Social Media is Eating Your Brain

by James Scott Bell

In 2007 the lovers were born. Soon they met, and conceived a bastard child. The child looked so beautiful … until …


What’s this? A riff on The Omen?

Nay, for it really happened. The lovers were the Kindle and Twitter. And their child is that brain-eating spawn, social media marketing.

When the child turned one, writers were just starting to figure out they could profitably self-publish on the Kindle platform.

They also saw Twitter exploding with users. They began to reason: Hey! What an easy way to reach a zillion potential book buyers! All I have to do is tweet out, “My new thriller is not to be missed. Buy it here!” and keep on tweeting that same message. Over and over. A dozen times a day. The money will pour in!

Which it never did, of course. For authors and businesses soon woke up to the harsh reality that Twitter is not great shakes at direct marketing. In fact, it is barely any shakes at all. It is social, and personal … but it is no citadel of commerce.

Still, addicted to hope, authors jumped upon each shiny new social media outlet that appeared. Pinterest! Tumblr! Google Plus! In truth, Instagram may be the only social media platform that has shown signs of longevity in terms of a social media marketing platform. Why do you think that so many people are interested that socialfollow helps you get followers? People are always looking to boost their numbers to appear more attractive to brands.

This addiction was fueled by enablers. Writers hoping to catch the interest of a traditional publishing house were being advised by agents and editors and critique-group chatterboxes that a gigantic social media platform was an absolute necessity for success!

Biggest load of flapdoodle since Fen-Fen, with just as many ruinous side effects.

Here’s the truth: social media madness is eating your brain, affecting your ability to concentrate and work deeply, and sabotaging the quality of your fiction––which is the one thing you cannot afford to have sabotaged if you want a long-term career!

Social media stimuli is actually akin to a drug addiction. Really. Brain scans show that constant internet users have similar brain patterns as drug addicts and alcoholics. And since social media involves another “you,” the social-you, the branded-you, the you you want to present to the world, there’s a dopamine effect. You get a good jolt of pleasure when you post, because it’s easy and it’s all about you. Which in turn makes you crave more of it.

Is Walter White behind social media madness?

The book Deep Work by Dr. Cal Newport is an eye-opener on all this. The gist of the book comes from it’s cover copy:

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

Writing a novel is hard work. So the moment you get to a challenging spot, your brain starts to crave the easy pleasure and fast distraction of hopping onto the internet. The more you follow that impulse, the stronger the impulse center grows.

Thus, you’ll be distracted from your fiction all the time. Your ability to concentrate and stay engaged, and actually work through a writing problem toward a breakthrough, will weaken. You’ll be like a former champion pole vaulter who has started to take frequent breaks from training to snag donuts and coffee. Instead of vaulting to greater heights, the bar is going to have to be set lower and lower. Pretty soon, you’ll be doing The Limbo.

After reading Newport’s book, I saw how much of it applied to me. I’d fallen into some bad habits. Too often as I wrote I’d find an excuse to go check social media, which took me out of “flow” and often kept me distracted far too long.

This, in turn, hurt my concentration in other areas, like reading. I noticed that I’d only get through a few pages in a book before I’d feel like checking Twitter or Feedly or some news sites. I was losing the ability to “get lost” in a book, one of the main pleasures of reading. (Fess up. It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it?)

So I took some steps that have helped enormously, and now pass them on to you:

  1. Schedule your internet time

Do not go on the net at all, ever, without scheduling the time to do so. When you sit down to write or read a book, give yourself a slot––one, two, three hours––during which you will not go net surfing at all. Then jot down the exact time you’ll do some internet, what your objective is (news, email, social media, etc.), and how much time you’ll allow for it.

Do this for the entire day.

At first, you’ll notice as you work that the strong call of the internet is still there. Like the Sirens singing to Odysseus. Fight off that urge every time it arises! Put yourself back into the pages or the books. Slowly, but most certainly, you’ll retrain yourself to concentrate on matters at hand. It’s a great feeling to get that back! And your writing will be stronger, your reading comprehension better.

  1. Mute your phone

And put it somewhere where you can’t see it––pocket, backpack, another room. There used to be a time, youngsters, when we could take a phone “off the hook” so it wouldn’t ring. Learn from your grandparents.

  1. Do memorization exercises

This is something Newport recommends. The concentration required in memory work is good training for when you’re writing or reading or studying.

My two favorite memory books are …. wait a second …

Oh yes! The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas, and Maximize Your Memory by Jonathan Hancock. (You can get a used copy of the latter for a song via sellers on Amazon. This is a very good deal!)

I’ve noticed that when I do memory exercises (one of my faves is memorizing phone numbers), my mind feels more alert and active when I get into my writing.

  1. Read something challenging every day

Choose a book or subject that forces you to concentrate in order to understand it. Then read and make yourself understand it!

I own a set of the Great Books (as collected by Mortimer Adler). The best part is the three-volume Syntopicon, an index of the 102 “great ideas” and the various places they are discussed in the books themselves. Each subject has a long introductory essay by Adler (this guy was an amazing brain! He knew not Twitter or Facebook!). My new goal is to read each essay and pursue the references that interest me, and take copious notes.

Here’s another idea: there are TENS OF THOUSANDS of great books, free and Kindle-ready, at Project Gutenberg. Literature, history, philosophy, memoir. Some starter titles I recommend:

A Manual of the Art of Fiction

The Journal of Henri-Frederic Amiel

Democracy in America

Moonbeams from the Larger Luncay

Now, I don’t advocate you ditch all social media. My own view is that you ought to specialize in one outlet and do it because you enjoy it. I specialize in Twitter, with some Facebook presence, and of course my Sunday posts here at TKZ.

pac-manBut I do, however, counsel that you take a hard look at your social media practices. Are you using it, or is it using you? Are you getting on it first thing in the morning (when you could be writing your Nifty 350 or Furious 500?). Are you haphazard about it during the day? Do you stop randomly as you write to go check something out on YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook? (If so, you could be a YouTwitFace). Do you check your phone several times an hour?

My guess is that for 97.8% of you, there’s brain-eating going on. It’s Pac-Man in the synapses! Time to unplug that game!

Does this ring true? What’s been your long-term experience with social media? Madness or method?

(Here’s the talk by Cal Newport that started me thinking about all this):

54 thoughts on “Social Media is Eating Your Brain

  1. Good advice. Also any notifications on one’s work computer need to be off–anything that says you’ve got mail; anything that lets in instant messages (it might be good to have a separate IM connection if necessary for work, one that doesn’t receive social and commercial messages).

    I find checking mediumdotcom for the little green buttons is addictive and distracting.

    • Good tip about notifications, Eric. They can be like houseflies dive-bombing your face as you’re trying to write. I wasn’t familiar w/Medium. So in violation of my own advice here, I checked it out. I clicked on “Editor’s Picks” to see what came up. The top story was titled “Don’t Be Distracted.”

      Lesson learned.

  2. This post came by at a good time (ironically found while on social media) I am not one for Facebook or Twitter really but that dang You Tube gets me all the time and it’s not even anything good really that I am watching, mindless dribble most of the time with a good TED talk here and there. So I bid you good day and toss my bushy tail off this on-line and back to work.

    • James, I relate. There is so much great content (amid the junk) on YouTube. Clips from classic television, bits of cultural history that are so much fun to relive (like the time Gore Vidal goaded Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett show, and Cavett asked Mailer if he’d like another chair for his ego to sit in, etc.)

      So I place YouTube time in the same category as TV time. I try not to be random about it, and keep it limited.

  3. Jim, I, too, saw Newport’s video and it resonated with me–so much so that I decided to take the month of December off from posting on my own blog. I’m still working on things like reading a select few blogs (like Kill Zone), but in general I’ve found the experience rewarding. Thanks for sharing.

    • Doc, I think we should adopt a TKZ exception!


      I have a writer friend, quite successful, who goes off Twitter for the forty days of Lent. Says it does her a world of good.

  4. I also suggest at least halving the amount of social media time, and then spending the other half on activism (as opposed to spreading memes about how much you love or hate Trump, for example, which only go to your FB friends, which means you’re preaching to the converted, which means you are truly wasting your time.)

    • Sheryl, this is SUCH a good point. Social media is the worst place to try and to any rational argument. It’s just not set up for that. Which is probably due more to human nature than technology.

      I just avoid all the bile. Once you get sucked in, you end up paddling for your life in the ugly slime river from Ghostbusters II (you know, where all the anger and hate in NYC flows underground….) Truly, as you say, a waste of time.

  5. Wow, this really hit home. I retired two years ago thinking to have more time, finally, to do something meaningful, but started, instead, to waste time on internet. The minutes go by and the hours too, and yes, I’m less able to concentrate. Thank you for this reminder. I’ll make changes immediately.

    • You’re welcome, Nancy. I also found that my writing Sabbath (I usually take Sunday off from writing, intending mostly to read) was affected. Instead of recharging my batteries, using the time off to go all around the internet left me feeling more tired than refreshed.

      Good luck on those changes. You’ll feel pulled back to old ways. Fight against that, and carry on!

  6. I check in every morning. Go through my email, hit a few favorite blogs (hi there TKZ), give in to the compulsion to check my sales figures. Delete spam comments, and maybe wish some folks a happy birthday.

    I’ve tried writing coherent thoughts first thing in the AM, it it isn’t going to happen, so I use that first slice of time to catch up. However, rarely do I go through my news feed on Facebook, and I have my TweetDeck account set with filters so most of what I see there is family (and ok, seeing who’s retweeting or liking my tweets).

    I rarely use the news feed at Facebook – even less now that it’s nothing but political rants. When I check FB, it’s to see who’s interacting on my page, and maybe post links to my blog posts to groups I belong to. According to my daughter, that’s backward, but it keeps me sane.

    Thanks for the good reminders. I also watch very little TV, and all of that with the exception of the occasional football game, is recorded which means an hour TV break is only 42 minutes.

    As for my phone: Cell reception here sucks, so I never bother with it during ‘at home’ hours.

    • Terry, as I told Doc Mabry, a TKZ exception is not only allowed, but encouraged (Ha!)

      Seriously, though, I also use the timer method for football games. I HAD to watch Michigan v. Ohio State, and all USC games, but I don’t need to do it in real time. The amassed savings in time equals at least a couple of novellas!

    • Terry, I’m with you on recording the TV shows. I like to watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, but always after they’re recorded. By skipping the commercials and the ‘talk to the players’ parts, I can buzz through each 30 minute show in about 15 minutes or so, and I usually wait and watch them all at once on the weekends.

  7. I relate! It’s so easy to become distracted, especially in writing (or editing) challenging parts. I feel the incessant need to check Facebook or other sites. Freedom is a software that has helped me tremendously. There’s a free version and I can set to block social media sites (or anywhere else) while still having the ability to access online helps, such as a dictionary or thesaurus.

    Slowly, I’m weaning myself of the distraction.

    • Joan, that’s exactly it. When we hit a “challenging part,” it’s human to want to skip it for awhile. Not a good practice for firefighters, soldiers, or writers … or anyone. It’s the challenges that make us stronger, and after we struggle through, a little internet time tastes sweeter.

  8. Thanks for the link to Project Gutenberg, Scott.

    I’m totally addicted to FB or rather the habit of checking in to SM.

    But my recent awareness (of my bad habit) forced me into drastic action! Re: hiding my phone, (this one works well) reading and writing in a new space, talking about my addiction with my husband, asking for help, hehe, unsubcribing to numerous newsletters, obviously not TKZ though.

    Love your Sunday posts! Thanks again.

    • Maureen, great to hear about the steps you’ve taken. I’m not big into FB (I have an author page only), but I’ve heard many people talk about being addicted to it.

      I really like your tip about going to another space to write. When I go to Starbys I usually don’t take my laptop. I use my AlphaSmart. That way, I only have to worry about the phone, which I can leave in my backpack.

  9. Normally I scan Facebook at around 7 a.m. (after I’ve been writing for a couple hours) while I drink my second tea. Then I quickly scan Twitter and blogs until 9 a.m. when I return to my writer’s cave. My email I check periodically (less when I have a deadline) and that Messenger app drives me insane. Lately, I’ve had to become even more rigid and ignore the notification chime. But you’re so right. It’s easy to fall into the trap of SM. Too easy. Thanks for the reminder to use SM, not have SM use us.

    • That’s awesome, Sue. A couple of hours of writing beginning at 5 a.m. I’m right there with you! I’ll have my second cup of joe as I look at email and Feedly and a few other things, but now I’m keeping it to a time schedule.

  10. I’m old school with paper & ink in these other writing spaces. It feels like I’m engaging a totally different region in my brain, which I am. And I’m sure there are countless articles on the topic to reinforce this statement but this would take me to The Google. Another time suck!

    • Maureen, I love paper and ink, too. And yes, there’s data that proves its worth in study and retention, etc. I love making notes and mind maps in ink when I’m writing.

  11. I am amazed at how addicted people are not just to social media but to technology in general. I tame social media by necessity. I was forced in February to give up my stupid phone for a (supposedly) smartphone because the carrier was discontinuing support for my old style phone. It has a bare minimum of monthly data allowance so all I use it for is talk and text. No internet anything. That means a quick FB check in the morning on my home pc and I usually spend a little more time in the evening seeing what’s happening with my family & friends. This is preferred because, whether people like it or not, I HATE talking on the phone (I got enough of that at work). I’d much rather use FB most of the time for communication.

    As to the changes to our brain I believe it does effect our ability to process information and stay on task. This was made even more apparent to me recently for two reasons:

    1) At long last I recently got out of a horrible job–thinking was not encouraged and you were required to be an automaton. And they embraced “multi-tasking on steroids”—my job was driven by CONSTANT interruption. My job now is the polar opposite in every way. Not only am I required to be project oriented to stay on task, there is also the matter of using technology more smartly here at the new place PLUS learning a whole new industry. I find my brain rebels when I hit the hard points and I want to quit & switch to something else. It is definitely pushing me out of the comfort zone and I LOVE it.

    2) I recently started taekwondo classes. As a beginner, there’s not much of a physical requirement (well, flexibility and balance are certainly an asset) but the most critical factor is the ability to pay attention and memorize. The first form is a series of 22 moves. When I first started, it truly felt as if there was an actual physical barrier precluding my brain from picking up on the turns, the hand and foot movements, etc. I was starting to wonder if I genuinely had some kind of processing disorder because I wasn’t getting it. My brain was literally resistant to memorizing each step–I wanted to quit and go do something else. Only after spending hours not only practicing physically, but using lunch breaks and off time to study the list of movements, even re-writing them in different ways, did that series of 22 moves start to click.

    The last month has made me very conscious of how my brain has been affected–even with what I perceive as more limited use of social media than people who are constantly staring at their phones.

    • BK, that’s great to hear about your tae kwon do. And how physical practice helped. I’ve been into close up magic since high school, but haven’t practiced much in the last few years. Recently, though, I decided to take it up again, and going over the moves is a great tonic.

      Thanks for the comment. So glad about your new job!

  12. Sound advice. Yes, the ‘net is exactly what George Washington warned about government as “a handy servant, but a dangerous master.”

    Scheduling is a great way to tame the beast. I’ll bundle up and work on the back porch to escape the temptation of checking email and my favorite blogs (including this one!)

    And I think your idea of doing memorization exercises is effective therapy to counter the effects of the Internet’s over-stimulation. I do the daily Jumble puzzle from the comics section of the newspaper, only without a pen to sharpen my short-term memory.

  13. I try and use social media as an ‘in between’ or ‘as well as’ activity. So if I have 10 minutes in between tasks and it’s not enough time to work on something else, I’ll hop on Twitter or Facebook. Or I’ll scroll through Facebook while I’m standing in a queue, or sitting on the bus. Otherwise it drains so much time and I can’t get that back!

    • Good practices, Icy (great author name for a horror writer, BTW). When I’m in a long line I have two choices: check Twitter, or go back to reading a book on my Kindle app. I try to choose the latter more than the former.

  14. Good post — though I wandered away from my novella when I hit a hard spot (how would I describe Daisy’s house?) to read your words of wisdom. Back to work.

  15. Amen, brother James. And I don’t say that just because you are reinforcing something I already have come to believe. I say it because I am still all-too-human and take a detour to Facebook when I can’t face my book. But I am getting better…

    Two thoughts to add to your great list of ideas:

    1. Writing a novel is much like reading one: You have to immerse yourself, wholly and willingly, into a conjured world for magic to happen. When reading a good book, would you stop every couple pages and go check your IMs or play Words With Friends? No…so why do it when you are writing one? Walter Mosley talks about this often and when I first heard him, I realized you MUST AT ALL COSTS stay rooted in your novel-writing fugue state.

    2. Every moment you devote to hawking your book or yourself on some social site is precious wasted time that could be devoted to no. 1 above. Everything, as you said, points to the fact that social media does near-nothing to promote books. Yet we kid ourselves into believing time spent on this stuff is valuable to our careers. It is an illusion of accomplishment. And heck, writing a Facebook post is a heck of a lot easier than writing a chapter.

    Okay, gotta vent a little here. I blame publishers and editors for some of this. For the last decade or so, they have pushed marketing and promotion responsibilities onto the backs of authors. Why? Not just because of shrinking staffs and budgets, yada yada woe is us. It ‘s also because they don’t know what really works (the honest ones admit this) and when they do fail, they can shift the blame to the author.

    Write a good book. Get it out there. Write another even better book. Wash, rinse, repeat.

    Okay, confession: In twenty minutes, I am going to turn on the TV and waste three precious hours watching the Dolphins probably lose to the Ravens. But then the TV goes off and the WIP comes on. I promise… 🙂

    • Ah Kris, I love the way you put it: “…an illusion of accomplishment.” That’s exactly right. It’s an illusion, but it FEELS like something. We keep hoping for that tipping point. Maybe some talk show superstar will RT me!

      And, as you say, the pub industry is in the same fix as Hollywood, as described by William Goldman: No one knows anything.

      Use the pause button for the Fins game. Save at least a couple of hours total.

  16. As soon as I read your opening paragraph, I thought I should tell you about Newport’s book. I read it two weeks ago and it’s eye opening. Good to see you’ve already found it!

    I did notice it was harder to get lost in a book. I used to sit on the couch and lose myself to a book, feeling like I’ve come out of a dream state hours later. Lately it’s harder to concentrate on reading or writing. The itch to check my email, to check Twitter was always there. I read Newport’s boom and discovered the reasons why.

    I’m working on cutting internet time out, especially the mindless time wasting of just passively scrolling through a feed.

  17. Elizabeth, you describe it perfectly. Long ago you’d settle into a chair in the evening, maybe turn on the radio, and read, read, read. With the coming of cable and satellite TV, at the same time digital tech was taking off, distractions are so much easier to come by. I’m fighting that by keeping the TV off at those times I’d usually try to watch some news. Books instead. (Guess what else? The decrease in blue light in the evening has led to better sleep. A bonus!)

  18. Great timely post.
    The battle is not rendered any easier by Windows 10 native notifications.

    I’ve tried Qustodio freeware to limit and schedule my internet time. The problem was that, apparently, it left the door ajar for malware to infiltrate, so I was forced to uninstall it. If anyone has any suggestions regarding alternatives to Qustodio, I’d be happy to hear them.

  19. Sorry to be commenting so late in the day.

    But thank you, thank you, thank you, for your wisdom and guidance here. I thought I was doing all the wrong things–didn’t spend enough time trying to get attention on social media, didn’t say the right things, wasn’t as good as my fellow writers at using social media. Turns out, I was doing the wrong things by trying to acquire all these skills by prying time to develop them by taking time away from my writing.

    And, I really appreciate the listing of books.

    “A-ho” my great-grandfather said to Miss Crawford the day she introduced him to the Christ. “Thank you.”


  20. Love this. Thank you. My brain, my writing, and my reading all withering away. Something needs to change. I’m definitely going to check out a couple of the book recommendations here and try to make sure my online time is structured and limited. Fingers crossed.

  21. Thanks for this post! I quit FB months ago, still do Instagram but post to Twitter & Tumbler from Instagram so I don’t engage. I have noticed such a difference – Peace! :o) I loved the video!

  22. This article should be read by every aspiring writer as well as anyone wishing to put their efforts and skills to work.
    Thank you.

  23. Thanks for this James! I do recognise the addiction now it’s been defined (for me it’s Candy Crush–not really social media, but dopamine dose for sure–and Facebook). I’m going to try to focus read something ‘hard’ for 30 min a day to start with. It sounds like so little time but horrifying as it is, I find it difficult not to ‘just check’ messages. Just hope it’s not too late for me!

  24. I admit I am guilty. I’ve seen literary agents too that say it is imperative you have a “platform.” Unless you have a book published, I don’t know how much a platform will help, if at all. I’m going to go back through this thread to see if anyone else has anything to say about that. I’m getting a little disturbed at agents who seem to put this first and foremost in their list of things that are important. Some even saying you need a platform with 2,000 followers who will buy your book. If I don’t have a published book already, why would 2,000 people want to follow me? I’ve been avoiding anyone who wants to help me build a following too.

      • I’m happy you brought up this topic regarding platforms. I’ve pretty much reached the end of my tether as far as querying agents is concerned, but I’m avoiding those that make a big deal of platforms. For an unpublished writer, it’s kind of putting the cart before the horse. If I have to do most of the work of marketing, I wonder if I might as well go Kindle. I’m not in it for the money, but I’m sure agents and publishers are.

  25. After having completed NaNoWriMo, I’ve found myself more focused on my writing and reading more, but spending less time on social media (so it has been a great help). I find social media to be such a distraction that it doesn’t help my concentration and I like your idea of doing memory exercises. Since I was a child my favourite was the memory card game, so I need to get back to it. Thanks for such a helpful post James.

  26. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Readers & Writers 12-8-2016 | The Author Chronicles

  27. Thanks for this, Mr. Bell! I’ve noticed that the internet can ruin one’s concentration, and I love that you give tips for fighting the addiction. Very helpful.

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