My Month Without Social Media

For the month of January, I gave up social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. Here’s what the experiment was like.

Warning: long post ahead. And it may come of as annoying and pretentious as someone saying, “I don’t even own a TV.” I’m not trying to say I’m better than anyone or that I look down on anyway. This was just my experience. YMMV.

The Plan

The experiment was the idea of Cal Newport, associate professor at Georgetown and author of Deep Work, among other books. The plan was called a “digital declutter,” and here were the rules:

  • Focus on taking a break from optional digital technologies in your personal life. Stuff you use for work or to talk to family are fine to keep.
  • Don’t log into any social media accounts, if possible.
  • Don’t read news online, if possible. Read newspapers or listen to the radio.
  • Don’t use the internet for entertainment, if possible. In other words, don’t mindlessly surf the web.
  • Streaming and podcasts are fine. But take a break from blogs, if possible.
  • Put restrictions on using text messages.
  • If possible, don’t check e-mail on your phone, and don’t check e-mail constantly. Schedule time at a desktop instead of responding to notifications.

You can read about Newport and others’ experience with the experiment in a recent New York Times article.

I had a handful of reasons for participating. Primarily, I had grown frustrated with social media. I kept Facebook and Twitter tabs open all day. A quick break between tasks would turn into 5, 10, 15 minutes of scrolling, liking, responding, making snarky comments, clicking out to all sorts of linked sites. In dull moments when I wasn’t at my desk, I’d reach for my phone, open up an app, and scroll.

As these frustrations grew, I came across an article about Aziz Ansari in GQ. In it, he talks about deleting the apps from his phone and pretty much deleting them from his life. I wanted to do something like that, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, to go cold turkey. I didn’t want to admit I was addicted, but I wasn’t enjoying the experience all that much (social media often left me frustrated, envious, bored, angry, stressed or arguing with strangers), but I couldn’t give it up. And it was eating up more and more of my free time that could be better spent elsewhere.

So when Newport sent out an e-mail asking for volunteers, I went for it. What the hell, right? January was the time of New Year’s resolutions anyway. Why not try one more?

The Reality

From the beginning, I focused on avoiding social media. I didn’t open the apps on my phone, and I didn’t open them on my computer (except to post links to my blog—and when I did, I would close the tab as soon as I posted. No scrolling was allowed). I would log onto Facebook to use the Messenger app to talk to my sister who lives abroad, but I would avoid looking at the rest of the site. I would only click to the tab when I saw she had responded, and then I would click away. This was probably my biggest success from the project.

I also tried to keep my internet usage to a minimum. I would check a few blogs in the morning, but that was supposed to be it. Supposed to. About a week into the project, I realized I had reduced my mindless internet usage, but not as much as I would like. I found myself substituting other sites—mostly Reddit, but a few other sites. I rationalized it by saying I was only going to one subreddit (this was not always the case) or one blog/website to check for updates. But it was a fake intentionality. The sites weren’t updating but for a few times during the day, but I’d check in far more frequently.

Thankfully, Newport sent out an e-mail on January 10 that gave me a boost. He suggested pursuing other hobbies that weren’t digital and were more meaningful than surfing. So instead of going to the same handful of websites, I would spend a couple of minutes working on exercises to improve my handwriting, or I would add to an outline for a story I had been thinking about. I printed out the exercises and got my notebook out. They sat on my desk, waiting for a break. They replaced the social media tabs I had left open.

The Month After

Once the month was over, the idea was not to jump back into the internet and social media, but to think critically about what usage I need and want, and how best to put limits on that usage.

Now my browser window rarely has more than a couple of tabs on it during the day, and if it’s a link I want to read later, the tab is often a longer, deeper article. Not political gossip. Not quick hits. Often the window is minimized entirely.

I only check social media sites a couple of times a day now, and even then, it’s a quick scroll, and then gone. I don’t get drawn into arguments like I used to. And the apps are off my phone (other than Messenger). Of course, I still have thoughts like, “This moment would make a good Instagram photo,” or “This joke would make a good tweet,” but I probably only post a fraction of those thoughts. I don’t really miss the sites. I feel a little guilty not wishing people a happy birthday, but I don’t miss the politics, the endless sniping, and the dunking on each other.

Fire and Fury came out during the project, and I was so glad I wasn’t on social media to see the endless gossip, the jokes. I didn’t feel like anything in the book was all that earth-changing, and the book seems to have been quickly forgotten, so I feel like I saved myself a lot of grief avoiding it. That being said, when Ursula K. LeGuin passed, I was really tempted to go on Twitter and see the responses. Not many people in my immediate circle are really into speculative fiction, so I felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to or to share memories of her works.

Interestingly, my avoidance of social media and the internet as a whole affected how I watch the news. We usually have a tv or two on all day at work. They’re left on cable news networks. I noticed that day after day, it seemed to be mostly filler. Talking heads talking about one stupid, lightweight story, day after day. The “Breaking News” label seemed to be left up all day, but the story never changed. And the stories never seemed significant. It was all about grabbing and holding onto my attention. Just like social media. So I tuned it out. I barely glance at it now.

When I get home now, I typically put my phone away and rarely open my laptop (other than to work on freelance projects or to write or post on my blog). The screentime has gone down. They mindless surfing has gone down. I’m more present. I’m more relaxed. I spend more time with my wife and daughter, being creative, and reading.

It’s still hard. It’s still a struggle. I still find myself slipping and falling down rabbit holes. But I’m more mindful of my choices, and every day, I push myself to get a little better about how I live my digital life.

At a time when social media is being used to degrade and deligitimize our politics, and our mental health, maybe a break might be worth a try. I’ve found a day or a weekend spent unplugged to be wonderful. A month is doable, and the impact will be greater. In fact, when I came back to Facebook and Twitter, they just felt weird to me, less immediate, less valuable. Maybe you might discover something interesting too.

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