Snapping at track
An athlete with an addiction
I watched as the California sun beat down on her striped-patterned umbrella as the stadium was consumed with cheers in the small town of Murrieta, located in southern California. There were people everywhere, children chasing each other, parents talking among other parents, and athletes walking around.
Between all the athletes warming up, the race going on and the spectacle that is a track meet, there was sophomore Nakela Smith, 15, stealing shade under the bleachers where a few from her team, the Murrieta Valley Nighthawks, awaited their events — all of them were on their phones.
This was a familiar scene for Mrs. Angela McClaron who sat in love and support of her only daughter, but not for me. With the second-fastest times at Murrieta Valley High School out of all junior varsity and varsity combined, she was hoping her daughter could beat her personal best.
Track and field is a very time-consuming sport especially when you’re competing in the 100 meter, the 200 meter and 4x100 relay, and track meets are no different. When you are good, it’s just added pressure too.
Mrs. McClaron and I looked down from where we sat to check on her five-year-old son Hosea. The small child sat on the ground under the shade of mom’s umbrella fixed on an iPad watching a most-likely already-seen episode of “The Ninja Turtles”.
Back in 2001, before Smith was born, no one could foresee where social media was headed, not even her mother, and now Smith is hooked — but only on Snapchat.
Mrs. McClaron allowed her daughter to have a Snapchat account and that is currently the only form of social media she has. However, Smith had to tell her parents why she wanted and ‘so she could talk to her friends’ was not a valid reason for them. Once she proved she deserved a Snapchat account, it was her world to explore, the only condition being she had to be friends with her parents.
Obviously her parents understand the possibility of communicating without their supervision — they know the complexities of Snapchat. For her mother, Smith has never shown her a reason to need a stronger restriction, and if that day ever comes they will enforce their beliefs.
“I never wanted a Facebook, an Instagram or a Twitter account,” Smith said.
Being in high school surrounded by friends who have social media, she never felt like she was missing out by not being connected to Facebook and Instagram. Her friends show her videos all the time and she says it is not something that hinders her relationships with them. If Smith’s friends know anything, it’s that they can talk to her on Snapchat.
One of her close friends, Emily Cassidy, 16, was punished by her parents and had her phone taken away. Smith and Cassidy had an 86-day streak on Snapchat with a goal of reaching 100. A mere setback wasn’t going to stop them from keeping their streak alive. For almost 10 days, Smith logged on to Cassidy’s account and snapped herself in order to keep the streak going. Now they hold an 111-day streak which is her highest streak ever, if you don’t consider that cheating — and it was all for fun, a personal achievement of sorts.
She says her challenge now is to see who can hold the longest streak within her group of friends. Another friend of hers has a 109-day streak, so Smith is determined to maintain her current lead.
Aside from the cool “100” emoji that shows up on the one-hundredth day of snapping, there is no other reward from Snapchat for the accomplishment.
Smith has used Snapchat every day for nearly a third of the year, and that doesn’t even include the other friends she was snapping beforehand with streaks of their own.
Mrs. McClaron knows her daughter is obsessed and consumed by her phone, so she doesn’t speak as if any of Smith’s social media activities are a shock. Mrs. McClaron, herself, struggles with the addictive nature of social media.
“Now she is me, she is constantly on her phone,” Mrs. McClaron said.
After Mrs. McClaron went on a fast, she noticed her daughter’s extensive use of social media. Even though The View Church, the family’s church home in Temecula, Calif., went on a food fast, Mrs. McClaron noticed it wasn’t food she needed to fast from. Her children and her husband brought her excessive use of social media to her attention time and time again.
Mrs. McClaron admits that her use was affecting her kids and now that Smith has become more attached to her phone, it is hard to find a good balance.
“My oldest (son) was always telling me ‘You’re always on your phone. I’m trying to talk to you, but you’re not listening.’”
Now there are specific groups on Facebook that she uses, for family, old friends and workout partners, but other than that her eyes never glance the home feed — at least more recently.
Her younger children, Javen, 7, and Hosea all have tablets at home. They like to be on YouTube and Netflix, and they too are consumed by the addictive nature of technology.
There she is engaging in the screen, her hazel eyes entranced by every pixel. The glow from the computer outlines her straightened cafe-colored hair and rosy face. She looks up for a moment, checks her phone, reaches toward her white ceramic mug filled with coffee and continues doing homework. No more than 10 seconds later she checks her phone again.
There is something fascinating about the need to press that tiny half-inch button on her iPhone. There is an automatic sense of completion when the screen lights up and she enters her passcode without even thinking.
She has been at it for at least three hours, in a constant cycle of checking for messages, looking around her modern-designed room and doing homework. She seems uncomfortable sitting on the floor with her legs crossed underneath her for hours as her computer sits on a packing box from under her bed. She changes positions so much it seems as though time was endless.
Rachel Dexter, 20, is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history at Northern Arizona University (NAU), and is fighting the war between procrastination and deadline.
It’s soothing, the environment; she lit a brand-new candle and turned on her Filmscore Radio playlist on Pandora. The room smells faintly of spring and sounds of soothing melodies. It was very peaceful, but only from the outside.
She had a documentary and response essay and an entire 200-page book with a written analysis to complete by the following day at it was already 9 p.m..
Did she finish? Not on time.
Unlike Smith, Dexter grew up in an outside environment, always playing outside, as the youngest of four siblings. Her older brothers Zach, 27, Nate, 25, Ben, 23 and Jacob, 22, were all athletes, and she was a dancer so they were hardly ever inside the house.
When Dexter was younger, she never really had an interest in social media; in part because her siblings never had it and also because she always played with her friends outside. For Dexter, social media was something she first got at 13 years old, because of her friends at a sleepover, but she never used it.
Because social media didn’t exist to the extent that it does today, Dexter wasn’t as connected to technology at a young age, as she is now. As a result, her parents were not strict on monitoring her use of technology, and social media specifically. From her parents perspective, Dexter was a very social child, so much so she was given the name social butterfly on her dance teams.
However, as the years went on, she became more and more in tune with the popularity and need of social media. She now has a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat and Vine, and although she may not use them all there is a certain importance to those accounts in her life.
“If I didn’t feel like I was missing important information by not having them, then I wouldn’t have my social media accounts,” Dexter said.
In a single day, Dexter had received 42 text messages, 10 emails and 4 Snapchat notifications, and that was without her instigating more conversations.
For Dexter, seeing her old friend’s successes online is just as rewarding as talking to them and catching up. When birthdays and holidays come up, she tries to keep up with people who were once close friends; they just don’t talk in person anymore.
See Dexter is different from Smith in that Dexter thinks she has social anxiety. Although it hasn’t been diagnosed, the signs are clear to her. She has a hard time adjusting to large crowds, sometimes loses motivation to do things and gets uncomfortable quickly.
“I use my headphones a lot and I use my phone as a crutch for my social anxiety,” Dexter said.
So I followed her to a party to see for myself.
It was a small house party, there were only about seven of us, but to her it was bigger than her norm. It wasn’t even her usual entourage, but she had the desire to make new friends.
The table was setup in the kitchen for any number of drinking games, card games or a combination of the two. Dexter went because she wanted to get to know this new group of people better.
She doesn’t drink, so house parties are already out of her comfort zone, and the fact that she barely knew anyone there made it a little bit worse, but she didn’t want to disappoint her new group or decline the invitation to join them.
The kitchen counter was covered in limes, beer bottles, shot glasses, soda and an assortment of alcoholic beverages. The atmosphere was abnormally loud for a gathering of this size, we all had to yell to hear each other. And everyone was either talking or dancing, except Dexter who I could see from the corner of my eye sitting on the couch in the living room on her phone. It wasn’t the typical dark party atmosphere either; the lights were on and everyone was just there to relieve some stress, but it seemed to be doing the opposite for Dexter.
When given the chance to play a card game, she refused. When offered to sit closer to everyone around the table, she refused.
It was a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.
She was only content with her phone in her space, undisturbed.
It was probably more uncomfortable being the subject of attention and not feeling like she belonged, so eventually she joined the party. It just took some time and a little bit of peer pressure.
In that sense alone it is easy to see how her phone could be that crutch in that sort of lifestyle, but I could also see how it could be the ignition to a fire of addiction.
Dexter’s mother, Ginelle Dexter, understands that Dexter has a problem overusing her phone, but much like Smith’s mother, there is very little restriction unless proven to be a life-inhibiting problem.
“It’s not surprising to me that Rachel uses her phone a lot,” said Mrs. Dexter.
Even her brothers have to agree.
There are hundreds of social media applications used around the world. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, to name a few, have become forms of communication, just as much as daily entertainment.
They all serve different purposes, are used across platforms and are engulfed by every type of technological device. Social media takes up more attention than people realize but why? How did these two seemingly uninterested girls become hooked on social media?
I spoke with NAU psychologist Dr. Michelle Miller about how attention is measured and how addictive qualities can be developed.
According to the dictionary, attention is defined as the act or power of carefully thinking about, listening to or noticing someone or something; however, scientists cannot agree on a single definition.
“Attention is doing a couple of almost contradictory things at once,” said Dr. Miller. “It’s not a matter of just saying well ‘I can pay attention for x amount of time.’”
Dr. Miller explained how if you are in a truly boring situation, you’re gone in seconds compared to watching the newest Hollywood blockbuster movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a shorter attention span than someone else.
Attention really focuses in on the relevant and important aspects your brain thinks it needs to know, and can be demonstrated with the cocktail party effect.
The cocktail party effect is the phenomenon of focusing in and filtering out information. Dr. Miller explained it as instantaneously hearing your name in a crowd, but not hearing what someone next to you is saying. The video to the right is a demonstration on how the cocktail party effect works.
“Attention is letting in what is potentially relevant to your goals, to your tasks and you, and it’s also tampering down and keeping out everything that is irrelevant,” Dr. Miller said. “Your attention is like a bouncer at a fancy night club.”
Bouncers have to stand outside and keep out whoever is not invited, or relevant, to what’s going on inside. At the same time if someone or something of interest, in this case a celebrity, comes, they let them in.
Social media takes up more attention than people realize, but it’s not because we are getting important information from it, maybe in some cases.
Instead social media follows what is called an intermittent reinforcement schedule.
Dr. Miller explained how incredibly powerful this principle is, “It’s why when you go to a casino in Las Vegas, people are putting quarters into the slot machines.”
An intermittent reinforcement schedule reinforces after some behaviors and responses, but not after every behavior or response. It’s like a sporadic reward.
If a slot machine paid out a predictable amount every 100 times you put in a quarter, nobody would be in there. Dr. Miller explained how what turns a slot machine into “addictive magic” is the creation of uncertainty, where there is a reward, but you never know when or how many times you have to press the button, or login, in the case of social media, to get the prize.
“Everybody from pretty much a rat to a human is governed by that learning principle. The people who make the money to make these things know that, that’s why it’s dynamic,” Dr. Miller said. “You never know if this is the time you log on and see the most amazing thing. Most of the time it can be bad, but all you need is that one powerful time you saw it in there somewhere that will have you returning over and over and over again.”
It’s a sense of reward that brings people like Dexter and Smith back to social media. And it can happen to anyone — interested or not, raised with or refrained from technology, it’s all the same. It’s that addictive quality social media has that makes it hard to forget.
I needed a way to calculate and monitor, how much both Dexter and Smith were using their phones, so I had them download Moment.
Moment is a mobile iOS application that tracks how much you use your iPhone, from how many times you pick up it up to the total time spent on it each day.
Even though they were telling me how much they thought they didn’t use their phones, they were biased.
For 10 days I tracked both Smith and Dexter through the use of this application, and I wasn’t the only one who was surprised.
“I don’t think I use my phone that much, because I don’t have that many social media accounts, I just have a Snapchat account,” Smith said. “I would guess about an hour or two.”
She may only have one social media account, but her results reflected otherwise. On average, Smith uses her phone for about four hours and picks up her phone about 90 times every day.
Smith was surprised to see the numbers, but she also understood, especially because this application included everything from texting and calling to taking pictures and using Snapchat.
Imagine if she had multiple social media accounts.
“I try not to be on my phone when I’m with people, so I’m actually there physically and mentally. I don’t know if that is what happens, but that’s what I try to do,” Dexter said.
She fears she uses her phone a lot more than what she wants. On average Dexter uses her phone for about eight hours — double Smith — and picks up her phone about 159 times every day. Approximately every 10 minutes, Dexter is likely to pick up her phone at least once.
According to Flurry, “the average mobile consumer checks their device 150 times a day.”
So Dexter is right above the average, as indicated in the chart below. And more often than not, Dexter is above the global average.
Dexter also uses her phone for more than 200 minutes every day.
She didn’t easily accept her numbers, but they were there.
When I asked her friend, Meg O’Brien, 21, what she thought about Dexter’s numbers, she didn’t seem shocked.
“She might use social media less than other people, but I feel like she uses it the same as I do — so a lot,” said O’Brien. “We snap each other every day, we have yet to get our streak to 100.”
As her friend, O’Brien understands the difficulty and anxiety Dexter faces. According to O’Brien, although Dexter avoids social interactions, she doesn’t use her phone specifically to avoid that face-to-face communication.
Both Smith and Dexter have different times they allot to their phones; however, both are experiencing the same impacts.
“Social media is negatively affecting people by applying outside pressure to impress others,” O’Brien said.
I spoke with NAU student Adrian Skabelund, 19, more about the role social media plays in his life and the lives of his peers.
Skabelund never really grew up with technology. He had one desktop computer shared between his family members and he didn’t get his own phone, computer or any social media accounts until a few months before college.
“My Snapchat story is almost always empty. I’m always thinking, ‘Man, to everyone else I literally do nothing.’ So when I do things, I will think ‘I should put this on my Snapchat story.”
Skabelund explained how he posts things for the same reason everyone else does — to see what people are doing, like it and comment on it — but he doesn’t post often.
“I post partly because I want to share them with people,” Skabelund said. “And also in the back of my mind, I know they are going to get likes, so it’s a super safe bet.”
For Skabelund, “I don’t necessarily see how social media and the things people do on social media has a negative impact. I think social media does a really good thing in bringing people together.”
The thing that categorizes social media as inherently positive or negative is the way it is used, and it is all up to perspective.
Smith looks down at her younger brother, tired from competing all day, and sees him on the iPad. She gives him a toy to play with instead and quietly takes the device as his attention is re-focused. Smith, herself, may not be able to change much about her use, but she can certainly make an impact in the lives of those she cares about.
Smith knows she’s addicted to Snapchat, but she also knows there is nothing she can, nor wants to do. She loves it.
Until it affects her ability to make friends, get good grades or develop as a strong young woman, it is possible her parents won’t interfere either.
Dexter, takes another sip of coffee before continuing her homework.
“If I don’t have my phone I can’t procrastinate, it’s strange,” Dexter said.
Dexter holds a unique perspective in that she has convinced herself she needs social connection through social media in order to function properly with others. She too has accepted her addiction; however, she has become more aware of her excessive use.
Since the beginning of this project, Dexter has significantly decreased her phone usage. She went from an above-average 159 phone checks a day to a below-average 147 and has decreased the minutes she is on her phone by nearly 200.
“A critical part of any kind of meaningful change, is you have to have the data. It’s not about me saying ‘You use your phone too much, I’m going to come in here and control you,’” Dr. Miller explained. “Your parents may do that for as long as they can, but eventually it’s going to come down to you and you need to look at the numbers. We need to know honestly the things we are doing are helping, if you don’t have the data you don’t know.”
The younger millennials were born into an age of technology so they don’t know anything else. They only here about what it was like with flip phones, pagers and no social media. For everyone else who developed alongside social media, they grew as technology grew — together.
“Be here or don’t be, we all have to make sure we aren’t wasting our experiences,” Dr. Miller said.
It is now up to you to make a decision on whether your use is going to be life-inhibiting or socially supportive.