It’s been over a week since I permanently deleted all of my social media accounts, including The Big One: Facebook. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time–for years!–but felt like I couldn’t. What if I missed out on events, and pictures of events, and updates on people’s babies and kids and houses and jobs? What if someone couldn’t get in touch with me? What if I lost touch with people I liked? Where would everyone go to see what I was up to? What if I was tormented by regret after torching the carefully curated set of updates and images that I had come to think of, in what I can only describe as an unhealthy and sinister way, as Me? Where would I be if not on Facebook?
The answer is, right here. Yes, on this blog occasionally, but more accurately HERE, “IRL,” carrying on as usual. Still more accurately, carrying on as was usual before the grenade of social media was set off in our midst.
The online Me has always held a terrible power over the little-m me in my life. I remember loving the “personalization” aspect of AOL Instant Messenger away messages, and then the personalization of Myspace page backgrounds, profile content, and profile page soundtracks. Look, it’s my little corner of the internet! It was like having an online bedroom with all the right posters on the walls.
For adults my age, Facebook and Instagram serve those same purposes today, 15-25 years later. Especially for those of us prone to the compulsive scrolling and “checking” that characterized my own relationship with social media, and especially after the arrival of the smartphone took social media off of our laptops and put it in our pockets 24/7.
For me, trying to “cut back” on screen time while still using social media was like trying to stop smoking with a pack of cigarettes still laying on the coffee table. You have to flush them down the toilet. As long as they’re there, you won’t be able to stop thinking about them. You’ll reach for them compulsively, out of habit and even muscle memory, and once your hand makes contact with that crinkly cellophane packet, you’re going to smoke one. Just one, just for ten minutes, and then you’ll “stop” again, rinse and repeat.
After only 24-48 hours, my brain started working differently. Several times I found myself laughing at a joke I had thought of while driving or watering the lawn or folding laundry. After a couple more days, I realized that some kind of semi-dormant inner monologue, which had become quiet and boring without me even realizing it, was having a renaissance. My thoughts wandered more freely, my trains of thought became longer and more creative, and despite still having music and podcasts available, I began spending more time in silence.
When I do listen to music, I’m choosing albums I haven’t listened to in years and playing them straight through. I realized that I had been listening to a lot of the same music all of the time: light, fast stuff. I had been skipping a lot of songs I thought I didn’t like. I had labeled a lot of music I used to enjoy “sad” or “too slow,” but now I’m enjoying it again.
Things that used to make me feel harried and rushed and frustrated have started to feel leisurely and relaxing: doing a long workout on my exercise bike, reading a chapter of a book, even working. I’ve realized that this is because I no longer feel compelled to interrupt myself by “checking” social media. The compulsion to pick up my phone even when it is still and silent has ebbed away.
I’ve started to forget where my phone is. One day I left it in the kitchen from 9am until almost 2pm. I’ve stopped bringing it with me to the bathroom (yes, I really used to do that), I’ve stopped keeping it right beside me while watching TV or playing Yahtzee at night, I leave it inside my purse while driving instead of propping it carefully on the dashboard.
For years, since before I even got one in 2015, I thought that smartphones were the problem. I thought the devices themselves were the reason why no one could stop staring at a screen. But it seems that isn’t true. It’s what’s on the phones that makes them so hard to put down.
Before I deleted my account, I wrote on Facebook that I would be leaving in a couple of days, along with links to some of the articles that helped me make the decision. A few people left comments: “Good for you!” “I’ll miss the photos of your kids.” “I’ve been thinking of doing the same thing…”
I’m sure most people on my “Friends List” didn’t see the post at all. I wrote nothing in the most active Facebook group I was part of, a 6-year-old group that felt quite close-knit. I was even in a private messaging sub-group with several other members.
The only people who have reached out since I deleted everything are people I keep in touch with via text or phone call anyway. This doesn’t surprise me, although it would have both surprised and saddened me a year or two ago. Since I started thinking more deeply about social media and how it works, I’ve realized that one of the biggest “benefits” of these platforms is a lie we tell ourselves: “We believe everyone deserves to be connected,” Mark Zuckerberg says. We use it to keep in touch and strengthen our relationships, we tell ourselves. It’s about connection.
But how strong can these connections be when we can only maintain them through a third party that also distracts us, advertises to us, and sells us? I had friends on Facebook I messaged with multiple times every day, but those connections have apparently disappeared without a trace now that I don’t use the platform. I have a neighbor down the street who I occasionally go for walks with, have over for dinner, or meet for a drink––and in a way, my very intermittent connection with her is stronger than my near-constant connection with those online friends. And it’s not just because we meet in person. I would say the same thing about my now-long distance friends from sixth and seventh grade who I schedule periodic phone and video calls with. We don’t require a dedicated platform to keep in touch.
Do I miss my online friendships? Yes, I miss the people themselves. But I don’t miss the constant nagging feeling of FOMO caused by the medium we used to communicate. I couldn’t be on Facebook Messenger 24/7––I have a job! But when I wasn’t “checking” it regularly, I always felt like I was missing out. Oddly enough, now that I actually am, it doesn’t bother me.
An unexpected side effect of giving up social media: my memory is changing. It’s not that my memory is better, per se, but it’s more open and accessible. I make connections to the past more easily, and the memories that come up are richer and more complete than they used to be. I make more random-feeling associations, and am reminded of past experiences and feelings in less expected ways.
Over the weekend I took my road bike out to a long, complex system of paved trails. I was trying out clipless pedals for the first time, and was a bit nervous. I left my phone in my car and ended up riding for over an hour without realizing that more than 25 or 30 minutes had passed. With nothing else pulling at my attention, I found it fairly easy to concentrate on practicing locking and releasing the pedals, let my mind wander through plans and memories, and enjoy my surroundings all at the same time. I realized it had been quite some time since I did an activity that required both mental concentration and physical skill. It had been a while since I learned something completely new. And instead of feeling draining or daunting, it felt refreshing.
After slow work days, I used to feel even more tense, anxious, and drained than I would on busy work days. It’s become clear that this was because on slow work days, I spent a lot of time on social media, flicking back and forth between Facebook and Instagram, looking for something that would hold my attention and give me some content to latch onto for more than a few seconds at a time. Now when I have free time, I read a long-form news article, finish a chapter of the book I’m reading, dig out the latest London Review from my nightstand, fold a load of laundry, trim something scraggly in the yard, or clean the kitchen. Regardless of how busy work is on a given day, I feel fine at 5pm. I don’t feel stressed or rushed. Instead of thinking about “catching up” on social media, I just think about seeing my family.
Does this seem like an awful lot of change for a single week without social media? Yes, it does. It is. I’m realizing just how plastic my brain is. The rut I was in with social media was deep, and long, and very, very easy to fall into. But climbing out of it isn’t nearly as hard as I expected.
I keep coming back to the idea of requiring a dedicated platform to keep in touch with people we consider friends. This is the double-edged sword of online social networks: on the one hand, you have access to far more––and potentially more like-minded––people than you ever did before; on the other hand, does the value they add to your life outweigh the negative effects of the platforms you connect over? These platforms steal your time, manipulate you (yes, they do), sell you to corporate interests, and who knows what else.
There’s also the fact that many of the people we have on our Facebook “friends lists” are adding almost no value to our lives at all. Does that sound harsh? Think about it: my list contained people I met while couchsurfing 10 years ago, people I took science class with in 2004, people I shared a dorm building with for 6 months in 2007, even some people I went on one date with and never saw again. I know I’m not the only person whose online list of 300, 400, 500+ “friends” contained a vast majority that couldn’t be considered remotely close. Thirty years ago, those connections would be appreciated for what they were at the time and then allowed to lapse. They could be kept up via purposeful effort––calling or writing––if they happened to be deeper or more genuine than usual. Why do we now feel the need to collect these acquaintances and keep seeing updates on their lives for years and decades after we have any meaningful contact? Maybe we should be realistic about what these pseudo-relationships are: minute drains on our time, our attention, and even our emotional energy that can add up to a pretty big net loss.
Am I saying that everyone you consider a friend needs to “add value” to your life? Well… yes. That’s what friends, both close ones and our more expanded social networks, do. These are reciprocal relationships that are sometimes unbalanced for periods of time––you might lose touch with someone, fall out with someone, someone might be busy or sick and unable to give back––but they tend to either balance out over time or fade away over time. Online social networks have made a new phenomenon possible: people unwittingly taking emotional tolls on each other without receiving any benefit whatsoever in return. You and that girl from high school see each others’ updates and take up each others’ time and brain space, but you have no beneficial connection! You’re just being forced to take these slight tolls on each other so that third parties can benefit from your presence on the platform. And that’s leaving aside the people on your networks who actually manage to make you feel bad, intentionally or not.
We seem to have entered a new phase in the public conversation about social media: apologetics. The idea that “Today, for better or worse, the world runs on social media” and therefore we should expose ourselves and our kids to it seems incredibly short-sighted. Just because something is relatively new and popular does not mean that we should accept it without question, especially when a growing number of doctors (all kinds––pediatricians, psychiatrists, etc.) are saying that they see it causing significant harm.
We’ve known for years now that this stuff isn’t good for us. Pretending we’re still “not sure” is ridiculous at best.