I’m a heavy social media user and I’m constantly galvanising the latest bits of news from around the world, flicking through multiple news apps.
But as the year’s coming to a close, I’ve realised I’ve spent the last 12 months constantly on my iPhone scrolling through endless diaspora wars and eye-rolling news stories. Plus, I never seem to be able to put my phone down for longer than 20 minutes as I’m frequently checking my phone to see if I have any notifications.
Let’s face it, 2017 has been a car crash in terms of social change. A full year of sphincter clenching Trump ‘leadership’, Theresa May’s ‘Fellowship of the Brexit Deal’ negotiations, overt racism is back in season and there’s a sudden realisation that patriarchy isn’t just a word – thanks, Mr Weinstein. And that’s just the top level bull shit.
So I decided to unplug – unless it’s was work-related, I would abstain from all social media and news related content for a month. Pop up notifications – apart from work emails – should be switched off so I wouldn’t be tempted to see what my friends we posting or read any news articles.
Making the break
I have to be honest and put things into context. I only watch TV through Netflix and Amazon, so I don’t watch any live TV and I haven’t used Facebook since 2012. In light of this, I understand that I may be at an advantage than the average person who uses the big four social media networks.
But, I’m obsessed with Twitter. In fact, I’m on it so much I use to consume news, gauge public opinion and I’ve even made some genuine online connections with like-minded people and organisations. Instagram, I suppose, is my Facebook replacement. I get to keep up with what my friends are up to without constant status updates, photo album uploads and in-your-face location-based ads.
The night before ‘D-Day’, I deleted Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Tumblr and Blitter. Then I switched off notifications for my emails, news app and Apple News. To my surprise, I instantly felt an air of relief before I went to bed.
Waking up in the morning was definitely weird. Historically, I’d wake up, sit in bed and casually scroll through my news notifications, scan my personal and work emails and have a brief look at Twitter and Instagram.
But on my first morning of social media and news abstinence, I woke up and found myself simply staring at the ceiling – thinking. Just thinking. I can’t recall what, but it was a good 10 minutes until I realised what I was doing. What I do know is that I had a clear head and was more focused on getting to work and starting my day.
‘This is going to be a piece of cake’, I thought.
Well it was and it wasn’t, but this is what I learned.
The first week is weird
At work, I’m not logged into my social media accounts on my computer, so I was free from temptation to look at my Twitter timeline. As a digital marketer, I have the opportunity to schedule most of the company social media posts without having to look at a single timeline.
What I did notice was that while I’m at work, I had built up a routine of working of a period of time, then checking my phone for emails or social media notifications – I’d say every 20 minutes or so.
As my social media apps had been deleted and email notifications were switched off, I found myself aimlessly looking at my phone every now and then, only to realise my apps weren’t there and then continuing with my work. Not too bad I suppose, at least I wasn’t getting distracted anymore.
The evenings at home, however, were a different story. I was constantly picking up my phone looking for the Twitter app the first few evenings – nearly every 10 minutes – forgetting that I’d deleted the app.
But what was most frustrating was watching my partner merrily flicking through his Facebook and Instagram timelines whenever he wanted.
It was definitely hard to get out of the cycle, especially with my news apps, as I always check the news headlines on the way home from work and before I go to bed. If anything, the first week is when you realise just how much time you spend on your smartphone.
You’re not out of the loop
Sure, social media apps make you feel like you’re ‘connected’ to something bigger. Even part of some sort of existential conversation. You go to work and you talk about ‘that new viral video’ or ‘that crazy tweet’ that from last night.
But to be honest, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. I was still ‘aware’ of what was going on in the world just by conversations with friends and work colleagues around me. Ok, so I felt a little left out, but it was just a superficial feeling.
I also realised how much I missed opinion pieces and reading the author’s views and opinions on my Twitter and Instagram timeline – views and opinions that are similar to mine.
It made me appreciate the fact that social media – and the rise of blogging – has provided a platform for people in society who have, historically, never had a voice before.
It’s not that deep (for me)
Prior to this experiment, I did a little research about taking a break from social media. What I found were articles spinning the typical narrative you’d find about the social media consumption today. The salacious use of words such as ‘detox’, ‘giving up’ and ‘cold turkey’ to amp up the drama made me feel like I was about to go through an AA 12-step program.
Guess what? It’s not that deep. In the words of my late great-grandmother; ‘Calm yourself, child’.
After a while, you learn you’re really not missing out on anything and you don’t need approval from others via ‘likes’, ‘comments’ and ‘retweets’.
I may have been late to the discussion about the recent tone-deaf advert driving feminists to call for to rethink their approach about diversity. But do you know what? I’m OK with that. I’ll hear about it at some point and Google the news story. And when it comes to keeping up with my friends, WhatsApp is there for me.
I engaged more with people around me
I’m a sucker for taking pictures and videos on Instagram stories. In fact, when I get to an event, it’s quite common for me to say, ‘I’m gonna Instagram the shit out of this’. Not this time.
I met up with friends a fair few times in the month while I was social media free. Usually, I’d spend a good portion of my time fiddling around with filters and thinking of witty captions to add to pictures.
But with my phone permanently in my bag, I found myself more focused on my conversations with people. I even felt like I was enjoying myself more as I wasn’t constantly looking at my phone.
I became more focused
As I mentioned before, at work, I was regularly checking my phone for the first week. Not using social media and news apps allowed me to focus more on my daily tasks. Interestingly, I was more creative. Content I was writing came to me more quickly because I wasn’t’ distracted by the TL or the latest goings on in the news.
At home, I had more time to read and I devoted more time to Yoga in the morning before work or when I was home in the evenings.
Less distraction meant that my head was in a clear space. When I came home from work at the end of the day, I was able to unwind, genuinely recharge and wake up in the morning feeling refreshed.
To sum things up, I think media consumption is more like food – consume the right food that’s good for you, and you end up fit and healthy. It would be ideal to filter out all the crap that goes on in the world and on social media, but we don’t live in a utopia.
It’s clearly important to know what’s going on in our society and engage in it, even if it may be trivial. After all, social media should be a fun experience too. But the constant barrage of information we feed ourselves is also a major distraction. I’ve developed a new approach to the type of media I consume and how frequently.
Now, for every solid hour, I focus on my tasks and give myself 5 minutes to check my Twitter, Instagram and other social media accounts. I dedicate the morning to Yoga and I read a book on my journey to work.
At home, I don’t use my phone at all during the last hour before I go to bed. And when I’m with friends, I tend to keep my phone in my bag unless the moment I want to share is really important – or I take pictures or videos ‘in the moment’ and post them online when I get home.
The change has definitely made me feel happier and I’m not the only one that’s taking a break from social media and feeling a positive emotional response.
An article from The Guardian back in 2016 indicates that many people – especially teenagers and young adults – are choosing to switch off from social media apps to see how the change affects their lives.
I obviously won’t be quitting social media indefinitely – not only is it part of my job, but I think it’s an important communicative tool that has the power bring communities together at scale.
But I’d definitely advise giving social media a break for a month just to see how it feels. Maybe you’ll feel as clear-headed and focused as I did? Who knows, maybe you might even give it up altogether?