OPINION | SAVE YOURSELF: Social media’s big cost isn’t cash

Redirect focus to real relationships

Money should be the servant of time. When we save into our retirement plans, for instance, we are acting on this belief and buying our future time. We can also use money to buy time in the present. For instance, some people can afford housekeepers or lawn services to buy back time. But we humans can be conflicted. Intellectually we know that time is both precious and finite. But emotionally time can seem cheap and infinite. This causes us to view both time and money in ways that research tells us is not good for us.

The good news is that we can look no further than our distracted hours each day on our phones to find time that is theoretically pretty cheap to buy back. The bad news is that it really isn't that easy.

Last week I was strolling through my yard admiring all the new blooms and growth, quietly sipping my coffee when my daughter came bursting through the front door, hand outstretched with something she urgently needed to get to me. "Mom!" she yelled, "I found your phone!"

She had found my phone, right where I had left it, in my bedroom, power switched off. I must have had the same look audiences had when they encountered the shower scene in "Psycho." What had I taught my 5-year-old?

Let's back up. Until October 2021, as cringeworthy as this sounds, I was an aspiring "financial influencer" on social media. I believed so much in what I was doing, but the cracks in strategy started to form as I noticed how frequently I was logging in to check notifications or just found myself scrolling for several minutes through the feeds of friends' pictures, rants and check-ins.

But then one day I noticed a Screen Time notification that popped up on my phone saying my screen time was up double digits. "Double digits from what?" I asked myself. I clicked on that notification and what unfolded in front of my eyes was shocking, embarrassing, but mostly enraging. My time scrolling wasn't measured in minutes, it was measured in hours.

You can try this out. If you have an iPhone go grab it. Go to "settings" and then scroll down until you see "Screen Time" with a little hourglass icon next to it. First you will see your daily average of total usage, but then you can click on "details." This page will report your highest usages.

There are probably a lot of screen time suck areas from Netflix binging to text messaging that we could cover, but I want to reflect on our time on social media. It would be one thing if we look back on those hours scrolling feeling fulfilled and connected, productive or even relaxed. But a lot of people report feelings of inadequacy or anxiety or being left out because we weren't invited to the party.

Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus, confirms this misbelief that we are using social media for connection and that it's meaningful time. When it comes to social media, he challenges us to see our "friendships" on social media for what they aren't. "It's not friendship to pore jealously over another person's photos and boasts and complaints, and to expect them to do the same for you."

OK, so let's pivot back to the value of time over money. In the book Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life, Harvard researcher Ashley Whillans makes a wildly well researched and argued case for the value of time over money. She shows how society suffers from time poverty but then reinforces the happiness that we know can come from time affluence. We are all asking for more time, but we don't seem to want to sacrifice money for it. "Even when we know we should make time-centric decisions," she notes, "escaping the allure of money is remarkably difficult."

Whillans believes we need to practice creating intentional time for what we love or find meaningful, and after experiencing that time maybe we could value it enough to pay for more of it. Let me give an example. Pre-October me would have said I love paddleboarding and reading fiction or gardening or sitting on my couch but didn't have time for it regularly. Post-October me has read over a dozen books (half non-fiction -- get this -- reading for the sheer joy of it), has spent countless hours staring into space, and even on a school night surprised the kids when they got home with a "let's load up all the kayaks and have an evening sunset picnic at Two Rivers while the sun goes down."

Quality time is the ultimate reward, but we have to find it or buy it. Whillans suggests we find it by making a subtraction list, or the "time-impoverishing activities you fall into." In other words, can we find the time for free? If your screen time reports what mine did before October last year, then grab your paddle board and meet me at Two Rivers on a weekday. We don't have to pay a dime for extra time -- if we are spending hours on social media or time-wasting apps on our phone, then ditching that is like hitting the time lottery!

But in Stolen Focus, Hari essentially tells us, "not so fast." We get insight into a tech industry that is fundamentally financially conflicted with us and our undistracted time. We used to think naively that the trade off with Facebook or Instagram scrolling was our money, through dead-on targeted ads. But that's not it. The real cost is our time. They need our eyeballs for as many minutes or hours as possible, and they know how to get them.

They want our 5-year-old to run out to us in desperation if we leave our phone behind. Afterall, this is her training for when she is old enough to have a device. They need us picking up our phones all the time, and we oblige. Hari points out that the average person touches their phone 2,617 time a day!

Big Tech got us to a certain point, but we have sprinted with it and become long distance runners. Apparently, our brains become wired to crave this disruptive time. Hari interviewed an "interruptions expert" (yes, that's really a thing) who claimed, "If you have spent long enough being interrupted in your daily life, you will start to interrupt yourself even when you are set free from all these external interruptions."

Whillans describes what these interruptions do to destroy more hours than we can measure as "time confetti." While your screen time might show a total of 3 minutes spent on text messaging in an hour, in reality, each time you picked up that phone you disrupted your thought process and had to transition your brain to go back to that activity. Three minutes could have effectively disrupted that whole hour.

So, do we all just put the phones down? I wish it were that easy.

I have experienced a clunky several months, but I have finally gotten to the point where I can report that my social media time is measured in single digit minutes versus single digit hours per day. I have fought "time confetti" and phone pickups and have redirected this time toward precious, meaningful and leisure hours by myself or with my family. I read. I write. I paddle. I stare into space. But note that I had to relearn how to have time without distraction, whether in response to a notification or my own addictive desire to pick up that phone.

Several weeks ago I confided in a friend about this project and was surprised to hear she was contemplating the same action. She described many of the addictive behaviors and challenges that were barriers to stopping. But she took my advice and experimented with a pause in social media and other phone distractions. I checked in Wednesday morning last week to see her progress.

She responded with a story. Last weekend on a family trip they were pulling into the driveway of their destination, and she realized she had left her phone at a service station 45 miles back. I asked her what in the world would have been so compelling as to keep her from stopping to look at her phone for emails, texts, social media, the time -- anything? "Talking with my husband," she said.

We have to save ourselves when it comes to money, recognizing that in the end we are saving money to buy time. Assuming we rationally value time in such a way, then why wouldn't we take this extra step to find more of it and have better quality of time when we get it?

Dramatically scaling back my technology use seemed daunting to me at first and the fear of missing out was real. But the reality of missing out is not. In the end, my real friends meet me for coffee and catch me up. Otherwise, you can find me blissfully unaware as I stroll through my yard rather than scrolling through my phone.

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book "But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life," published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at sc@aptusfinancial.com.

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