Whenever I eat junk food, it’s the same story every time. Before I take the first bite, I salivate as my brain tells me the candy, pizza, or fries, will be the best food I’ll ever eat. While I’m inhaling it, it’s nice, but never tastes as good as I thought it would. And afterwards, I feel regret — the combination of a food coma, and knowing that I’m again deferring my dream of a Baywatch body.
When I realized my relationship with social media was the same as my relationship with junk food, I knew something needed to change.
So earlier this summer, when I told people that I would abandon all social media networks in August 2017, most thought I was crazy.
“You’ll never be able to do it”
“Won’t you feel out of the loop?”
“How will you keep up with the news?”
“Don’t you need it for your job?”
Follow this brave millennial on a disconnected adventure as I abandon Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, all dating apps, and avocado toast (just kidding, I would never abandon avocado toast) for a month, and live to tell the tale.
I undertook this experiment for 2 main reasons:
First, as a personal challenge to prove I could do it. I’ve consumed social media nearly every day for over a decade. I track my daily phone and app usage with (ironically) the iPhone app “Moment” and am often horrified at the results. How was it possible that I spent hours per day on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram? It felt like so much less. (And science says there’s a reason for that.)
Second, to test if the price I pay in attention and happiness is worth the benefit I receive from these platforms. I wanted to take a break and re-evaluate my relationship with social media, and see how it might better serve me. I had come to discover that each platform delivered unique negative side effects:
Instagram: Using IG inflicted me with a deep sense of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), resentment and envy. I felt this despite knowing that most people’s photos are completely contrived and designed to project a non-realistic image of their best selves.
Facebook & Snapchat: I spent hours consuming the daily lives and random musings of loose connections in my network. Isn’t my time better spent elsewhere?
LinkedIn: I deluded myself into thinking LinkedIn was critical to my professional success. In reality, most of my usage was aimlessly checking on what acquaintances from school or previous jobs were up to and (sub)conciously comparing myself to them.
Twitter: I’d spent A LOT of time on Twitter. While I’ve developed meaningful IRL (“In Real Life”) relationships with people I’ve met on the platform, and learned a lot, I was concerned about value, noise, and stress.
Much of the content in my feed was expiring and ephemeral, and had limited lasting value. Would I care about it in 5 years, let alone 5 months, let alone 5 minutes?
There was too much “noise” and not enough “signal” on the platform. When everyone has a microphone, you must be ruthless in how you filter.
My feed had increasingly become an unpleasant source of stress, dominated by the latest news stories and lacking basic civility. For me, engaging with Twitter this way did not serve me. (It’s worth noting that The New York Times White House reporter Glenn Thrush recently left Twitter, too.)
I asked a friend to serve as a “sponsor” who would support me during the experiment.
I deleted all the apps from my phone.
I changed all of my passwords to randomly generated 16-character strings and wrote them down on a piece of paper.
I googled “How to mail a letter,” and
Mailed my passwords to my sponsor.
This may sound extreme, but I found the symbolic commitment to be helpful in moments of weakness.
Difficult at first, then effortless.
For the first few days, my deeply ingrained habits persisted. I would open up a browser window on my laptop, and instinctively type in facebook.com, twitter.com or instagram.com, even though I knew I had no way to login to them. I did this several times each day over the first week.
However, with each day that passed, I grew more and more accustomed to life without social media. I felt slightly disconnected from the news and happenings of my friends, but I felt more present in the real world.
In the end, it was not that big of a deal. I adjusted just fine.
In addition to simply being more present in my life (work, spending time with family and friends), I filled my social media time with some activities that served me well, and some that didn’t.
On the positive side, I completed 4 audiobooks in August. I also felt noticeably more productive at work.
On the less positive side, I was still very dependent on my phone, and my phone usage was higher than I would’ve expected. I was substituting social media with podcasts, Slack, and email to fill the novelty deficit left by the absence of social media.
The most powerful observation was the power of observation. When I was less glued to my phone, I actually experienced the world around me.
I felt palpably calmer and less anxious. I no longer began and ended each day using social media to dive headfirst into the internet outrage du jour.
While social media supposedly makes us lonely, withdrawing from Twitter had the opposite effect on me. I truly felt lonelier by not interacting daily with the tweeps I’d come to consider friends. I’m still not totally sure what to make of this.
I was struck by how heavily everyone around me consumed social media in nearly every context. Riding the subway. Walking down the street. Hanging out with friends at dinner. Attending major events like weddings or sporting events. Next time you’re in any of these situations, check out how many people are interacting with social media in some way.
My month away gave me some breathing room to think. This experiment stirred up a bunch of questions that I’m still wrestling with today.
Is social media the primary source of the negative side effects I identified above? Or is it a broader addiction to the novelty and distraction provided by constantly connected devices?
If novelty and dopamine are what we constantly seek, why is social media any better or worse than podcasts, books, Netflix, Candy Crush, or day-dreaming?
How can I have a broader digital detox where I’m less reliant on my phone?
Am I shirking my civic duty by willfully disconnecting from the barrage of news, politics, and tragedies on social media?
What would it look like if I took this disconnection even further and refused to read the news for a month?
Which platforms are worth the high price in attention and happiness?
Ego alert: after my month away, I couldn’t wait to see how many notifications I had, and how much the entire internet had mourned my absence.
When I first logged back in to each platform, there was a massive dopamine hit. It felt like an important event.
However, much like junk food, the anticipation was powerful but the feeling quickly faded. Miraculously, despite my absence from social media, people basically went about their digital lives as before.
Since August, the only app I’ve reinstalled on my phone is Twitter. I’ve dramatically cut down on my usage of each of the others.
Prior to my social media fast, I was very active on Twitter. After the fast, there was an awkward period where I struggled to get back into the information flow, and often felt overwhelmed — like things were moving too fast.
I’m not back to my peak Twitter consumption but I am close. I’ve muted almost every politically-related keyword, and it’s substantially increased the value I extract from Twitter. Here’s sampling of the words I’ve muted:
This experiment was a useful shakeup of my routine, and increased my awareness of my relationship with social media and technology. Observing this relationship is the first step toward having them serve me better.
Now the fun part. I challenge you to try my experiment: give up social media for 30 days, and observe how differently you think, feel, and spend your time. After 30 days, you can sign back in to every site, and like, post, snap, poke, and fav as much as you want. Find me on Twitter and let me know how it went — I’m @canthardywait.