There’s no easy way to say it: we’re all addicted to something. If we were to, however, forcibly remove this addiction from our lives, would we continue to live our lives regularly, or would our minds be anxiously waiting to find things to attach to?

My giant addiction (YouTube) vs. my brand new one (Mario Kart Tour)

Addictions have evolved, just like everything else in the past twenty years. Instead of becoming addicted to alcohol, drugs, or anything that could be considered damaging to your life, we have now turned towards technology.

In the last ten years, social media has become the most addictive technology platform on the planet, especially to American teenagers. In Jean Twenge‘s article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, she writes that “the arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.” In short, teenagers are less likely to hang out with their friends and more likely to develop depression than ever before, and each experiment links back to the smartphone.

Twenge frequently compared my generation, the “iGen,” to Millenials and Gen. X, claiming that they enjoyed independence more. She wrote, “Asked by our parents, ‘When will you be home?,’ we replied, ‘When do I have to be?'”

Without spending the entire article on a rebuttal, I would like to mention how much more dangerous our world is compared to theirs. Gun violence statistics have found that six of the 10 deadliest US mass shootings have happened in the last 10 years. Not a single event from 2005 or earlier is in the top 5. Of course kids would want to stay in their homes and connect with their friends online rather than risk getting murdered outside. Are they happier this way? No. But safer? Yes.

The Experiment

It is due to our fear that we are addicted to our cellphones. We are addicted to connecting with our friends on social media. We know it is impossible to physically get hurt while logging on. But what if we took that away? What if we stripped you of your addiction and forced you to live life without it? How would you react? What would you do? These are the answers I searched for as I performed the following experiment: I gave myself five days (Sunday-Thursday) to quit YouTube. I was not to launch the app from my phone or my computer at any time, I could not watch videos, respond to comments, or interact with YouTube in any way. The catch: I did nothing to help make this process easier for me. I did not delete the apps, I did not turn off notifications, and I did not block the website. I wanted to teach myself to choose not to use the website rather than force myself to not use it.

So how did it go?

Sunday was by far the easiest day. I don’t really use YouTube much on Sunday’s anyway because I watch football all day instead, so it felt like any normal day. It started to get a little harder throughout the week, though, because there are times where I have an hour or two between classes, and the only way I would waste my time is by catching up on my YouTube subscriptions. I received about 20 notifications from YouTube throughout the week, and I had wanted to go on it about 10 times. I found myself sitting down and doing absolutely nothing, something I rarely do nowadays.

But I didn’t have to do it as much as I thought.

While straying from YouTube proved to be a challenging experiment at times, I had one app that made this detox so much more bearable: Mario Kart Tour.

Mario Kart is my favorite video game series of all time, and to say I was ecstatic to hear Nintendo will release a Mario Kart game on iOS is an understatement. The game launched on September 25, 2019, just four days before I started my detox experiment. When it was all said and done, however, I had used my phone more during my detox than the week before. I completed the detox: I went all five days without using or opening YouTube once, but I felt like I cheated. Right as I gave up my main addiction, my phone blessed me with a brand new game that has hooked me since the beginning. I had a second addiction to fill for the first, and it more than made up for it.

On my last day of my YouTube detox, I had decided enough is enough. I did a second detox. This time, I could not open Mario Kart Tour from Thursday-Tuesday, but starting Friday I would be able to use YouTube as much as I wanted to. Before even looking at the graphs, I can tell you that this second detox was much harder than the first, and it’s mainly due to how the game operates. Mario Kart Tour has timed exclusives, which means if I did not unlock a certain character or vehicle within a given time frame, they will disappear forever. I had to tell myself that performing this experiment was only fair and much more worth it than the characters I would lose in the process.

The following graphs show what happened with each app during their own detox:

I left notifications on for each app while detoxing from them.
An “urge” is either me thinking about the app or swiping my phone screen towards the app.

The following graphs show my usage of each app while detoxing from the other one.

How much (on average) of my phone battery each app used while I detoxed from the other.
The total number of minutes I used each app while on a detox from the other.

Note: I used YouTube on my computer for about eight hours during my detox of Mario Kart Tour, which would bring YouTube’s total minutes to 659.

The last stat worth noting is that while on my detox for one app, I used the other app more than any other app on my phone. With all of this information, I can conclude that I am addicted to both YouTube and Mario Kart Tour. Why was I so much more into Mario Kart Tour than YouTube, if I am addicted to both? I received so many more YouTube notifications but wanted to (and did) play Mario Kart more. I fully believe that Mario Kart is just a fad and once I complete everything I want then I will stop playing. It has happened with every mobile game I’ve downloaded. Once Mario Kart Tour runs out of content, it will be no exception. Therefore, can I really say that I have two addictions, or “substitute addictions?”

Peter Grinspoon, MD from Harvard Health Blog doesn’t think so. In his article, “Does addiction last a lifetime?,” he claims that “people who are addicted tend to have a particular affinity for a particular class of drug, not for all drugs and alcohol.” I believe this can be applied to social media as well, as people can be addicted to one social media app over others. However, as much as I want to believe that I am not addicted to both YouTube and Mario Kart, I just need to face the facts. I use them both for unbelievable amounts of time. I wouldn’t call them substitutes, though, and here’s why: for the week between Mario Kart Tour‘s launch and my detox of it, I played the game an average of 5 hours a day (I know, I know), regardless of whether or not I was on my YouTube detox. The lack of YouTube, therefore, must not be the reason why I played so much Mario Kart, but instead it must be because of how new the game is. I can conclude now that I am currently addicted to the game, but it is not due to YouTube, which means Mario Kart and YouTube are not substitute addictions, despite what the dual detox evidence shows.

Now that I know what my addictions are, I need to know how they are impacting me. Are they preventing me from becoming successful in life? Are they preventing me from becoming a better person? A better learner? Based on chapter 3 of Cal Newport‘s Deep Work, I think so. Newport suggests that on a neurological and psychological level, our minds can reach its full potential if we focus on the things that will make us succeed in life. On page 76 he claims that “skillful management of attention is the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” If I am addicted to something, I will try to find a way to incorporate it into what I’m doing, hindering the time I’ve been productive. Heck, I’ve taken a few breaks from typing this just to watch YouTube. There’s no way I have been fully deep while working on this, and it’s all thanks to the addiction I have.

On a psychological level, Newport claims that “the best moments occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile (84).” This is the basis for deep work. Having an addiction can prevent me from accomplishing something difficult because most of the time, choosing to go on YouTube is not voluntary, but rather a subconscious action. This is why I must shut down my addictions before going into a state of deep work, because otherwise, I will never be in deep work.

How to eliminate an addiction

We all are addicted to something, and it prevents us all from performing the necessary deep work we need to do in order to achieve our goals in life. Here are two tips to cut your addiction from your life (tips that maybe I should consider, too):

Wait it out (maybe you’ll grow out of it)

This is what I was talking about with Mario Kart Tour, and mobile apps in general. Throughout the first month or so of a new app’s release, I am playing the game nonstop. Once the new-ness of the game fades, I lose interest, and move onto something else. If you are addicted to something, then wait it out. Maybe you’ll just get bored of doing it and will stop because of how sick it makes you.

Perform a Detox experiment

Your detox experiment may have to be a little more intense than mine because as soon as mine were done, I was right back on those apps. If you are addicted to an app on your phone, delete it and give yourself two weeks without it. If you enjoyed your time off, take more. If you really need it back in your life, then re-download it. There’s no shame in doing it since you’ve already completed the experiment.

You’re simply trying to prove that you can go a certain amount of time without the thing you are addicted to. As long as you can use this time to be more productive towards your life, then you will already be rewiring your brain to shift your attention towards those more important tasks.

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