Why I Went Cold Turkey From Social Media
Illustration by Ms Stefania Infante
If you’re anything like me, you have a subtle, socially acceptable addiction, one you can indulge in wherever and whenever you please. You have a compulsive need to scroll through headlines, jokes, insults, pictures, music videos and various other synapse-zapping stimuli for hours a day. In fact, there is a good chance you are on your phone right now, reading this after clicking a link on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
This scrolling represents a holiday from the humdrum, the quotidian stress and, if you are particularly anxious, the constant, fever dream-cum-absurdist play being acted out in your head. Except social media is not a break from life, is it? It is life. Every minute we spend hate-“liking” a picture of our former colleague’s brother’s fitness instructor is one taken away from the already precious, fleeting time we have on Earth, itself a rapidly depleting resource hurtling through space.
Is there anything wrong with escaping reality like this? Everyone does it. It can be fun. It connects us to people. It makes us feel important, popular and interesting. And there are worse things than sharing pictures of the sky to your 438 followers. In terms of risk of death, I’d give up that weekend horse-riding habit you have before deleting Instagram.
You have probably seen Netflix’s The Social Dilemma and heard the wizened oracles of the internet give their grave prognoses. According to gentlemen such as Mr Tristan Harris, president of the Center For Humane Technology, and Mr Jaron Lanier, known as the father of virtual reality and author of Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, social media employs macabre algorithms (the power of which the creators do not fully understand) that modify our behaviour and purposely induce negative feelings to keep us hooked.
This ability to manipulate us is sold to advertisers or people who want to influence our vote and it presents a real, existential threat to society and our psyches. Social media, Mr Lanier says, is “worse than cigarettes… in that cigarettes don’t degrade you. They kill you, but you’re still you.”
It was The Social Dilemma that accelerated my departure from Twitter and Instagram four months ago. Although I never posted a great deal, I had become frustrated with the hours I spent scrolling through Twitter, alarmed at my depleted attention span. I noticed that I unconsciously reached for the app whenever there was idle time (the definition of which had changed) or when I felt less than great.
I couldn’t watch a TV show or a football match without wondering what strangers thought of it. I had stopped reading books. Friends noted my phone usage in the pub. I also questioned how the Instagram popularity contest was making me feel, what the point of it was and how it changed my behaviour in real life. Can you enjoy your holiday if you’re wondering what it’ll look like through the Clarendon filter? Why do 312 people I have never met need to know what I am eating? And, more to the point, why do I need to tell them? A bold, enlightened, anti-tech explorer I am not (for starters, I still soothe myself with WhatsApp and YouTube). A survey conducted by market research company Origin says 34 per cent of Gen Zers intend to leave social media.
For what it is worth, since quitting, I’ve forgotten what FOMO is. Admittedly, there is not much going on at present, but beyond conversations with my friends and family, I don’t yearn to know what people are up to. I feel less need to have an opinion on things I don’t really understand and I don’t get so cross at the news (the Stoics accepted things as they are and they seemed a cheery bunch).
I am reminded of how much I like finishing books and looking out of the bus window. My relationships have improved. I am more content, independent and free from that vague thrum of anxiety that viewing pictures of people having a nicer time than you can induce. I now wonder what social media is even for. I sometimes pine for @megsstalter and @football.cliches, but on the whole, I don’t miss it.
All this may be arbitrary if you are totally content with your social media use. Indeed, addiction experts talk of its positive role. While discussing the compulsive nature of social media use, Dr Paul McLaren, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Wellbeing Centre in Harley Street, London, reminds me that “social media has brought tremendous benefits to people who may struggle socially or are geographically or physically isolated”.
However, if you are simply on it more than you’d like, it makes you anxious or you can’t get to sleep at night because you spent your evening arguing with @LibTears544678 about zero-hour contracts (and then inexplicably North Korea), that might be defined as “a problem”.
“Once you know the reason for using a technology, you can approach it on your own terms”
The World Health Organization does not recognise excessive social media use as a disorder. Dr McLaren says it is “unclear” whether social media addiction is real. “We can use social media in compulsive ways, which takes our time away from what might be regarded as healthier or more worthy activities,” he says. “To regard that as addiction is stretching the boundaries of the term.”
Others take a starker view. “If a person cannot undertake their normal everyday life and feels like they have lost complete control of how often they check Instagram, then they have developed an addiction disorder,” says Mr Nuno Albuquerque, group treatment lead for UK Addiction Treatment Centres Group. “Losing the power of choice is what defines an addiction.”
Even when I first resolved to stay off Twitter, I found myself unconsciously typing the URL into Chrome like some kind of rubbish zombie, in search of hilarious takes on Mr Donald Trump’s hair. If you’re spending an hour a day on Instagram without even thinking about it, anxiously trying to complete The Feed, scanning more data than your mind can ever reasonably log, surely that is addictive.
Social media is relatively new and there aren’t conclusive findings on long-term use, but there does seem to be an undeniable link between it and depression, anxiety and poor sleep. A report by the Royal Society Of Public Health found that social media, and Instagram and Snapchat in particular, was fuelling a mental health crisis. According to research by the charity Scope, 60 per cent of people who use platforms such as Twitter report feelings of inadequacy, which supports the compare-and-despair aphorism. A longitudinal study in 2017 by the American Journal Of Epidemiology found that regular Facebook use had a negative impact on users’ wellbeing.
Asking how much time we spend on social media is perhaps the wrong question. Mr Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life In A Noisy World. He has previously spoken about the anxiety-inducing cognitive effects of being hooked up to something that gives you constant rewards, how social media makes people lonelier and how fragmenting your attention results in long-term damage to concentration. Why doesn’t he engage with it?
“Why should I engage with social media?” he says. “I need to see a way in which [a technology] clearly supports something I care about. For me, the existing social media services don’t clear this bar. Couple this with the creepy way in which they attempt to exploit users’ attention and foster behaviour addiction, I’m extra wary.”
He thinks asking why we use social media is a more valuable question. In alcohol and drug recovery, it is said that it does not matter how much sufferers drink or take, but why. “For some, social media becomes a default action when they want to escape unpleasant feelings in the moment, such as boredom, anxiety or general unhappiness,” says Mr Newport. “For many people, heavy social media usage severely reduces the quality of their life, making them more anxious, less happy and less resilient to inevitable hardship.”
This philosophy is echoed by Dr McLaren. “Some people might regard it as harmful by measuring the time spent on it, but it is more important to understand why it is being used.” He tells me about people he has treated, who were using it “to anaesthetise themselves from emotional distress”.
Mr Albuquerque talks about the desire to forget who we are, an unwillingness to be in the present. These may sound like extreme concepts, but if you can’t stop reaching for your phone, if you can’t just be, why is that? Why can’t I abide the time it takes me to take my towel from the bedroom to the bathroom without seeing how many likes my post of someone else’s dog received?
I often justified my social media use by saying I needed it for work. Without obsessively checking Twitter and Instagram for hours a day, how would I be an effective editor who was plugged into the world? How would I know anything?
Mr Newport says you can use social media beneficially, for work or otherwise, without introducing compulsive, negative behaviour. “Once you know why you’re using social media, you can control it much more easily,” he says. “Maybe you’re an artist who receives inspiration from the Instagram feeds of other artists in your genre. There’s no reason to have these services on your phone. You could access these services on a desktop computer, twice a week, 15 minutes at a time. Once you know the reason for using a technology, you can approach it on your own terms.”
There is no doubt that social media has given us the ability to connect with people like never before, but with loneliness on the rise (the Campaign To End Loneliness says 45 per cent of people in England experience loneliness and a recent Cigna study showed that 47 per cent of Americans always or sometimes felt alone), we have to ask, connected in what way?
“The opposite of addiction is connection,” goes the well-worn saying in rehab. With social media, that may not be the case.