How do you know if your social media use is productive or an addiction?

By Denise Donaldson

Imagine just 10 years ago, before the advent of smartphones in the late 2000s. Remember when you had to be at your desk to check a post or an email? Largely, you could still escape from your email or messaging (though not texting or a call) by walking away from your desk.

As our world has become increasingly wired, we constantly talk about working in a digital environment and delivering meaning in a digital world. Digital devices are ubiquitous and enhance our lives immensely, but for most of us, devices are also stealthily invading our existence. Some studies show that, on average, people check their phone every six and a half minutes–that’s 150 times a day*. Other studies show people check even more frequently than that. How long do you typically go before checking your device? The issue isn’t so much about use (how often you check your email/social accounts) as it is a question of when device usage stops being productive and becomes a problem.

Addiction is loosely defined as negative consequences associated with a behavior and the feelings of anxiety that result when that behavior is withdrawn, or the inability to stop or resist a behavior. One survey cited that 60 percent of adults keep their phones next to them when they sleep. Do you?

As communication experts and professionals, we must be accessible to clients, and thus connected most of the time. Some of us are online constantly communicating with or on behalf of our clients. But at what point is a device disrupting your self-control or narrowing your communication, or distracting you, rather than facilitating communication with a client? Are devices hindering our ability to communicate, our ability to talk to each other?

In addition to the concern of addiction, a growing problem with mobile devices is that they continually interrupt users, causing us to be endlessly distracted and sometimes feeling anxious, harried or harassed. Many social media apps and wearable devices are designed specifically to encourage users to return to them, or to be used frequently; add that to the fact that apps are accessible on mobile devices, thereby allowing us to use them anywhere. How can we possibly resist?

How many times have you checked responses to a post, or the number of people who have liked or retweeted something you posted? It feels good. Hands up if you have ever found yourself in the middle of productive work distracted by the alert of an incoming notification, which then caused you to lose your train of thought at best, or worse, leave that productive work to check an app. Or have you ever said to a colleague/partner/child, “Let me just answer this text/email…”

We don’t need to swear off all things digital. On the contrary–it’s a matter of us taking control and being conscious of technology in our lives and using it judiciously.

A few tips to help you manage your device usage:

  • Use devices with intention. Don’t browse mindlessly; go to what you want to look up. Don’t get distracted chasing the rabbit down the hole (we’ve all been there).
  • Try to be mindful of being productive. Check numbers on a social platform, but don’t lose focus. Ask yourself, “How is social media translating to conversions or more loyal customers for me or my client?”
  • Be aware of how frequently you check email on your phone. Do you put your face-to-face interactions on hold while you “just reply to this text” or “just answer this email”? Do you choose a text over your colleague, spouse, friend, or child, or do you make the device wait?

Some suggestions for avoiding becoming a cyborg as you move through your day:

  • When you get into the elevator, don’t check your phone. Say hello to someone.
  • When you are on the bus or on the car ride home, try to stay off your phone the entire time.
  • Carve out times when you are off your digital device; for example, from 7pm – 7am.
  • Don’t reach for your phone before you get out of bed (unless it’s your alarm clock!).
  • Turn off your automatic notifications. I just did this and immediately felt less distracted!
  • Practice undivided attention with the person you are sitting with at dinner/lunch/breakfast.
  • Participate in alternative activities. Take a walk around the block, meditate, look at and talk to those around you.
  • Give in to solitude. Pick up a book.
  • Download an online usage tracker app. Most people tend to be on their devices three times longer than they thought!


* “Hooked on our SmartphonesNew York Times, January 9, 2017, by Jane Brody.

“Why we can’t look away from our screens” New York Times, March 6, 2017, by Claudia Dreifus.

Deloitte 2016. “Global Mobile Consumer Survey: US edition”.

About the author

Denise Donaldson is in transition. She’s a storyteller, digital marketer, strategist, account executive and project manager. With her youngest child in school now she’s transitioning back to full-time work in communications after a career as an account executive in advertising. She tries to be mindful of her device usage, especially in light of modeling good behavior for her children. When she isn’t mindful, her children remind her not to become a Cyborg Zombie!




  1. Good piece Denise. We can all be more mindful! My guiltiest habit is checking the phone when I first wake up or when I hear the phone ding when I’m driving….I do wait till I get to a red light…but still.
    Phones should be in the back seat or off when driving!
    Not that I check my phone when it’s snowing…which it’s doing right now in Fort Collins!!! Wow!

  2. Great article about an issue that I certainly deal with. In fact, I started reading this because I was distracted from something else I was doing! The good news: I read it through to the end, and plan to follow several of your suggestions. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Denise.

  3. Well said! Excellent food for thought.

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