Social media is deeply entwined in our twenty-first century lives. Everyone is connected, all the time. There is the expectation of always being available to communicate, and the impulse to publish one’s daily activity for a larger audience to see. We invite people into the intimate moments of our existence through carefully edited images, words and video. We tag each other in the memes that pop up in our bottomless newsfeeds and it makes us feel connected.
There are too many articles circulating the internet warning of how social media is dangerous, that we are addicted to our screens and damaging our relationships. I think there is some truth behind these claims, but I’m not sure anymore that social media is really to blame. Social media is just an innovative tool for communicating creatively; it is how we choose to use it that can be harmful. Maybe the solution isn’t to boycott social media entirely, but rather, to learn to use it – and take time away from it – more sustainably.
People have been ‘detoxing’ from social media – going ‘feed free’ – for years. The entry ‘digital detox’ is even in the (online) dictionary:
digital detox (noun)
- ‘a period during which a person refrains from using digital or electronic devices, as to avoid distractions or make time for other activities’.
It seems an inherent part of human nature that we can turn good things into addictions – poisonous substances that we need to remove (‘detox’) from our lives. However, the old saying goes, “all good things in moderation”. Rather than raging against the machine, perhaps balance is what is needed. Social media is part of our lives – but it isn’t as essential as we have come to believe, and time away can be a very good thing.
I spent the previous two months away from social media. If I’m being honest this decision wasn’t motivated by some noble desire to ‘rediscover’ my identity and purpose in life away from the time-sucking vortex of my newsfeeds. I was just a desperate uni student wanting to cut off the main source of my procrastination (I’m looking at you, Relatable Psych Memes). I’d tried numerous apps to limit my screen time, but as assignments piled up and my stress levels skyrocketed, going cold turkey was my only salvation.
I will not muse existential or claim to have discovered the key to healthy living. For me, being cut off from social media wasn’t the door to enlightenment. I was confronted by the silence – the deep, overwhelming vortex of boredom and an anxious mind. I couldn’t just pick up my phone and scroll to alleviate my restless cognitions; my passwords had been changed by a trusted confidante. It was just me, my thoughts and my fidgeting limbs – a nightmarish combination. My discomfort with being screen-free really just highlighted for me how greatly I needed to break away and face reality.
Eventually I began to find solace in the silence. I used the time I’d previously spent attached to my phone to actually be productive. I read 21 books (compared to just 12 in the previous 2 months). I tamed the jungle of our front garden – who knew pruning trees and digging up weeds could be so therapeutic for anxiety? I submitted assignments before they were due and kept up with all my lectures. I had undistracted prayer time and read more of my bible than I had the whole previous year. I (successfully!) baked cakes, spent more time playing piano and tried my hardest to just be, without always having to share my activities for the affirmation of my social group.
After about a month, I realised I wasn’t so sure I wanted to log back in to social media after all. Ultimately though, I must admit that I didn’t quite last the distance, giving in to Instagram a week early and logging onto Facebook 2 days before my designated finish line. I’d like to say that I conquered my screen addiction and maintained the healthy habits I’d established during my detox, but I’m human so I’m weak. Once I was back online, I was allured by those seductive endless newsfeeds and regressed to my old excessive meme-tagging ways. When bored, to Instagram stories I fled.
There’s a reason why going cold turkey didn’t kick my addiction. Like any consistent habit, using social media rewires our brains. Every ‘like’ or ‘view’ gives us a hit of dopamine (the neurotransmitter in our brains linked to, among other things, reward/pleasure). This chemical is also what drives the habitual desire to scroll, and when our brains learn that boredom is alleviated by clicking on that blue/white ‘F’ icon…well, pre-social media Pavlov could have predicted the outcome.
So, we’re all addicted…is there any hope? Yes, our neural pathways aren’t fixed – addictions can be conquered – praise God for neuroplasticity! I don’t feel very qualified to hand out advice to improve your existence, and I’m no neuroscientist. What I can say is that time away from social media is beneficial, yet it is a matter of agency. Time away from our screens needs to be a choice – to read more, exercise more, go outside and experience this beautiful world we call home. We need to not be afraid of boredom but embrace it, and not hide from the silence by distracting ourselves with your screens.
Social media can be used for good – connecting us with friends on the other side of the world, campaigning for social justice and sharing the positive things in our lives. It can also be used in negative ways, because we are human and we don’t always use our freedom wisely. We need to learn to use social media well, and not allow ourselves to be enslaved by it. The social media façade we paint for the world isn’t real life, it’s just a cover for the insecurities that we must deal with. Real life is messy and painful, but also beautiful. We must choose, every day, to prioritise the activities and people we love, and not fall into complacency with our eyes fixed on our screens.
Disclaimer: as soon as I finished this article, I was on my phone checking my newsfeeds. What can I say, I’m a work in progress…