The other morning, my phone decided to be a passive-aggressive little butt and drop a notification on my home screen:
Apparently, I’m tapping away at meaningless shit on my phone for over four hours a day. Four hours! A day!
I know this should be horrifying. I know it should.
But actually… it feels kinda delicious.
I quit social media, once
Let me give you a little context. Because I swear to you, there was once a time before this deranged state. A time when the realization of a daily four-hour social media binge would have sparked a proper measure of disgust.
Imagine, if you will, a late-twenty-something woman in pajamas pacing around her house in the summer of 2020 (pacing in pajamas is my default state—my innovative solution to getting my steps in without going out into the god-awful Arizona heat). When I was self-isolating for those months on end, I noticed that the world beyond my house didn’t really exist anymore. Not in any meaningful way. There was the nice box I lived and worked in, and there was the straight road to my grocery store where I sat in the parking lot for my pickup order. A dot and a line. My life.
But then there was my phone. The world of my phone was so much bigger than the world around my body.
During isolation, the internet felt inevitable. Without much outside stimulation, I could find a measure of intrigue in the minds of others. I would fill every free moment with other people’s thoughts: Twitter on the way to the toilet, Instagram while pacing, YouTube with my meals, and Tumblr to fall asleep.
And it scared me. I felt like a fly trapped in a box that was my own brain, buzzing frantically against the walls. My thoughts never slowed down.
So I decided to quit social media. Just for a month. A good ol’ 30-day challenge to become a #digitalminimalist and curb my #digitaladdiction.
This decision was driven by two concepts I’d come across. First, the “dopamine fast.” If you haven’t ventured into the world of minimalist YouTubers lately, you might’ve missed this quiet trend. But a dopamine fast is a decision to set aside a block of time—a day, a week—to avoid pretty much anything fun. (Haha.) To my understanding, the basic format is this: You consume no media, you eat only bland food, and you ideally isolate yourself. You bring a notebook and a pen, or some other form of capturing self-expression, and you let yourself reset.
Dopamine is a chemical in your brain associated with pleasure and reward. The idea is that our brains get so used to our high-dopamine lifestyles of flashy graphics and exciting sensory experiences that we acclimate to them, and we need more and more excitement to meet our same dopamine requirements. The goal of a dopamine fast is to get back to a clean slate so that we remember that boring stuff like sitting in nature or eating a fucking Oreo is actually a really fun, interesting experience.
Second, there’s the concept of “digital minimalism.” Like a good Millennial, I am obsessed with the idea of minimalism. It was actually Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism that pushed me to give this 30-day experiment a try in the first place. His recommendation is simple: remove all potentially addictive digital media from your life for 30 days. This will break your addiction. Then, you can add that media back in thoughtfully. “In this new state, digital technology is still present,” Newport writes, “but now subordinated to a support role: helping you to set up or maintain your leisure activities, but not acting as the primary source of leisure itself.”
This all sounded amazing to me. It was exactly what I needed to break out of my funk. So I made my plan: No social media of any kind for 30 days. Netflix was okay if I was watching it with my husband (it’s our nightly ritual to watch TV over dinner and pause it every 10 minutes to talk about the character’s bad wig or whether it’s really okay for Gordon Ramsay to scream so much), and video games were okay because I so rarely play them anyway. I could also check social media for messages, but nothing more.
With my plan set, I let my family know my lack of social media comments didn’t mean I was snubbing them, I placed a mountain of library books on hold, and I waited to see what would happen.
And what happened caught me by surprise
Because it turns out social media wasn’t really the problem. At least, not on its own.
To paint a picture of that month, let me first tell you that it was highly productive. Instead of scrolling through Tumblr ’til I was tired, I read Virginia Woolf. Instead of YouTube at lunch, I watched Japanese shows on Netflix at half-speed to practice my language skills (another allowance I’d given myself). I read nine books that month. I felt like a tech bro lifehacker.
And while it became very clear to me which platforms I really did want to keep in my life (I missed watching YouTube so much!), I had to admit that a lot of that nameless anxiety had dissipated.
But with a clearer head, I was able to finally see what had caused the anxiety in the first place. And it wasn’t actually social media.
It was the news.
Social media amplifies what already exists
Social media is the automatic bad guy whenever we’re talking about society’s ills. Depression? Social media’s fault. Anxiety? Loneliness? Too much scrolling.
But I’d argue that the algorithm is just showing you content. We consume content all day, regardless, in the form of books, billboards, TV shows…
What if the problem isn’t the fact that we’re consuming content, but the type of that content that we’re consuming?
I mean, I’ve been using social media for years. It wasn’t ever a real problem until now. And this need to unplug came about during exceedingly tumultuous times. Every day, I was trying to absorb the absolute waterfall of news pieces and opinions on the pandemic, on George Floyd, on pipelines destroying Native lands and governments crumbling…
My Facebook feed wasn’t anything like the Facebook feed I’d used in high school and college. And the biggest difference I could see was the drastic increase in news media.
The case against consuming (too much) news media
Back in the day, “news” was a newspaper that you got maybe once a week—or maybe you heard the headlines from your neighbor. Now, it’s the lifeblood of our communications. Everything is happening always, and everyone has an opinion on it, and dammit, you’d better too!
The writer Mark Manson has been talking about this for a few years, and his writing has informed many of my own views on social media and news. Here are some of the facts he’s compiled that I often return to:
Many of the big social media studies that tell us how bad it all is are correlational studies. This means that they might look at depressed people and measure how often they use social media. And then they’ll find a correlation. But this doesn’t mean that social media is the cause of depression. “The problem with studies like this is that it’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” writes Mark Manson, “Is it that social media causes kids to feel more depressed? Or is it that really depressed kids are more likely to use social media?”
A much better kind of study is a longitudinal study, which tracks people over multiple years. These studies give a much more accurate picture of what’s going on. And they tend to show that social media use is not actually a predictor or cause of depression. (Again, I’m just miming Mark Manson here—he’s compiled the research in his piece “Social Media Isn’t the Problem.”)
On the other hand, we know that news consumption is a stressful experience. It’s designed to be. News media is structured to grab your attention and to engage your baser emotions of fear, outrage, and tribalism. That’s what gets views! And because our society values being “informed,” we feel compelled to consume it all—even though the volume of news is higher than it’s ever been. And every piece is now also a call to action. “This awful thing is happening! What are you going to do about it??”
And here we reach the difficult part. Because most of the time, there’s little we can do. Not in a one-off, bite-sized way. You can’t wrap up a complex situation with a bow. Change comes from organized action over time. But instead, we’re worn down with the weight of the world’s issues until we become a miserable bundle of apathetic anxiety.
(“We” is me. But maybe you too.)
Throughout my social media experiment, and in the months that have followed, I’ve realized that ditching the news altogether doesn’t make you a bad person. In fact, it might be the only way to have the mental clarity to take any meaningful action at all.
The return to social media
After my 30-day challenge, I started using social media again, but I invested some real time in refurbishing my feeds. I unfollowed, unfriended, or muted a huge number of people so that it was focused on individual who I knew in real life or who inspired me. I made use of Facebook friends lists to curate my feed. I downloaded a tool that blocks the “Trends for you” sidebar on Twitter and muted some politically charged words so posts on those topics wouldn’t show up.
I’ll be honest—this was a lot of work. But at the end, I was shocked at how much Facebook suddenly felt like it did in high school. My feed is full of family photos and personal updates from friends.
Twitter, too, went from being a source of massive stress to a place where I could read the thoughts of industry peers and share my own. (Though I will say, Twitter replies to even mildly controversial threads are still a nightmare, and I try not to venture down them too often.) And because I follow far fewer people, my feed has an end—I can’t scroll forever.
I’m not on Instagram much right now because I honestly find it kind of boring. But I do spend hours on TikTok because I’ve trained it to show me only videos that I genuinely enjoy. Rick and I send each other stupid videos throughout the day. Like this one:
And guess what? I am still very informed. When something big happens, people are talking about it and I can go to a balanced news website for more information.
But by making these changes, social media has become a source of pleasure. It’s full of my friends and quality content from some choice creators.
It’s funny—the complaints we hear against social media (“It’s rotting your brain!”) are the same complaints that they used to make against TV… which are the same complaints they used to make against the scourge known as the novel. (Yes, that evil fiction!)
Consuming content for leisure is not wrong
I am just a little hooman out of the billions of hoomans who have existed throughout time. I’m allowed to do little hooman things.
It’s not inherently “wrong” or “right” to spend more time on your phone. But the quality of that content, and the topic, can certainly impact your quality of life. So rather than restricting all content, why not just get more thoughtful about where your content is coming from?
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
This all makes me think about diet culture. A weird parallel, maybe, but my own journey with food has been focused on learning to listen to and trust my body. To give her what she wants, and listen when she’s full. The same goes for social media. I’m learning to honor the times when I get off of work and just want to veg out for an undetermined amount of time on TikTok. But I’m also learning to pay attention when my mind says, “Alright, that’s enough.”
And guess what? My brain still hasn’t rotted.
So I’m now experimenting with social media addiction
Bring it on, I say. If this is wrong, I don’t wanna be right! or something.
That said, I have to come clean. When I first saw that four-hour notification on my phone, it startled me. Past me would have been horrified that I wasn’t being more productive.
But now, I’m learning to relish the fact that I get to spend so much leisure time doing something that is, objectively, enjoyable. My ancestors would be thrilled that I get to spend so much time resting and playing with a magical little device that contains the ideas of the entire world.
But as with most things, I should share that this isn’t a definitive stance. I’m exploring ideas here and am liable to change my mind.
But this is my experience right now. And it’s very bright and shiny and full of pretty colors.
What about you?
How have you been navigating social media lately? I’d love to hear in the comments.