “very confident” that social media companies would protect their data.  As a result, perhaps people are consciously or subconsciously siphoning their time away from social media and towards other forms of content/entertainment/interaction that cannot invade privacy and allow them to feel more secure.

I’d be curious to hear what other people think about those three big questions:

  1. Are our behaviors in regards to social media changing?

  2. Do we value services that do not collect information on us more and more?

  3. What does it mean for how we will spend our time in the future?

Naomi Shah