disengaging from social media

One of my goals this year is to disengage from my phone more. Late last year, my phone completely broke down and black-screened, falling into an inescapable boot-reboot cycle. Customer service quickly threw (okay, diligently packaged and carefully sent) a phone in the mail for me (incidentally, Project Fi is awesome – that’s my referral link if you’re interested), but there was still a weekend’s worth of lag time. I didn’t realize how tethered my habits had become to my phone until I didn’t have it anymore. I couldn’t roll over in the morning and silence my alarm and then immediately check email or my RSS feed. I couldn’t watch Netflix while I was cooking or listen to podcasts while I was getting ready. I couldn’t text people throughout the day. It was jarring to realize how often I reached for a phone that wasn’t there. And then it quickly became liberating because I was actually able to focus on what I was doing without buzzy notifications diverting my attention. It was a pretty great weekend actually.

Now, to be clear, I’m not planning to divorce my phone. But I’ve realized that I’m in a pretty unhealthy co-dependent relationship with it. I feed it electricity (and personal information, let’s be honest), and it gives me the internet and dopamine drips. Overall, I think carrying a computer around that has all the information is amazing. BUT. The pattern of my phone use needed changing. So I uninstalled Facebook and Twitter, I turned off most of my notifications, and I set up specific silence times where my phone doesn’t transmit ANY notifications so that I can have regular uninterrupted stretches of time.

Even then, I was still surfing reddit before bed. I was still watching YouTube videos to fill the silence. I was still reading Twitter (via browser now, of course) for the outrage and righteous indignation as much as for any useful info. It was a visit to my childhood home that prompted me to go even further. During that visit, instead of having face to face conversations and reconnecting as, you know, people, my family mostly sat around on devices (sometimes two devices at once) and ignored each other. It was baffling. Then it quickly became frustrating and infuriating. Sure, sometimes they were reading news or responding to urgent emails. But most of the time, it seemed like they were surfing Facebook or scrolling through various text convos instead of having actual conversations with the people sitting in front of them. (This is apparently called “phubbing,” which is a word I hate almost as much as the act itself.)

Social media is a mixed bag, though I’m coming to view it more and more negatively. These platforms, for all their uses and benefits, are ultimately engineered to exploit our inherent social cognitive biases (here is a good and pointed Medium article about this). They are designed to steal attention by appealing to our social psychology — our desire to seek connection and approval, our fear of missing out. Sean Parker, former president of Facebook, openly admitted that the platforms were built to take up time and conscious attention by dispensing dopamine a bit at a time via social validation.

Our brains love these easy dopamine drips. It becomes difficult to pull ourselves away from them. And the more you habitually and mindlessly do something, the more you tread and retread that neural pathway, making it all the more easy to slip back into old habits even if you manage to get free. The point is, nothing we do is benign, so it’s important to evaluate and re-evaluate what we’re doing and what utility it has in our lives. Is it helping or is it harming? (And the answers are often very mixed and context dependent, as always.)

For me, social media wasn’t (and isn’t) adding much to my life. I lurk most places to begin with, so I wasn’t even engaging — I was just scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. When February rolled around, I figured it was time for a change. So, February was my month of no social media. The rule was simple: absolutely NO Facebook, Twitter, reddit, or YouTube (except for some contracting stuff that required me to visit once a week).


My helpful reminder post-it.

I loved it. The result that more time to focus on things that actually mattered to me. More food experiments. More reading books. I actually let myself get “bored” sometimes so that my mind could wander and I could think rather than immediately filling the void with noise and nonsense. Because the rule was absolute, it was easier to step away.

This month, I’ve been experimenting with a controlled reintroduction of some social media. I’m giving myself one day a week. Mostly because I follow lots of authors, publishers, and editors on Twitter and I like to see what’s going with them and with the industry. I haven’t actually gone back to Facebook much; I’ve since realized that the people I most want to keep up with, I actually keep up with in real life. Despite the carefully constructed illusion, the vast majority of my FB friends don’t impact my actual day to day. But if I’m curious about them, I have one day a week I can go look. I haven’t actually returned to reddit at all, now that I think about it.

Interestingly, after my social media day is over, I still feel that back-of-the-mind urge to open Twitter into the early afternoon of the next day. Just to SEE if anything is happening. I’ve been successful in resisting, but the fact that that compulsion is there is just more evidence of how seductive that dopamine infusion is.

Overall, my life is happier and more positive since quitting the majority of social media. I’ve made more time in my day for getting things done instead of distracting myself from things that need to get done. It’s another little step forward in that constant and neverending fight against entropy.