Breaking the Chains of Social Media: The Smartphone Notification Hierarchy

Like any good millennial, I have spent plenty of time glued to my smartphone. I have also walked around midtown Manhattan at lunch time on a weekday, and I know that it isn’t just one generation that can’t peel their eyes away from their phones. There is something about our phones that has taken hold of us, limiting our own free will to put our phones down.

We do not yet fully understand what our smartphones or social media are doing to our brains. Without understanding the problem, we cannot completely solve the problem. I do believe, however, that there is one immediate remedy we can all employ immediately to lessen social media’s influence over us.


This is where the addictive nature of smartphones crosses paths with the addictive nature of social media. Our smartphones provide us with immediate access to limitless information. This is a good thing. It does not, however, mean that all of this information needs to be pushed to us in real-time. Every single news update, sports score, like, or retweet does not need to interrupt our daily lives. This, of course, requires that we define our lives as our interactions with the real world around us, of which our online interactions are as subset.

Since some of the time we spend engaging with our phones and social media is a valid part of our real lives, some of the intrusions we experience are warranted. Therefore, I propose a hierarchy (see image below) for how to approach the notifications settings on your smart phone. Yes, you are in control of the notifications you receive from your phone. The hierarchy includes four levels, each of which is designed to match the intrusiveness of the notification with the importance of the information that is delivered.

Notification Hierarchy

Level 1

First, if the failure to receive a notification will result in damage to your career or real-world relationships, then it should cause your phone to ring or vibrate. This should be limited to texts and phone calls for most of us. Career-related notifications may be required for some. This does not include emails. The people who are capable of sending you an “urgent” email should also have your phone number.

Additionally, if the failure to reply to a DM or tag on Instagram or any other social media platform in real-time is going to damage a real-world relationship, you may need to have a conversation with this friend or reconsider the friendship.

Level 2

The second level in the hierarchy are notifications that appear on your screen when it is locked. This should be limited to the same apps as the previous level, with the addition of a single news source. No social media. I’d really argue against email here too, but we all have jobs with bosses who have different expectations, but if you can – or are in the position to impact this for others – turn off the email.

Level 3

The third level is unlocked banner notifications. These appear at the top of your screen when your phone is unlocked. I prefer these to banners that appear when your phone is locked because they don’t entice you to pick up your phone. I also like the fact that they are accompanied by a few lines of information, so the notification isn’t a complete mystery. If it is major breaking news, you can click on it. If there is an injury to someone on your fantasy football team, it can probably wait (or not, your call).

At this level, in addition to email and text, consider a few more news sources includeing sports or entertainment. I also have LinkedIn notifications coming in, because I usually ignore them, and can often glean as much information as I need from the banners. The reason I recommend keeping some limitations is that these can cause us to fall into a common smartphone trap. You open your phone to send a text, and the next thing you know you are in a political argument with your cousin’s friend on Facebook.

Level 4

The next level of notifications is the red dot in the corner of the app on your screen. This is where our social media additions kick in. We crave that red dot. Maybe someone liked our post. Maybe they commented. Maybe my friend’s uncle who I totally just owned with a comment on his political rant has responded. Maybe none of these things are important, and just induce a dopamine rush that we crave.

The general rule that I employ at this level is that any non-social media app can display these notifications. This doesn’t mean that you need to enable these notifications for all apps, but if an app may have significant information, and you otherwise wouldn’t open it regularly, these notifications can be useful.

Beyond the hierarchy

Social media apps are noticably missing from all four levels of the hierarchy. There is of course a fifth level to the hierarchy, which consists of apps that never display a notification. These should include all social media apps, or any app that we find ourselves unable to resist (gaming apps apply here too). The reason they should never display a notification is that we should make conscious decisions that determine when we access these social networks. We shouldn’t let algorithms decide when and how we are pulled in. Social media companies have many brilliant people working with sophisticated technology, data and algorithms all designed to “increase engagement”. This means they want you to use their platforms more. Given the limited number of hours in the day, they are competing with the time we spend dealing with the real world around us. It also means we will inevitably reach a point at which we lose control over how frequently we access their platform. Notifications are a major tool they use to get us to open their apps.

I will close with the personal recommendation that you consider deleting several social media apps from your phone. Maybe not all of them, but try a week without the apps you find yourself reflexively opening up in moments of boredom. Those that you open up without consciously thinking about it. For me it was first Facebook and then Twitter. I’m still on both social networks (although I try to limit Facebook to once a week), but just not on my phone. I can’t recommend it enough.