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I Gave Up Social Media for 40 Days: Here's what I learned

Several weeks ago I had coffee with a woman I consider a mentor and friend. I had met with her to discuss going through some recovery related material on which we had previously worked. An hour later I had committed to giving up social media for forty days. This wouldn’t be a big deal except I haven’t been off of social media for more than a week since MySpace (and that week was because I was on my honeymoon and we didn’t own smartphones).

My opinion of social media has been that it is a necessary part of the digital age; that in order to be relative, connected, and a part of, you must participate in social media. I have never, and I mean never, considered it optional. As such, I never gave much thought to whether or not I had a “problem” with social media. I wasn’t on it every second of the day, didn’t feel like I spent endless hours posting or scrolling, and had long ago given up online debates, political or flame bait topic posting, or making assumptions that the things people post are directed to me.

In other words, forty days ago I felt as though I had a very healthy relationship with social media.

What Happened?

The first sign that something was wrong with my social media usage was evident by the case I began building for why I shouldn’t have to give it up. It was reminiscent of my days of justifying my drinking.

“It isn’t a problem.”

“It isn’t interfering with my life in any way.”

“I use it way below that of the average person’s.”

“If I have to do it, so should everyone.” [this one comes along with attempting to enlist others to join my cause]

Ad infinitum.

Thankfully, I’ve been in recovery long enough to know two things:

1. If my mentor thinks I should try something, it means trying it is going to help me, not harm me.

2. If something isn’t a problem, I never attempt to justify it.

Fortydays, here I come.

The First Day

As you can imagine, I was a bit salty the first day “off the sauce.” I decided not to make a huge production of leaving social media. To be honest, this was probably ego. I didn’t want to be one of “those” people who make a big post about how they’re taking the moral high road by leaving social media for Lent, or just because they’re done with it; whatever. I always eye-rolled those people anyhow. Also, I was curious how long it would take anyone to notice I was gone. I imagined it would take about forty-eight hours; but more on that later.

I keep Instagram, Facebook, and Messenger in a folder labeled “social media” in the lower left hand corner of my device. I decided to keep track of how many times I inadvertently clicked on that folder to open one of the apps. I had deleted all the apps, and knew consciously I wasn’t going to be able to open them, but I was curious how often I open the apps without even thinking about it. In other words, how many times do I subconsciously click that folder and open the app, with zero prior intention of hopping on social media.

The answer? Nineteen times.

Whether it was clicking the folder methodically after picking my phone up to answer a text, routinely lifting my phone to “check” an app when I’m sitting at a red light, or immediately clicking a social media app after finishing something else (reading an article, accessing my bank account, answering an email), I inadvertently attempted to access social media nineteen times from the time I woke up until I went to bed. This alone was really eye opening to me, and here’s why. Sometimes when I get on social media, I have a purpose. These nineteen attempts, however, were not purposeful. These were time-fillers. These were “thumb-jerk” reactions; complete time-wasters and mind-numbers; habits. .

This was indicative of a bigger problem: I had forgotten how to be bored and how to let my mind rest. What does it say about me if I cannot sit still and be calm the duration of a red light? Why do I need to have some kind of stimulation to occupy me while I’m switching from one task to another? For me, I think the answer is two-fold. One, I think there is a part of me that uses social media like a drug-taking “hits” of it throughout the day. Two, I believe I have masqueraded social media usage as productivity (i.e. if I’m checking my phone at a red light I’m being productive or somehow multi-tasking).

How I use social media like a drug

My behavior with social media is like that of a drug user’s with their drug of choice. Hopping on Instagram and seeing pretty pictures, receiving feedback on my posts and stories (likes and comments), and laughing at relatable memes gives me an instant pick-me-up. Social media is created to be as addictive as slot machines, offering the same type of dopamine releasing “reward” in your brain. Don’t buy it? Here’s an article from Harvard you might trust more than me. Programmers program social media applications to be addictive. They run experiments on us to determine what works (what keeps us coming back) and what doesn’t. For instance; does User12736 prefer to see one “like” every time she logs on, or does that user open her app more often if the likes are withheld and she sees them in one large burst? We are hamsters in a cage when we use social media. We keep coming back for “hits” because the applications are programmed to make us do so. That’s why we constantly pick up our devices to “check in.” The pushers are programming us to come back for more and we’re doing it.

For me personally, I found my usage had become as habitual as using a drug. Whether I wanted to access social media or not, I did it, with no thought of why I was accessing it or what effect it could have on me immediately or long term. I just simply picked it up and used it.

False Productivity

Most of the time, being on a social media application is about as productive as picking your cuticles. I’m a stay at home mom. I don’t have an email account that constantly needs checking. I’m not producing information or work product that needs to be accessed by other people throughout the day. The majority of my tasks as they relate to my device can be done on my own time, when it is convenient for me to do them. Culturally, we have marginalized people who aren’t on the productivity fast train. Busyness is a badge of honor, though it depletes us mentally and physically.

When I left my job and began staying home with my kids full time, I really struggled. I no longer had work product at the end of the day that was quantifiable; what I normally had was two children kept alive amid a messy house and sacks of fast food dinner. I’d been busy all day, but had nothing (in my mind) to show for it. Countless times I would find myself sitting on the floor, surrounded by kids and toys wondering what I’d been doing all day, why I felt so bored, and how much I didn’t like this job. It’s obvious these are the thoughts of a woman who is self-seeking, self-centered, ungrateful…and human. These are normal thoughts, but the fact that they are common and normal doesn’t negate the fact they are wrong. Both can be true at the same time.

Social media immediately gave me an outlet to develop contingent self-worth as a mom. I instantly had a support network, and a fan club. “You’re doing great, Mama,” was a welcome comment when I posted about feeling tired and overwhelmed with motherhood. A few thumbs ups on a comment about making it out of the house to the grocery store made me feel validated, and like I had accomplished more than I actually had. Nothing is inherently wrong with this approval and validation, except I began to crave it, and seek it more than I should have.

I began to set expectations with things I posted on social media. If I posted that I cleaned my house, I wanted validation of people telling me what a great job I was doing. If I got that validation, I felt valuable, and I was glad I cleaned the house. Conversely, if I did not get that validation, I felt less-than, not enough, and wondered why I cleaned the stupid house in the first place. Social media is dangerous because it creates within us the expectation that we should be rewarded and recognized for mundane activities and behaviors that require zero validation from our peers. Growing up I do not remember my mom calling her friends after she cleaned the house to let them know she did it. In fact, I don’t think she even expected a “thank you” from the other inhabitants of the house. Cleaning the house was her job, and she did it without expecting anything other than a clean house.

The False “Fam”

Remember when I said I thought it would take about forty-eight hours for people to notice I was offline? That was grossly inaccurate. It took seven days before anyone noticed I was gone (or at least noticed and could contact me via text message or telephone). One person noticed after seven days and sent me a text message. Now, whether people who could not contact me via phone noticed I was gone prior to the seven day mark, I am not sure; however I didn’t receive any online messages during that time. So if anyone did notice, they didn’t contact me to find out where I was. I was seriously butt-hurt about this. Where were all my friends? Where were all the people that care about me and the things I post? These were the people I interacted with on a daily basis, so where was my “fam” now?

The answer is pretty simple; they were there, living their lives. The reality check moment for me was realizing I had developed a pretty false sense of community and being a “part of” through the use of online interactions. This behavior, this feeling that relationships I have are bigger than they actually are, is not new for me. I have a habit of assuming I’m more important in someone’s life than I actually am. This is never about the other person, and always about me. Most of the time, it means I’ve elevated the status of the relationship to something it never was and never will be. For instance, maybe you and I see each other at the gym occasionally. We’ve said hello to one another and maybe had a brief post-workout conversation. My tendency is to now think that we are friends, but we aren’t really friends; we are acquaintances, and there is a HUGE difference between those two types of relationships. I can get my feelings hurt pretty easily when I assume a relationship is more than it is. Now, if my gym “friend” chooses not to accept a friend request I sent them online, I am offended. When the reality is, the person did nothing to wrong me, they simply aren’t interested in more than an acquaintanceship with me.

Learning my place in the lives of others is important for me. It helps me maintain realistic expectations. In the end, my expectations are always what let me down.

The Attention Train

We are all created with an innate need for attention. It’s basic and instinctual. It’s what eventually leads us to mate and reproduce. If you say you don’t need attention or that you don’t care what others think of you, you’re only lying to yourself. You are literally chemically programmed to desire attention and approval from others. But again, you don’t have to believe me. Here’s an article about our need for attention and approval (most often called “belonging”) written by someone with letters after their name. The need for attention and approval isn’t a bad thing, but it can be abused and misused like anything else. We’re also programmed with sexual desire, but if you misuse that desire, it can become destructive. There are always varying levels of misuse, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll focus solely on mine.

I’ve always loved attention. Maybe this stems from being an only child. Maybe it stems from never feeling “enough” as a pre-teen and teenager. Maybe I’m just a narcissist. Regardless the reason, my attention seeking behavior has most likely always been slightly higher than within normal range. With age, I’ve learned to recognize it and “manage” it. Again, my management of such is largely ego. I don’t want to be seen as someone who desperately seeks attention, so I try to conceal my attention seeking behind something that looks respectable. I’ll give you some examples:

a. I post a video of myself doing a workout. I caption the post with something like “found this new move and wanted to try it,” or “today’s lifts were so ugly, but they got done.” These comments are my attempts to prove that the real reason I’m posting a video of myself working out is not because I think I look cute in gym clothes and I feel superior to you because you aren’t working out and you aren’t as awesome as me. To be fair, I don’t have these thoughts every time I post a workout video. Most of the time I post to encourage others to do the same, to prove anyone can do it, or simply to get high fives because I did something I’ve been trying to do. But sometimes, my motives are not pure.

b. I post videos of my family at Disney World. Seems innocent. But what is my motive? Is my motive to post something in which others will find joy? Or is my motive to gain attention by showing pictures of my family out living our best lives at one of the most expensive places on earth? Again, it’s all about motive here.

c. I post a picture of a pretty cup of coffee, tag my friends, and “check-in” at the location where I am. Am I posting this to share the coffee art or recommend the business? Or am I posting it to show others that I’m out here livin’ my best life and to create envy?

Not all attention seeking is bad, and not all posts (mine included) are meant to seek attention. It is always the motive behind my posts that needs to be checked. If I’m desperately seeking attention from an online community, I am not experiencing a feeling of belonging in real life. If my self-worth hinges on whether or not I get enough feedback on a post, I’m not pressing into Christ enough to be filled with feelings of “enough-ness.” If I’m devoting all my time and attention to curating my online life, the people in my real life miss out on opportunities to love me and fill me with the attention I’m seeking digitally. The effect is counterproductive.

Take Away

So what’s the take away? Obviously, I’m back on social media. Does this mean everything I learned on my break from it was for nothing? I hope not. I hope that I am back with a completely new attitude toward it. Social media is an option. It is a good thing, not an ultimate thing. It is an enhancement to life, not a centerpiece. If I practice good habits with social media, I see nothing wrong with it. If I don’t, it quickly becomes burdensome to me by taking up too much space and time in my life and directing my focus off of God and onto me, and this is not a healthy place for me to live. I’m not going to get it right all the time. I’m going to post things out of the need for validation. I’m going to occasionally pick my phone up at a red light. I’m going to assume we’re closer than we actually are. But as with everything else, I will strive for progress toward healthy social media usage, not perfection.

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