4 Things I Learned From My Social Media Vacation

Our brains need regular down time in order to be healthy. Unfortunately, because of the addictive powers of social media, it's extremely difficult for us to prioritize making the time to stop and do nothing like we did when we were kids, in the era before constant online connection.

Our brains need regular down time in order to be healthy. Unfortunately, because of the addictive powers of social media, it's extremely difficult for us to prioritize making the time to stop and do nothing like we did when we were kids, in the era before constant online connection.

For the entire month of July, I took a social media vacation. This means I swore off my two social media addictions of choice - Facebook and Instagram. Even when I got an email from Instagram a couple of weeks into the vacation encouraging me to check out the 152 likes, 12 comments, and 8 new followers that I had missed, I resisted the temptation to click through.

Depending on your level of interaction with social media, this may sound like no big deal, a luxury, or the worst deprivation ever. I personally found myself alternating between the three mindsets, and learned a lot about myself in the process.

I USE SOCIAL MEDIA TO CHECK OUT & AVOID DIFFICULT FEELINGS

One of the most profound revelations I had during the vacation was that I use social media to check out. Before July, I would do this all the time without even realizing it! Seemingly out of the blue, I would all of a sudden really, really need to look at Facebook or post a picture to Instagram. I even found myself composing posts while I was in the middle of doing the activity that I was going to post about!

As I started to observe and examine this behavior (and I think this observation was only possible because I was unable to act on the desire to check out), I realized there was always a trigger - either something obvious or relatively innocuous (I was waiting to meet a friend and was bored), or something more subtle or subconscious (I had a fleeting memory of an argument that I’d had with my husband the week before). In all of these instances, I was using social media as a way to avoid feelings or situations that I perceived as uncomfortable or undesirable.

SOCIAL MEDIA IS ADDICTIve...AND I DON’T MEAN THAT FIGURATIVELY

The icon for Self Control, the app-blocking software that I used during my vacation.

The icon for Self Control, the app-blocking software that I used during my vacation.

Seriously, I went through some intense cravings and withdrawal (see the section above). I deleted the apps from my phone, and even installed some app-blocking software on my computer. Good thing, because the first two weeks were rough - I felt anxious on an almost non-stop basis. I almost caved in on multiple occasions...I think the only thing stopping me was that I had publicly announced my vacation on both Facebook and Instagram, and I felt accountable to everyone who’d seen those posts.

One of the major anxiety-inducing factors (other than that I’d suddenly tossed one of my favorite coping mechanisms out the window) was the fear of missing out, since many of my friends and acquaintances primarily use Facebook to plan events. And when I got back on Facebook in August, it turns out I had missed a couple of events. I took this as a good lesson to get in touch beforehand with people I want to see during my next vacation!

I was also afraid that, in this age of constant connection through social media, lack of participation on my business pages would negatively impact the success of my business. I was even pro-active about this on my Facebook business page by scheduling weekly posts beforehand. But this still didn’t completely assuage the fear that I was slowly committing business suicide by not being on social media for 31 days. However, as far as I can tell, my vacation had no impact on my business, and hopefully even inspired a few people to take their own social media break!

CONSTANT CONNECTION IS NOT ALL IT’S CRACKED UP TO BE

One thing I did do in July was read a book called “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection” by Michael Harris. I felt like it was written just for my vacation - it talked about how constant connection through email, social media, texting, etc. is actually changing the way we think and perceive the world, and not necessarily in a good way.

Spending an entire afternoon doing nothing but watching a colony of ants is really good for your well-being!

Spending an entire afternoon doing nothing but watching a colony of ants is really good for your well-being!

One of the main things I took away from this book is that in order to function optimally, the human brain needs absence. This doesn’t just mean alone-time, but alone-time spent doing nothing. Remember childhood summer days spent laying in the grass staring up at the clouds, or down into the tiny world of an ant colony? We still need that down time in order to be truly healthy, happy adults. But how often do we actually do that when it’s so easy to whip out our phones in order to distract ourselves from anxiety, boredom, or the fear of missing out?

I REALLY LIKE MY LIFE WITHOUT SOCIAL MEDIA

Over the course of the month, I found that I suddenly had more of a desire to connect with others, both loved ones and strangers, in a more real way. And I had a lot more emotional energy to do so once the superficial and sometimes chaotic connections of social media were gone.

I also had sooo much more time - I didn’t realize just how much of my life was being drained away through social media. It’s easy to lose track when you just spend a few minutes here and there….checking Instagram while waiting in line, going to Facebook for a few minutes to look up a movie your friend recommended then getting sidetracked by the little red notification flag demanding to be attended to, and so on and so forth.

(FYI, various reports I found suggest that adults check their mobile devices somewhere between 50-150 times a day, and spend an average of 50 minutes a day on Facebook and Instagram! Just to do a little math for you, assuming that I was logging the average daily 50 minutes, that was an extra 25.83 hours that I reclaimed in July!!! Or to put it another way, by not using social media for a month, I basically got an entire extra day’s worth of time to do other things like go for a hike, hang out with friends and family, read, and lounge idly in the sun!)

Finally, I discovered that my life was more peaceful without social media, especially the insanity that is the Facebook notification & liking system - it really is one big sociological experiment, and it can take it’s toll on our sense of well-being. After a couple of weeks without social media, I felt much more grounded and less scatterbrained. I’m not sure if this was the direct result of not being exposed to social media, or if it had more to do with having more time to meditate, be outside, and just do nothing. Maybe it was a combination of both. Whatever the cause, once I made it past the withdrawal symptoms, I felt a huge sense of relief.

YOU HAVE A CHOICE!

It might feel daunting to overcome your dependence on social media. And it is tough, since our human brains are wired to connect with others, and social media provides an over-abundance of connection. In fact, one of the main goals of Facebook's designers is to get you to spend as much time as possible on their site. It is literally designed to encourage you to check out from your real life. However, Harris concludes his book on an encouraging note: “Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job. YOUR job is to notice. First notice the difference. And then, every time, choose.”

In other words, baby steps! While I now dream of a world without social media, I know this isn’t going to happen any time soon. Also, I do enjoy certain aspects of social media, such as being able to easily connect with far-away loved ones and colleagues. When used responsibly and in moderation, I believe that it can actually add value to your life.

And, thanks to the vacation, I’ve realized that I don’t need to be a slave to social media anymore. Harris took his own month-long tech break, and while he didn’t have the earth-shattering epiphanies that he was hoping for, he writes that “it’s the break itself that’s the thing. It’s the break - that is, the questioning - that snaps us out of the spell, that can convince us it was a spell in the first place.

Now that I’ve recognized the situation for what it is, I’ve come up with a set of personal guidelines to make it easier to avoid falling under the social media spell again. They are:

  1. No social media before breakfast or after 8p.
  2. If I don’t meditate on a given day, then I will not use social media that day.
  3. 30 minutes max a day, preferably in one go.
  4. I must be outdoors to check social media. (I’ll revisit this one after October!)
  5. No multi-tasking with social media. Eg, no checking Instagram while watching a movie or looking at Facebook while eating a meal.
  6. If someone posts an interesting article, video, etc, either I will stop and take the time to look at it then and there (and that counts toward my 30 minutes), or forget about it. No more compiling an endless, incomprehensible list of bookmarks that I feel guilty about never looking at.
  7. When I’m reading a thread on Facebook, I will read it to the end rather than clicking around or being distracted by pop-up notifications.

This may seem like a lot, but they aren’t arbitrary. All these guidelines arose organically as I started to assess what I needed and wanted from social media (or the lack thereof), and I feel like they enrich my life rather than being a hindrance. If you choose to change your own relationship to social media, I encourage you to come up with your own guidelines that are meaningful to you and reflect your values, so that you can also successfully reclaim those lost 50 minutes of each day.