I check my social media feeds often and compulsively. When I wake up, before I got to bed, whenever I sit on a bus, wait in a line, or eat alone. Sometimes, I notice I am scrolling through a feed with no memory of opening the app, or I log out, only to log in again 5 minutes later. Any small moment of boredom is diverted to checking on the lives of my friends.
That is, I did do those things until January 1st 2015, when I quit. For a year. I had read about the increasing number of studies linking social media to stress and depression, and numerous articles about the benefits of quitting. So my New Year’s resolution for 2015 was to give up social media for a year and see the difference for myself.
It didn’t always go smoothly, and sometimes I would find myself idly flicking through updates. I posted on Facebook once to thank people for leaving birthday messages (it seemed very rude not to), and another time to announce that I was eating a quiche during the Super Bowl, which seemed so important at the time, but in retrospect was a moment of defeat.
However, I cut down my use of social media by roughly 98% compared to the year before, and that was good enough to be able to feel the effects. Here’s what I discovered.
As I spent less time on social media, I found myself spending less idle, unconscious time on other websites as well. Without scrolling through all the links to pictures of funny signs, angry articles about politics, and videos of cats falling off things, I didn’t visit other addictive websites and end up in long chains of clicks.
I read 40 more books in my year off than I had the previous year, all using time I would otherwise have spent clicking through social media and the links I found there. You don’t have to spend it on reading, but most people would benefit from exchanging at least some of their social media time for something they find more productive or more relaxing. Your fourth visit of the day to Facebook is neither of those things.
There were plenty of instances at bars or coffee shops where a friend would leave the table and I would be briefly alone, suddenly craving my phone. That urge to check in during those moments eventually disappeared and I could absorb the atmosphere of a place or watch the people around me instead, which I found more rewarding.
As I gradually lost the urge to share everything I was doing at the time it was happening, I could better appreciate things for myself. I wasn’t suddenly living perfectly in the moment just because I was absent from social media, but it was a barrier removed. It’s not wrong to want to share the things that have happened in your life, even the small things, but rarely does it have to be right at the time they are going on.
However, because of the rules of my decision, I also lost the opportunity to share with my family and friends the things I was doing after they happened. This year I camped surrounded by wild elephants in Botswana, went sandboarding for the first time, and ate a lot of good sushi. But I didn’t share any of that stuff, just one thing about a quiche.
Like many people, I have friends and family spread all over the world, but I don’t know as much about what they have done in the last year. Life without social media was, in some ways, more lonely.
On the other hand, I was much more likely to email or call them, and more motivated to go out and do something with my friends who are nearby. Social media is similar enough to genuine social interaction that sometimes it feels like too much effort to make real life arrangements as well, but only connecting through a screen is just not as fulfilling.
It’s like filling up on snacks and then not wanting your dinner.
My friends were often surprised that I didn’t already know their recent news, and I noticed for the first time how often people’s stories about themselves start with “you probably saw that…”
For the first time in years, people had the opportunity to tell me about their lives and see my reaction in person, instead of rehashing old events I already knew from the internet.
Not using social media took away the opportunities for small interactions, such as likes and comments, and I missed these small connections which aren’t present elsewhere. If someone I knew from college had completed a marathon, or a distant relation passed their driving test, I couldn’t comment to congratulate them, and I wouldn’t have known about it anyway.
That’s a whole range of positive social connections which I lost without social media.
The dangers of social media I had read about were very clear to me because of their absence in my year off, but I also learned to appreciate having platforms which allow us to be more connected to the people we know, wherever they are, and to connect with them in more ways than we had before.
The articles about the downsides often ignore all the good aspects of social media and recommend quitting altogether, but that isn’t what I concluded. They are good tools, we just have to learn how to use them properly.
I never want to go back to checking my Facebook newsfeed 7 times in a day, and I never want to again miss the atmosphere in a restaurant because they have wifi and I can post about it online instead. But after a year without social media, I am ready to return in a more cautious way.
From my battles in quitting for a year, here is my top advice.
Just one month is enough to see it for yourself — the people in this Danish study noticed a difference in a week — and monitor the changes with a one-line summary each day.
No one posts on your wall in an emergency, and you don’t need more reminders to log in.
It puts a small barrier in your way, and is the easiest way to cut down. You can still use the web browser on your mobile devices with bit more effort.
When you only have one session on social media each day, it is more of a conscious decision. If you feel the compulsion to check again, remember you can tomorrow.
You won’t be distracted from the things you are doing when they are going on, but also won’t miss out on sharing them later.
There’s no end of reasons and research to tell you it’s a good idea, and there’s no better way than to find out the difference for yourself.
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