This summer, JJ Redick wanted a reset.
He had been telling himself that he would do it for several years but couldn't bring himself to follow through at first. Social media was his way of staying current with the news and keeping up with the reactions and the reactions to the reactions. He chased that dopamine hit of being in-the-know. And, for a while, it made him feel good to scratch that itch.
In August, the Philadelphia sharpshooter finally pulled the plug. He erased his once-beloved social media apps—Twitter and Instagram. He deleted all of his accounts—including his private Instagram account that only his close family and friends knew about.
All of it, gone.
Why would an NBA player in 2018 do such a thing?
"It's a dark place," he says of social media. "It's not a healthy place. It's not real. It's not a healthy place for ego"—he pauses slightly—"if we're talking about some Freudian shit. It's just this cycle of anger and validation and tribalism. It's scary, man."
Not long ago, Redick says, he reflexively pulled up social media without thinking about it or even realizing it. Too often he caught himself staring into his phone around his wife and two young sons, constantly refreshing Business Insider, HoopsHype and Twitter to satiate what he calls "Information FOMO." (Redick also pays a monthly subscription to Basketball Reference to get an ad-free NBA numbers fix.)
"It's not even conscious," Redick says. "I hate to admit it, but anytime you're at a stoplight and your phone is within reach? You pick it up. It's become instinctual. Even if you put the phone down and walk out of the room, you're always aware of where it is. It's become an extension of you. That's fucking scary."
At 34, Redick is the elder statesmen in a youthful, social-media frenzied locker room that includes Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two of the savviest athlete-users on the planet. Simmons and Embiid are Instagram magnets with about 3 million followers each, regularly making headlines and posting jabs at teammates in the comments. "I'm taking the credit: I have the best social media by far," Embiid told The Crossover. "I just do what I have to do and then I'm out."
This is the digital home of #TheProcess—perhaps the most viral unofficial battle cry in sports. But there are limits. The 76ers are one of several teams in the NBA that have tried to implement "phone buckets" or "phone bags" on occasion during team meals. Put the phone in the bag and, you know, have real conversations. "I've been on teams where you literally don't talk to each other at dinner," Redick says. "Just six guys on their phones."
To be clear, Redick isn't judging his teammates' use of social media and doesn't want to be the locker room grump by any means. He's at a different stage of his life and claims he's played in much more phone-crazed locker rooms before. He looks around the league and sees an NBA that is full of players increasingly locked into their devices. On the bus, on the plane, on the trainer's table, at the locker, at the dinner table—the phone is inescapable.
In many ways, the league's love of social media is understandable. It offers athletes a sense of control over the messaging, a slice of ownership over their public image. It can open doors and entertain the masses. But how much is too much?
"Truthfully," Redick says, "it's a problem."
It's almost impossible to separate the NBA as a league from its towering social media presence.
In 2018, the NBA was tweeted about more than any other sports league. The league's official Twitter account boasts 27 million followers—3 million more than the NFL's outpost. On Instagram, the NBA has an even bigger, thirstier audience of 31 million who follow its official feed, hoping to keep up, and engage with, the everyday drama of the best basketball players in the world. That total does not include lurkers or other accounts, like media companies, that post NBA-related content, but it is more than the NFL, MLB and NHL's audience combined (19.9 million). And that's just one barometer. Here's another: In the NBA, there are 33 players with at least 2 million followers on Instagram. In the NFL, there are nine.
"One of the reasons that the NBA is so good," Redick says, "is NBA Twitter."
This is by design, of course. Since he took over David Stern's post in 2014, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has decidedly taken a pro-social-media stance, encouraging GIFs and highlights to be freely distributed, unlike the NFL's policy. "It is completely beyond our hands, but at the same time, we can help facilitate it," Silver told the Wall Street Journal in 2015.
Walk into an NBA locker room before shootaround and you'll find 12 or so young men clutching a phone, or sometimes two, in their hands. After a game, no matter the outcome, many of them rush to open Instagram and scroll through their feeds to catch up on what people are saying (or to avoid pesky reporters). Yes, players will hop on their social media during games, too—though multiple players confirmed to B/R Mag that they do so only at halftime.
Durant's social media tendencies—the burner accounts and clap-backs to trolls—have been well-documented. But he's not alone in his penchant for checking comments. His teammate Steph Curry used to log into Twitter during halftime as a ritual, but he kicked that habit to the curb in the 2015 Finals. "When everybody is watching your game every night, if you let one ounce of negativity or one terrible comment creep in, especially right before a game or at halftime or something, it's probably not the best bet," Curry told the Mercury News.
Inside jokes that used to be contained to the locker room now often get disseminated to the public. Last season, the Los Angeles Lakers' Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball became one of the more hilarious storylines of the NBA by trading jokes via social media. After a few rounds of barbs, Kuzma made a video ragging on Ball in the style of Chappelle's Show's "Playa Haters' Ball." When Ball's diss track this summer made reference to Kuzma's nonexistent relationship with his biological father, however, Lakers management had to step in.
"I see the way Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma kill each other on social media," Keyon Dooling, the player wellness counselor of the National Basketball Players Association, says. "It's been really, really entertaining. I think the majority of folks use their social media platforms for positive. You get those authentic moments where guys are human. They allow themselves to be vulnerable, angry or passionate about something. … You get more authenticity."
Fans tune in for this very reason. Ball and Kuzma's back-and-forth isn't a bug; it's a feature. And players happily oblige, opening up their once-private lives to the public forum. "As an NBA player, privacy was one of the most sacred things," Dooling says. "Anytime you're in public, you're on. People are in your space."
In the fall of 2011, Redick joined Twitter, as many of us who joined it did, as a means to keep up with breaking news. Current events interested him—he was a history major at Duke, with a minor in cultural anthropology—but also important news that hit closer to home, like when he might get back to work.
"The only reason I started a Twitter account was because of the NBA lockout," Redick says. "It was the only time I could figure out lockout-related news."
Up until that point, Redick's career had unfolded—and run parallel to—the rise of smartphone technology. Steve Jobs announced the introduction of the iPhone in January of Redick's rookie season in 2006-07. Back then, Redick shared an Orlando locker room with Grant Hill, Tony Battie and Bo Outlaw where it was all BlackBerrys and Sidekicks. At the time, an "app" was still commonly known as shorthand for appetizer. Twitter wasn't even a year old.
But during the lockout, reading tweets, rumors and fodder became a way of watching the NBA action unfold and obsessing over it. As players found runs elsewhere—at the Drew League and Rucker Park—fans followed along. Where would Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant show up next? People wondered. Each day, it seemed, there was a new plot twist. Who could forget the infamous "Looking like a season. How u." tweet from Roger Mason Jr.? When the lockout finally ended December 8, the chatter had only become louder.
Players helped legitimize Twitter as a cultural force. Shaquille O'Neal, who joined Twitter back in 2008, became the first recipient of Twitter's blue checkmark. NBA players started getting fined in the 2009-10 season for posting on Twitter during games. On July 6, 2010, Chris Paul finally convinced his pal LeBron James to jump on Twitter. Two days later, The Decision aired on ESPN.
By 2013, Andre Drummond, Brandon Jennings and Nick Young had become the Christopher Columbuses of Instagram. The advent of Vine fanned the firestorm of Twitter as fans clipped and shared jaw-dropping highlights and easily missed bloopers to the masses in real time. A community was quickly established, and NBA Twitter was born.
And then, in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, Lance Stephenson blew into LeBron's ear. Let the memes begin.
Social media usage in the NBA turned a corner July 8, 2015. And Redick was a catalyst. He was just like many of us that day, sitting with his phone and refreshing his social media apps until his thumb locked into a cramp, when a massive impromptu emoji war popped off, centered on the free-agency decision of Redick's now-former Clippers teammate DeAndre Jordan. As Jordan was considering defecting to the Mavericks, Redick ignited the Twitter circus by responding to then-Mav Chandler Parsons' plane emoji tweet with a car emoji tweet of his own, which was then followed by Chris Paul's tweet with a banana and a boat. That night, Blake Griffin nearly broke the internet when he tweeted out a photo of a chair jamming Jordan's front door.
It was madness—and unequivocally peak NBA Twitter. The second-by-second events were exhilarating and familiar to anyone who had watched a close game with a feed nearby.
"Best day on Twitter, maybe, ever," Redick recounted shortly after on the Lowe Post podcast.
Things began to change for Redick when his son Kai was born in August 2016. He and his wife were caring for two sons. His attention and time became all the more precious. Increasingly, social media robbed him of his presence in the moment.
Now, Redick says he feels less anxious and less responsibility to keep up with a filtered representation of himself and others. For him, unplugging from social media is part of his yearslong paring-down of technology—an initiative toward essentialism. He also gave up his hobby of collecting watches. (He also shut down his Instagram account devoted to watches.)
"I don't own a watch anymore," Redick says. "Literally, that was an addiction. I'm not afraid to admit that. It took me over. My possessions possessed me. And in the same way, with social media."
Redick's intuition isn't off-base: Too much social media and smartphone use can be a problem. Social media and smartphones are such new phenomena that the scientific community has only begun to study their effects on our health. But a 2016 study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that, among young adults, those who used multiple social media platforms were more likely to show signs of depression and anxiety than those who used fewer platforms at once. More alarming: The most high-volume young-adult users (people who reported using seven to 11 social media platforms) were found to be more than three times as likely to develop depression and anxiety than lower-volume users (people who used zero to two platforms).
A paper published in September in the psychological studies journal Emotion found a correlation between electronic communication via screens and happiness. Adolescents who engaged more in the former—through social media, the internet, texting, gaming—reported lower incidences of the latter, when compared with adolescents who communicated more via non-screen activities. Psychological well-being significantly decreased after 2012; the downturn, the authors suggest, might have been, in part, linked to the "rapid adoption" of smartphones among youths. The happiest kids were ones who spent just a little time on devices.
"It's this generation's cigarettes," says Steve Magness, co-author of Peak Performance and coach to some of the top distance runners in the world. "This is where we're going with phones."
The deeper problem, Magness points out, is that we can't visualize the damage that mindless scrolling through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook does to our brains.
"The thing about it is, when it comes to just capturing your cognitive focus, it's not easy to conceptualize, like cigarette smoke turning your lungs black," Magness says. "It's become this addictive thing. We sort of have a choice, but the choice is already made. As soon as you see the phone, you're going toward it."
The compulsion to pick up the phone has recently made its way onto the radar of NBPA officials as well. They see social media usage as possibly affecting mental health.
"It's addicting to say the least," says Dr. William D. Parham, the NBPA's recently hired mental health and wellness director. "It's another way to stay connected artificially, but it works. And I don't think it's going to decrease."
Social media can have an effect on the court, too.
In 2017, researchers at Stony Brook University looked at NBA players' social media habits and discovered a surprising effect on performance. The study, published in the research journal Sleep, found that NBA players played worse statistically in games that followed late-night tweeting. On average, players scored about one point fewer in games following late-night tweets, and their shooting suffered by 1.7 percentage points compared with non-tweeting nights.
The authors couldn't say definitively how much tweeting was to blame for the statistical decline or if it was a result of a later bedtime, but other studies show that social media can impact the quality of sleep, too. People who check social media in the 30 minutes before bed are about 1.5 times more likely to have disturbed sleep.
Sleep may be the best recovery tool at players' disposal, and phones in bed can hurt sleeping habits. But that's just the beginning. In January, a study examining survey results from more than 5,000 Canadian students, ages 11 to 20 years old, found that social media use at any time—day or night—was associated with shorter sleep. Even as little as one hour of social media use per day showed a significant link with lower levels of shut-eye.
Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills and co-author of The Distracted Mind, believes social media and its addictive qualities are here to stay.
"We're past the point of no return when Instagram and Snapchat came out," Rosen says. "I think we're stuck."
In interviews with several players, coaches and executives in the league, the consensus is clear that phone use has never been more prevalent. Some believe it's an enormous problem.
Take Kelly Oubre Jr. The 22-year-old Wizards forward hates what phones and social media have done to his NBA peers as well as the larger millennial generation. He even calls it "SMD"—social media disease.
"I feel like we're too dependent on the cellphones and the social media to hype our egos and make us feel good when, at the end of the day, that comes from yourself," he told the Washington Post. "It's just a crutch, honestly."
Some believe it's harmless, just second nature in this time. Detroit Pistons forward Stanley Johnson, 22, has grown up immersed in the social media age. He was given two phones when he was in fourth grade, but he tries to minimize his time on social media because of comment toxicity.
"If you dig through the garbage, expect to find trash," Johnson says. "Instagram is perception, perception, perception. It's not real."
On numerous occasions, fans will ask Johnson to take a selfie with him, only to then post a negative caption with the photo. "I was 18 [years old] in the league and living the dream," Johnson says. "Why are you trying to take me down?"
Phones haven't become a locker room issue for him. But ever since he began his college career at Arizona, he feels he could be filmed by a teammate at any moment for public consumption. He's constantly on guard, a reality that players from an earlier generation rarely faced.
"Like, this dude is always trying to get a Snap or Instagram," Johnson says, laughing. "I'm cognizant of it."
NBA stars have at least a tacit understanding that social media can hurt their on-court performance. Look no further than LeBron James' annual self-imposed social media ban during the playoffs, what he coined in 2015 as "Zero Dark Thirty-23" mode.
"No phones, no social media, I don't have anything," James told reporters. "There's too much nonsense out there. Not during this time. This is when I lock in right now, and I don't need nothing creeping into my mind that don't need to be there."
This past postseason, James slightly altered his approach by handing his Instagram account—which, as of late September, has a larger audience than the 10 most-followed NFL athletes combined—to kids with inspirational messages to tell on his IG Stories, which remain visible for 24 hours. But the game's royalty have copied the King's "Zero Dark Thirty-23" moves, choosing to go dark on their social media for the playoffs as well. At least outwardly. Stephen Curry, James Harden and Chris Paul abstained from posting on their Twitter and Instagram feeds during their teams' postseason runs. The message: Social media—at least posting on it—is an apple only to be bitten into during the regular season and the summer months.
Not everyone can stick to it, however. Embiid largely shied away from posting to his normal Instagram feed this postseason, but after sitting out a first-round Game 2 loss against the Miami Heat with an orbital bone fracture, he couldn't help himself. Just before midnight, Embiid logged into his Instagram and posted, "Fucking sick and tired of being babied" to his IG Stories.
The late-night posting and Zero Dark Thirty violation didn't seem to hurt too much. Coincidence or not, Embiid was then cleared to play and hung 23 points, seven rebounds and three blocks on the Heat in Game 3.
Curry, a two-time MVP, sees the good in social media. But he admits that it's a toxic place at times, as he told the Mercury News in February:
"You've got derogatory stuff. You've got people attacking your family. You've got people sending pictures of them and their families wearing your jersey. You have people on there who will send 40 messages in a row to try to get me to respond to them. I get wedding invites, prom invites, all of that stuff. And this year, any type of political debate that comes up surrounding [President Donald] Trump and athletes, somehow I get tagged."
The great value of social media and phones is that they function as intermediaries. But for NBA players, that kind of connectivity means there will be more audiences to tend to—family, teammates, coaches, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, friends on group texts, agents and business managers. Parham says those pulls can be daunting for NBA players as they try to find a sense of self. Players may forget the value of being present and introspective—without a device in hand.
"People will never see their reflection in running water," Parham says. "It is only when the water is still is when the reflection will emerge."
Stillness is hard to come by these days. Phones interrupt true solitude. And that can be really damaging.
"We're fighting the new default mode," Magness says. "When we're sitting at a table and there was silence and nothing going on, our default used to be that you were forced to interact, right? Our default during boredom was interaction. Now, you reach for your phone."
It's easy to see how that plays out on the court, where there are no phones by which to communicate. When you need a player to quickly rotate on defense, you don't text the command; you say it out loud. You can't send an emoji or a funny GIF when you're confused by a play call; you have to communicate by speaking up. Little by little, that disconnect can sap chemistry and erode execution.
As phones alter interpersonal dynamics, coaches are turning to unconventional methods to meet the players where they are.
"What used to take care of itself naturally," says Magness, "now you have to engineer."
On a sunny June morning in Los Angeles, an NBA head coach hopped into the backseat of a black SUV destined for Rose Cafe, a quiet lunch spot just off the always buzzing Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice Beach. It was a trip made in secret—which is to say he requested not to be named for this story. The night before, the Warriors had topped the Cavs in Game 1 of the Finals after JR Smith unthinkably dribbled out the clock and turned the series into a laboratory of memes. The Finals are where the head coach wants to be next year. That's why he booked the meeting, even as predraft workout season had kicked into high gear. He had more pressing matters to attend to.
When he arrived, he sat down with a behavior designer named Matthew Mayberry from Boundless Mind, an artificial-intelligence startup that works out of a one-car garage. The 10-employee tech company, launched by T. Dalton Combs and Ramsay Brown under its previous name Dopamine Labs, has been featured on a 60 Minutes report called "Brain Hacking" because of what its team of neuroscientists is working on. The coach and Mayberry talked about his team and, specifically, the phone addiction that had overtaken the locker room.
"How do I get players and staff to put down their damn phones in meetings?" the coach asked. "Can we turn phone addiction away from time sucks like Instagram and Twitter and toward productive tasks like watching film or studying scouting reports? Can we actually change these habits?"
Mayberry had plenty of ideas. This is what his group does: turn bad phone habits into good ones.
"You can liken it to sabermetrics in baseball 10 years ago," Mayberry says now. "Healthier phone use, or more advanced technology around phone use, is the next wave of the NBA."
The coach, a Boundless Mind spokesperson says, is the first of his position in any major sport to meet in person. Quietly, however, multiple NBA teams have already reached out, desperate for help in changing behavior. Nondisclosure agreements prevent Boundless Mind from identifying those teams or sharing much else.
Coaches have to pick their battles. For some, it's a generational thing where they're old enough to be some players' grandfather. Many of the coaches who described challenges they're having wouldn't talk on the record about their players' phone habits.
"That's just not a war you're going to win," said one longtime NBA coach.
But in an interview with the Washington Post, Stan Van Gundy said: "You're banging your head against the wall if you're going to try to get them to put their phones down. They're not on their phones when we're in a pregame meeting, they're not on their phones when we're in meetings, they're not on their phones when they're out there playing. But every other time, as soon as I walk out of the postgame meeting."
Mayberry isn't surprised that the NBA is the first North American league to knock on their garage door. For starters, it's the most social media-friendly. No masks to hide behind. Sharable highlights. Fluid game paired with an equally spontaneous news cycle. More importantly, many of its owners are tech giants or have deep software ties—Mark Cuban, Steve Ballmer and Vivek Ranadive, to name a few. (NBA executives fall prey to phone addiction, as The Athletic's Tim Cato found. Bryan Colangelo even lost his GM job because he was linked to unprofessional Twitter activity on multiple accounts.) These owners are more open to consulting neuroscientists out of a one-car garage if it means it could help team chemistry or skill development.
The key lies in unlocking the phone's unhealthy habits and converting them to healthy ones.
"These apps are designed to be addicting," Mayberry says. "Anybody, whether you're LeBron James or a guy with 10 followers, when somebody likes your photo, that little like releases dopamine in your brain and it makes you feel good. It makes you want to come back and do that action again because you want to chase that high. You get stuck in this habit loop. Doing the behavior, getting the reward, doing the behavior, get the reward."
If it sounds like pulling a lever at a casino, it's designed to be that way, says Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager.
"This thing is a slot machine," Harris told 60 Minutes. "Every time I check my phone, I'm playing the slot machine to see, 'What did I get?' This is one way to hijack people's minds and create a habit."
How do you break off that habit loop? And how do you create healthier habits? Over the past decade, NBA teams have sunk millions of dollars into fancy sports science gadgets, medical specialists and state-of-the-art practice facilities, but oftentimes they've found difficulty in changing habits in players' lives and the sport in general.
Says Mayberry: "What good are sleep and diet plans if players can't stick to them? Would a team still spend money on trainers and nutritionists if they knew players were going to abandon them because they didn't have proper habits set up?"
Ironically, the supercomputer in your hand could be one solution. Maybe it's a strategically timed reminder to meditate depending on the hour of the day. Maybe it's possible to "game-ify" a playbook to encourage watching film and memorizing X's and O's. Instead of rewarding streaks of daily posts on Snapchat, what about using the same idea to incentivize streaks of proper sleep habits before bed?
Or maybe it's as simple as creating a social media deterrent—with your phone. A number of players have taken to Headspace, an app that leads its users through guided meditations. In March, the NBA partnered with the app, giving the league, its players and its employees subscriptions in exchange for distribution on the NBA's website and app.
Durant, for one, has considered trying it. "I've heard so much about it," he said on McCollum's podcast (McCollum uses the app). "I know so many people who do it. People that I respect that do it. I'm not opposed to it. I guess I gotta just try it and see how it is. Me, I feel like my life has been moving so fast, especially since I came to Golden State. Just, like, everything just switched and turned. Everything happened so fast. I just need to slow down."
Boundless Mind, of course, has developed its own app called Space, which is designed to short-circuit the addictive impulses that apps like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook prey on. Space, aesthetically, looks like a social media app, but when you open it, a screen appears with a calming prompt, asking you to take two deep breaths before your social media app opens up.
"That little delay, that little moment of zen," Mayberry says, "helps rewire the instant gratification sensors in your brain to not make you want to go out and impulsively check Instagram or binge on Twitter."
After the June meeting in Venice Beach, the NBA coach was sold and scheduled Mayberry and his team to fly out to speak to the organization. The talk's title?
"Solutions To Adopt To Drive Championship Behaviors."
You can't find Redick's car emoji tweet anymore because it's gone along with his social media accounts. Social media was a "den of vipers," he says, drawing on a characterization he picked up from his cultural anthropology professor at Duke, Ralph Litzinger, whom Redick considers a close friend to this day.
Redick admits that, even as he felt the negativity on social media, he still was hooked. He felt he was a pawn in a larger game of apps trying to monopolize his attention and loathed what example he was setting for his sons Knox, 4, and Kai, 2.
"We're going to have a generation of kids whose norm will be people just being addicted to their phones," Redick says. "And that's what scares me. The impact on my kids, I think about that daily. Like, what is this doing to me and my family?"
Redick's realization mirrors that of the larger public. The perception of the inherent "good" of social media world has changed as of late. In a recent Honest Data poll of 2,000 Americans, 27 percent said Facebook had a "negative impact on society." And in response to criticism over iPhone addiction, Apple introduced a triage of tools in its latest software update to combat excessive use and unhealthy habits.
Parham acknowledges that stopping and unplugging isn't easy. Changing behavior is hard. And when you throw in the business opportunities that opening up your life through social media can bring, it creates a Pandora's box.
While Redick may be offline, other NBA players have hired agents, social media and business managers to help navigate and, in some cases, profit from their social media usage. Even with the assistance, maintaining several digital versions of oneself can be stressful and difficult to organize cleanly for public and business consumption.
"It's overwhelming," Parham says. "It's a system that's here to stay. It's a whole new beast. People get caught up in identities and all sorts of stuff, and they have an investment in maintaining that identity. If you are a pro athlete and you get $10 million a year, and you go to three or four sponsors and I'm getting $5 million more from each of them, hey, I'm going to ride this gravy train for as long as I can."
Therein lies the dilemma. Redick, and others, have given up. Others stick around and enjoy the company of millions.
"It makes sense and you're sort of incentivized to do that," Parham says. "But at what cost?"
To Redick, it's a price he'd rather not pay anymore. Now that he's gone dark (possibly for good), he feels a burden has been lifted.
"Greatest thing ever," he says.
Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full-time since 2010, joining B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of the Count the Dings podcast network and regularly hosts the Back to Back podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.