Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are purely my own and not of ITAA. ITAA has no opinions on outside issues, including whether any particular technologies are good or bad, and the organization is not affiliated with any political agenda, religion, or outside interests. I am not a spokesperson for ITAA. I do not speak for ITAA as a whole.
I started writing this article about my relationship with social media, TV and streaming platforms over 3 years ago. Since then, I’ve tried everything to keep my screen habits under control. Deleting all the apps. Putting my phone in the other room. Caving. Redownloading all the apps. Bingeing. Deleting them again. None of it worked.
Among my many rabbit holes, my personal weakness has been reality TV on YouTube. Until recently, I checked YouTube every day for new clips of my favorite TLC shows. Every. Day. This had been going on for years. Especially when I was unemployed or feeling lonely after a breakup, I easily found 2-3 hours to watch YouTube per day. It always started with a quick, three-minute video of one of my favorite shows, including 19 Kids and Counting, Counting On, My 600lbs Life, Say Yes To The Dress, Doubling with the Derricos, and Oprah and Dr Phil clips from the 1990s and 2000s. But once I watched one video, I couldn’t stop. Thousands of hours of my life have eroded in front of my eyes. Combined with the video games I’ve played, and the feeds I’ve scrolled, I have easily wasted 10,000 hours of my life consuming media.
Technology is supposed to enhance our lives, connect us with loved ones, and empower us to be our best selves. But instead, it has numbed my emotions while simultaneously destroying my self-esteem. I’m not good enough, Instagram tells me. I’m less beautiful, successful and accomplished than I should be. And that feeling of worthlessness only drove me to binge watch yet another season of 90 Day Fiancé.
But this summer, I finally decided to face the magnitude of my addiction and make a change. In this article, I’ll share my experience joining ITAA (Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous) and which tools of recovery have helped me in addressing my media addiction.
The Start of My Addiction
As a kid, I could watch up to 5 hours of TV per day after school. Once I graduated from cartoons to MTV, I especially loved shows like Teen Mom 2 and 16 and Pregnant. I had an insatiable appetite for peoples’ lives that were tragic, complex and broken apart by drama. Reflecting back now I wonder: why was I so fascinated by these people who were my age? Was it the sense of escape, or my time to veg on the couch after a long day? Looking deeper within myself, I’ve found that my interest is much more insidious.
I grew up in the self-esteem movement. All the adults in my life constantly told me how unique, special and exceptional I was. As a result, I had limitless expectations for what I should be achieving in my life. On the surface I was ticking all the boxes, getting into the right schools, and getting good jobs. But ultimately, my sense of worth was built on the fact that I was better than other people. I needed endless validation to maintain the status that my life was great. Once I left school and was out in the real world without my teachers’ validation, I used the lives of people on reality TV to fill that void.
“Look,” I’d justify it to myself, “My life is nowhere near as bad as theirs. See?”
To me, my compulsive use of YouTube seemed more invisible and less damaging than a drug, alcohol or food addiction. Yet the fact that I was not investing in building my own life snowballed over time. I was checking boxes on the surface, but inside I was deeply hurting. I hated my job. I hated who I was becoming.
My Rock Bottom
Tired after a long day of analyzing data at home, I’d move straight from my desk to the comfort of my bed. Opening Instagram, I’d start with stinging clips of the girls that I wanted to be. The successful authors, the public speakers, the environmental activists, the girls with careers that were taking off, and the interviews they’d been requested to do about their book deals. The girls who were out there doing things. My mind would blare like a sergeant on a loudspeaker.
You’re a loser stuck at home. These girls are so much more successful than you. Every day you’re just slipping further and further behind them. And you’re not even performing well at your job. For god’s sake. How did you let yourself become such a worthless cog in this corporate wheel?
I’d heat up a Trader Joes ready meal in the microwave for dinner. Expended, exhausted, I’d need something bigger and stronger than my own anxieties in order to mask them. Back on my bed, I’d turn to YouTube. The sky would darken outside. Instagram Reels and TikTok would cheer me up. I’d set a new bedtime. 12:30. 1:30. 2:30. No, this is getting really bad. 3:00.
Perpetually consuming, I was witnessing my own muted, accelerated death. I had forgotten about my life beyond my feeds and recommended videos. I had forgotten about all the things beyond my screen that I wanted to do. My ambitions to become a writer and grow my feminist podcast to inspire others felt like distant, almost imaginary dreams. Every day was like the next. Another night fading into oblivion. The more videos I watched, the greater resistance I felt was preventing me from taking action and improving my life.
A Real Solution: Joining ITAA
In early August 2022, I got my wakeup call. I went to a lecture by a leading executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith. There I learnt that in 2015, Goldsmith had predicted that “media addiction” would surpass drug and alcohol addiction combined. Hearing those two words was the turning point for me. It was the moment I finally admitted it. I was a media addict. I needed to get help.
I had attended Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings with a friend a couple years back out of curiosity. So I found ITAA, Internet & Technology Addicts Anonymous, and attended my first meeting on August 2nd. Through their online sessions (ironic, I know), I began to work through ITAA’s tools of recovery, and was finally able to experience media sobriety for the first time in years.
Here are the 7 tools that have helped me in recovery so far:
1. Go to ITAA meetings
Dropping in and out of their online schedule, I participate in meetings and share with the group for 2-3 minutes about the challenges I’m facing in recovery. There I’ve discovered that the exact nature of everyone’s addiction is unique. Some people have addictions to online browsing and shopping, porn, video games, TV series and dating apps. But what unites us is our willingness to be honest about our addiction, to show up and try to change. Meeting people who are months or years into their sobriety has also inspired me to see that it can be done.
2. Establish your bottom lines
Paraphrasing from ITAA’s website, “bottom lines” are any internet or media activity that I have to completely abstain from in order to be free of my addiction. These are activities that once I do them, I can’t stop, or I can’t stay stopped. Most people add to this list overtime, but my initial bottom lines are things I do compulsively. They include:
- Searching TLC on YouTube
- Searching 90 Day Fiancé on YouTube
- Opening up YouTube to consume any unnecessary content (My necessary content on YouTube only includes how-to videos, such as Webflow tutorials as I’m learning to build my website. I do not use the search homepage on YouTube)
- Opening Instagram Reels
- Opening Instagram Stories
- Opening Reddit
- Opening up my FYP on TikTok
Since August 2nd, I have completely abstained from YouTube, Instagram Reels and Reddit. I no longer have my sleep interrupted until 3am by Instagram Reels like I used to on my worst days. And my self-esteem has improved so much now that I’m using Instagram less and not beating myself up about my career. I’m working on the others.
3. Establish your middle lines
Middle lines are the things that “can give rise to urges to use internet and technology compulsively. Middle lines could be tech-related behaviors such as online shopping or checking email, non-tech related situations such as an approaching deadline or travel, or difficult emotions like loneliness or fear.” My middle lines so far include:
- Keeping my phone next to my bed
- Checking notifications on Instagram, LinkedIn or Twitter (I end up scrolling)
- Career fear and anxiety
- Not making plans in the evening
- Moving house
- Being stressed about money and work
- Sitting down at my computer or phone without a specific task to complete
- Being hormonal on certain days of my period
- Waiting in lines or traveling on the subway
Middle lines have been harder to define because they often depend on my emotional state. If my day was great and I leave my phone next to my bed at night, I might be okay. But after a bad day, I’d quickly pick it up and be hooked. This is where some of the band-aid solutions, such as putting your phone in another room, can be helpful and I’ve added those to the appendix.
4. Establish your top lines
Top lines are activities that are positive for me and enhance my self-esteem. Top lines are the fun part of my sobriety! They are the things that I forgot I loved doing while I was too busy watching YouTube, and that I get to do more of now. For me, my top lines are activities that help me experience flow, such as writing. Writing is something I love to do, and it brings me more joy than any kind of content consumption ever could. As Joseph Gordon-Levitt put it well in his TED talk, flow is “the thing that happens in the human brain when someone pays attention to just one thing, like something creative, and manages not to get distracted by anything else. And some say the more regularly you do this, the happier you’ll be.” Here are my top lines:
- Writing (anything! Article, second book, poetry, etc.)
- Going for a run
- Spending quality time with my grandmother, family or friends
- Reading books on my Kindle
- Going to art museums
- Interviewing someone for my podcast and editing episodes
Since getting sober, my productivity and my happiness has improved so much because of my top lines. I have written and edited more articles, queried more agents for my book, improved my SubStack and built my website. Everything that felt stagnant before, like I was a loser and a failure, has melted away. I now put time and energy into building my career and growing as a writer. Getting more done, getting my work out there and having more readers has been insanely rewarding. Everything feels like it is coming to fruition.
5. Do a 12 Steps workshop
In late August, I joined a series within ITAA to complete the 12 steps. These steps are well known and used in a variety of addiction communities, including the oldest, AA, OA (Overeaters Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous). While they are very well documented, I will just touch on my experience with the first step:
“1. We admitted we were powerless over internet and technology—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Admitting that I was powerless over internet and technology, that the algorithms had outsmarted me, took a huge weight off of my shoulders. But to admit my life was “unmanageable”? That was harder. On the surface, I was a functioning adult, doing some of the things I wanted to do with my life like exercising and traveling. Yet this step was about understanding that because I was still using tech and media compulsively, I was only living at about 40% of my potential capacity. When I wanted to spend the evening writing or reading, I often couldn’t because I needed that time to watch videos.
In my first step meeting, we read a chapter from The Big Book for AA which resonated with me. It included a story about a man who planned to be sober until he retired. He didn’t drink for 25 years until the day he retired, happy and successful, at the age of 55. He believed after being sober for so long, he could drink again like any other person. So he drank again. Instead, he quickly fell into disrepair and drank himself to death within four years. The book says, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.”
I realized that my life was unmanageable because, any day now, I could start watching reality TV again and be unable to stop. In fact, if I had any kind of expiry date on my sobriety, my life would quickly devolve back into what it was before. I decided that if I was really going to get sober, I would get sober forever. I understood that even if I have been sober for two years or five years, one day of video watching would end all the progress that I have made. And I carry this vigilance with me every day.
6. When it gets hard, repeat to yourself: “Just for today.”
Some days in recovery are really hard, especially when things aren’t going so well or I get bad news. If things get really bad, I will go to an ITAA meeting and plan how I am going to stay sober just for the rest of the day, or just for the next hour. Breaking down those compulsions and emotions is really helpful, as is coming up with a sober activity I can do to get my mind off things and move through it. When things get hard, I find it helpful to just take a tiny step, minute by minute, hour by hour.
7. Forgive yourself and work through your anxieties
As I sought more treatment through ITAA, I learnt that a lot of my compulsive tech habits were driven by paralysis, guilt, anxiety, and fear about my career. I was afraid of not becoming successful. I was afraid of becoming successful. I experienced anxiety about this constantly.
Olivia Remes at Cambridge University has put together some great research about how to cope with anxiety. She advises us to “forgive yourself for any mistakes you think you might have made a few moments ago, to mistakes made in the past.” Even now, I find it hard to forgive myself when I think about all that time over the years I wasted consuming media. But forgiving myself is the only way I can turn towards my addiction and acknowledge the pain that it has caused me. When I pictured myself as a functioning adult, I never imagined myself sitting like a scrolling zombie on my phone or my laptop for so long every day. And yet, that is how an egregious amount of my life has already played out. I have had to accept the past in order to embrace what I needed right now, to work through the toughest parts of my addiction, and move forward.
Who is a good candidate for ITAA?
Many people have asked me about what level of technology use counts as a “media addiction”. Aren’t we all addicted to our phones? The short answer is: yes. Excessive phone use is normalized in our culture, and the law and health advice has not caught up enough to put a stop to it.
Still, I believe that it is up to each of us as individuals to assess whether we are happy with our relationship with technology. Personally, I didn’t like how compulsive I was about watching reality TV shows. I had to check for new TLC clips on YouTube every day, and I didn’t like that once I started, I’d wake up from my video rabbit hole potentially hours later, wishing I had been writing or seeing a friend instead. I learnt the hard way from trying and failing so many times that I was truly powerless in the face of internet and technology. Introducing elements of tech sobriety into my life through ITAA has been hard, but not impossible, and it has also been incredibly freeing.
Part of me thought writing this article would be pointless. Our phones and computers are such an integral part of our lives. Everyone has seen “The Social Dilemma”. No one cares if I’m another whiny millennial ditching my smartphone for some old Nokia flip phone. But I decided that if I could help just one person regain an hour of their life that they would have spent unnecessarily using tech, then my efforts to write this would have been worth it.
As a society, I think we need to look in the mirror. Relationship expert Esther Perel has said when people go to bed with their partner and wake up in the morning, “The last thing they stroke is their phone. The first thing they stroke is their phone.” Is this really the direction we want to be going in? We have to be honest about how this technology has wiggled its way into our lives, and rebuild relationships with technology that work for us, not the other way around. Our rights to our time and attention are human rights, and we need to do more to protect them. Yet, like with smoking in the 1950s, we’re encouraging and normalizing these very addictive and unhealthy behaviors in our society today. Researchers, lawmakers and judges need to catch up and act as the voice of reason in order to help protect us.
Each of us may be battling a slightly different monster when it comes to tech and media addiction, but it's the fight itself that unites us against devices that are rigging the flaws of our brains that have evolved over thousands of years. On my deathbed, I am not going to say: “I wish I had binge-watched more Oprah clips from the early 2000s.” No. Instead, I wish I had never stepped on these slippery slopes in the first place. Yet I can’t go back and undo it. I can only redo, and try to get out of the trenches, while holding the equivalent of a casino in my hand. For now, I’m going to stick with ITAA and hope that it can continue to help me achieve that.
This section is about my band-aid techniques for reducing my computer and phone use that have had limited effects. They can be helpful for addressing middle lines but will not help with bottom lines. The idea of putting barriers between myself and my devices came from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.
1. If you’re late to the party, don’t show up at all. If you’ve made it this far without using TikTok or getting an Apple Watch, don’t even bother. I should never have clicked on that first video in the Depp v. Heard case. It’s far easier to not take that first step on the slippery slope than it is to climb your way out of the hole after 15 hours of straight binging. Don’t buy an Xbox or PlayStation console. Don’t set up a Twitch or Animal Crossing account.
2. Block websites on your computer using Stayfocusd. This helped me stop my YouTube addiction from bleeding into my workday. In my list of blocked websites, I’ve also included random but very distracting links, like Google’s web app version of Solitaire.
3. Block apps on your phone using Opal. I know $60USD is an annoying amount of money to spend on an app, but Opal is really the only thing that’s prevented me from using Instagram, YouTube and TikTok on my phone. Here are my schedules I have set on Opal. Basically, I block everything useless for the entire day and night and keep a half-hour window from 10:00pm-10:30pm in case I have to change this for any reason, such as posting a TikTok for #booktok.
4. Deleted my friend’s Netflix password
5. Bought a basic Casio Watch for $13 off Amazon to check the time and set an alarm