Loosening the Grip of Social Media

Think about your highlights from the last month. They were probably moments spent with others, inspiring experiences, or comforting routine recognised and appreciated. Your highlights were probably not the moments you dedicated to scrolling on your phone or writing and reading social media comments, no matter how kind or informative.

Having worked to assess my social media usage over the past view years, I had thought that my approach was fairly healthy but I was always trying to pull back against the current. I felt obligated to sign in and ‘be social’ with a certain frequency in order to stay part of the conversations. The algorithms are set up to encourage our binging: we really only see posts of those that are popular or that we’ve interacted with recently. So I left social media for a month and think I’ve finally broken the spell.

The thing is, social media is not how I keep in touch with those important to me and I think that’s the key. Let me say that again: Social media is not how I keep in touch with those important to me. I have addresses, email address, and phone numbers and try to maintain direct contact, not vague broadcast contact with those I care about.

Borders fields 2

How I got here: my previous steps toward decluttering my digital life

In 2013, I deleted the facebook app when I realised that it wasn’t adding to my happiness. In 2014, after coming off the website entirely for only five weeks, I recognised the way websites and apps try to fuel a compulsion to check for updates and ‘socialise’.  I questioned the value of my participation on facebook and my relationship with the website since has been pretty distant. I only sign in a few times a year, although I still currently auto-post my Instagram photos for my family.

In 2015, I set daily boundaries for social media and digital devices (targeting Instagram and the ever scroll-inducing Pinterest). I consciously ‘unplug’ most weekends, do not allow push notifications, and even turned off the text message alert sound. This balance worked for a long time but social media usage has seeped past these boundaries again. I found that I was using Instagram multiple times a day including long evening sessions, using precious evening time when I could have been doing real things with my life.

This summer, I took my customary social media break for a week or so. My usual thoughts begin with ‘Yes, time to enjoy vacation!’, move to a ‘This is great but I want to share all this beauty and joy with the people on the other side of my screen’ and eventually end up relaxed and present, knowing I can share the photos upon my return. The thing is, when I return, I then have these thoughts: Ahh- I have too much to share and haven’t mentally processed it all yet. I feel pressure to share it all now before it’s ‘old’ because then I’ll ‘have’ to post them all on a ‘Throwback Thursday’. And then rush to share everything.

This generally makes me question the way I use the platforms but thus far, I’ve just easily slipped back to heavy use.

What happened this time to change my relationship to social media

I’ve used Instagram regularly and enjoy the focus on community, positivity, joy, and connection that I find there. I also use Twitter a couple of times a week to share things related to work or volunteering. I truly love how I have connected with people and shared learning, ideas, and inspiration, particularly around adoption, delicious food, and gardening, but my digital life was still feeling cluttered.

We’ve been doing some pretty deep decluttering, reflection, and prioritising as part of the adoption process, and my priorities in relation to the virtual world have shifted further. Although I thrive when things are simple, I don’t often take the time to declutter my digital belongings because they don’t take up much physical space in the home. Of course they take up mental space, only taking longer to amass the critical amount that trips you up. In August, I focused on decluttering my devices and other digital materials.

What really changed my thinking was watching a few episodes of the first season of Friends from 1994. In one scene, a bunch of the characters come into the coffee shop after meeting up with other friends and it dawned on me that they organised that meeting the old fashioned way: verbally. Not only did they not have mobiles, they didn’t even have email. They had to agree either in person or on the phone. They were not contactable 24/7. I felt like they were so free. That triggered in me a yearning recognition of how things worked well back then despite our current conveniences.

I thought to myself: I will no longer spend my time doing digital things that don’t serve me or enrich my life. I know I can’t leave my phone home during the workweek or avoid the flood of work emails, but this inspired me to reign things in. I knew I couldn’t realistically bring things back to 1994 (and I do enjoy many of the benefits of having a phone/camera in my pocket), so I thought about knocking it back ‘only’ 20 years to 1998. In 1998, I had and used email regularly and looked things up online; I didn’t have a mobile and phones didn’t have internet anyway. But how to make meaningful and sustainable changes in this decade and century?

Phone Budapest

Skip ahead to the 1st day of September, as I laid in bed next to my wife on a Saturday night and scrolled on my phone. I wasn’t even searching for something to illuminate a conversation, just lighting up my face with unnecessary screen time. I came across a post about ‘Scroll-free September‘ and my heart skipped a beat, thinking it might have been what I needed. After reading about the challenge and knowing I already practice the lower levels, I didn’t think twice about going cold turkey. I made an image to tell others about it, posted it, switched off my phone, and snuggled in with my wife.

Somehow I had felt that I needed permission to leave social media. Yes, I recognise that we worry about our virtual connections if we don’t hear from them, which is why I told them I was signing off, but we should feel free to stop using any app whenever we want. The month was far easier than I thought it would be. I gave myself permission to leave the 24/7 social media party without feeling guilty about not contributing or worrying that I might miss out.

What I learned from a month without social media

  • I had previously felt obligated (even though I willingly and happily use the apps) to check in, comment, be ‘social’ with a certain frequency lest I not uphold my end of the ‘social’ bargain. I don’t feel that now and it’s wonderfully freeing.
  • I’ve maintained my connections without being on social media all the time. I texted or emailed and met in person. Nothing was lost; plenty was gained. In fact, we spent time together, visited friends, foraged, my sisterfriend had her 40th birthday party, I volunteered, and I went to Budapest to represent Girlguiding UK. My participation in and enjoyment of these activities were in no way affected by my silent social media stream. If anything, I was more present in those moments and the moments in between because my headspace was dedicated to what I was living, who I was living it with, and those close to me that I wanted to reach out to.
  • It’s almost as if a distractible part of my brain thought it should be distracted by social media. As if it were asking me if I should check it or post before I leave the house, at lunch, leaving work, before bed, any other time when I should’ve just felt free to just be in the moment. This part was able to rest.

Going forward, I don’t know how many days a week I’ll log in to social media or how many times on those days I’ll allow myself to scroll. I need to think about what I gain from sharing and seeing on social media that I don’t get in the real world, before I change my approach and make sure it only remains enriching.

Thinking about reassessing your social media use?

  1. Think about why you want to use social media and make sure it’s serving that purpose. Be specific with your goals. Stop spending time on things that don’t enrich your life.
  2. Give yourself permission to change how you use social media or your phone. It’s okay to not be contactable all the time, especially on weekends and evenings. Give yourself further permission to not constantly attend that social media party sitting in your pocket. Your life will benefit.
  3. Keep in touch with those important to you in a direct way- get their phone number and email address. Call them, use a VOIP app if they’re in another country, text, email, and write letters. Show them that they’re the person you’re thinking about right now, not that vague ‘audience’ that will probably ‘like’ what you share.

How has your social media use changed over the years and what have you learned?

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