Does social networking leave us more drained than entertained?
The average person spends 1.72 hours on social media per day, according to a 2015 report from GlobalWebIndex. Until I spent almost two months off of social media, I didn’t know that giving up a couple of hours could feel like getting back years.
In January, I noticed a correlation between unpleasant feelings, such as inadequacy or pessimism, and my social media use. I also observed how mentally exhausted I was after scrolling through feeds.
I hated to admit that I took virtual content seriously enough for it to affect me mentally. But a 2014 study by Austrian behavioral researchers confirmed that I wasn’t alone: the study found a correlation between spending time on Facebook, in particular, and a dampened mood—and the longer subjects spent on Facebook, the more negative their moods were afterward. The researchers theorized that mood deterioration comes from the feeling of having wasted time on meaningless content, as well as committing a forecasting error by expecting to feel better after visiting Facebook.
But there was also something else. I knew about people’s tendencies to show themselves in a positive light on the sites, intentionally or not, and that social media was only a tiny glimpse of what goes on in real life. After reading several articles about how people usually show their best selves on social media, I realized that I was doing it, too.
Still, for some reason, I didn’t keep this logic in mind when I looked at posts.
“When we go online, our comparative mind gets very activated,” says Andrew Purchin, a therapist in Santa Cruz. “There’s nothing wrong with being human and having a mind that discerns. We want people to like us and we want to like ourselves. [But] I think what happens on social media is that we get addicted to the ‘likes.’”
My desire to break out of these patterns eventually became stronger than my unwillingness to swallow my pride and admit how much social media affected me.
My detox from social media lasted 45 days. My rule was to not log in to or browse my social media accounts except if needed for work. I would go without Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Blogger, LinkedIn and YouTube. I still checked my email and text messages.
From day one, I felt an intense shift in my mental space. I felt lighter. I stopped comparing myself to other people, which had been a deeply ingrained habit of mine.
“It’s important to not judge our tendency to compare oneself to another,” Purchin says. “But [the tendency] should be noncompetitive, and seeing our growth in the context of our growth. That’s how I would like us to be on social media, as well.”
Without social media, I felt like I was seeing the world for the first time every day. Structures I had passed by for months or years suddenly looked brand new and captivating. To my surprise, I didn’t feel any urge to check my accounts.
Purchin describes being on the computer as “desensitizing,” and explains that while on it, “we’re probably more in our head and less in our body.”
My perception was strong during the detox. Before the break, thoughts about the past or future constantly occupied my mind. When I unplugged from social media, I had little to no thoughts about either. I liken the experience to someone pulling the plug out of an overheated electrical outlet.
“That’s a wonderful state to get to,” says Purchin about the no-thoughts experience, combined with disengaging from the comparative mind. “That’s what meditators work on all the time. It’s an ongoing practice, and it’s difficult.”
Purchin says healthy social media use is about posting content to start a conversation rather than to impress people or expect them to like it or dislike it—the idea of seeking “intrinsic experiences versus extrinsic support.”
Purchin points out that seeking intrinsic value on social media—posting for the enjoyment of sharing content one enjoys with others—can easily turn into an obsession with whether or not people are seeing the content. It’s at this point that they might want to put the smartphone or computer away and engage with their surroundings, and real live people.
As liberating as the time away from social networking has been, I still don’t know how I’ll incorporate social media into my life now that this break is over. I hope that with this new awareness of how it affected me, I won’t fall into the same patterns in the future.
SOCIAL MEDIA BLUES One local writer found peace of mind after a 45-day detox from social media, which new research finds may dampen mood and feed our desire to compare ourselves to others.