It was Donald Trump who made me realize I was checking Twitter and Facebook way too much. Or rather, it was all the things his administration did in one week of May to make my emotions range from anxiety (possible House passage of AHCA) to depression (actual House passage of AHCA) to anger (the email I got from my representative letting me know why she threw me under the bus) to fear (Trump’s full-on dictator-like decision to fire the FBI director for investigating him) to despair (the non-interest Republicans showed in stopping corruption and the slow collapse of our democracy). That’s a lot of emotions for a 7-day time span, particularly for someone who’s not in a volatile relationship with anyone but my government.
These feelings got amped up at least once every half hour because that was how frequently I was checking Twitter, and there was always a new think piece or Twitter thread for me to read which enflamed my disgust and anger and fear all over again. I was so disturbed on Tuesday, May 9, after FBI Director Comey had been fired that I called my mother solely so she could tell me everything would be all right. She followed up with me on Friday to see if I was feeling better, but I wasn’t. I realized that was because I was giving myself a slow drip of bad news throughout the day. Drip, drip, drip.
That’s when I decided it would be healthier if I stopped this drip and just got my horrible news twice a day, once from the morning shows and news sites, and then again in the evening watching Colbert and checking news sites again. That way I could stay informed, but I wasn’t constantly poisoning my spirit, just giving it a hard smack twice a day. My mother spent half of the Watergate scandal living on the island of Palau in the south Pacific as part of the Peace Corps. They would get news from the United States once a week, not every 20 minutes. She survived fine, and probably better than other people who were stressing about the news every night in the US. I didn’t want to go an entire week without news, but pulling back seemed like a good idea.
But Donald Trump wasn’t the only reason I decided to ditch social media for a week, he was just the tipping point. I’d become mildly concerned with my social media usage in April when I saw a piece on 60 Minutes by Anderson Cooper called “Brain Hacking,” which showed how tech companies purposely make their apps addictive. As a former Google product manager said, “Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’ This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit.” Upon honest reflection, I had to admit I’d been playing the slots a lot. A whole heck of a lot. And I was not winning the jackpot.
I was spending a lot of time in my recliner in the evenings reading only Twitter and Facebook. Like, at least an hour, maybe two. A few years ago the Freakonomics podcast interviewed actor Aziz Ansari and although I wasn’t familiar with him at that point in my life, one part of the interview stuck with me. He said, “I read the Internet so much I feel like I’m on page a million of the worst book ever. I won’t stop reading it. For some reason, it’s so addictive.” It occurred to me that he was right and that maybe I should read an actual book instead of a disjointed collection of random observations and links. Ansari also said, “The times where I haven’t read the stuff that I normally read on the Internet, just nonsense blogs or whatever, the next day I’ve felt like I’ve missed nothing.”
In addition to that, I was concerned I was falling into a left-wing echo chamber on Twitter. I was following a lot of liberal commentators and writers and at least one person who was probably a nut job, but a quite entertaining nut job! They would say and retweet interesting things, but I was fairly certain some of the stuff they were floating was a bit out there, approaching the left-wing version of Pizzagate. Whenever a crisis broke out, I was aware that I was only following people who agreed with me, which wasn’t healthy even if it was immensely satisfying. However, I couldn’t (and still can’t) bring myself to follow a Trump supporter, so it seemed better to try logging off all together.
It was because of those three reasons, 1) Twitter’s roller coaster effect on my mood, 2) Qualms about the addictive nature of social media apps, and 3) Concern about locking myself in an echo chamber, that I made a spontaneous decision on the evening of Friday, May 12th, to not use Facebook or Twitter for a week. I needed to prove to myself that I could. I took the Twitter and Facebook apps off my phone’s home screen and I removed bookmarks for those sites from the browser on my laptop. Here’s how the week went:
A week without Twitter and Facebook
Friday, May 12
Only an hour after logging off I started jonesing for a hit of Twitter, and several times that evening I felt an urge to pick up my phone and open the app. The fact that I felt this impulse so soon reaffirmed to me that it was important to stay logged off for the week.
Taking Facebook off of my home screen was helpful because I had a habit of clicking on it solely to clear the red number bubble that appears letting you know how many notifications you have waiting for you. I’m guessing this is one of the things they purposely to do make an app addictive.
Saturday, May 13 and Sunday, May 14
I very briefly logged into Facebook to try to get permission from someone to use a photo in my Untitled Town blog post. I was very careful to only do this and not read anything else, though it was unavoidable to see and skim the post at the top of my feed.
Looking for something to do, I remembered I have a habit of saving articles I want to read to Instapaper and then never reading them. Well, I finally had some time to read them this weekend.
Monday, May 15
I published a blog entry on Monday, so I briefly logged onto to Facebook and Twitter to post the link since that’s how a lot of my readers learn about new posts. Otherwise I stayed off.
During the work day I had several moments between tasks that I felt an urge to check Twitter and Facebook and became aware of how frequently I’d been using these sites to distract me during the day.
At around 6:00pm I read a story about Trump bragging about classified information to the Russians in the Oval Office. I felt a strong urge to tweet about how we’re all going to die, but resisted.
At 10pm I finally watched an episode of The Great British Baking Show that everyone talks about and wanted to ask Twitter why this competition takes place in a big tent in a field. It’s got to be a pain to run electricity and running water to a tent, right? Why not use a normal TV studio? Alas, Google wasn’t of any help, so these questions remained unanswered.
Wednesday, May 17
A special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the Russia/Trump campaign connections! Yay! I wanted to go on Twitter to see what people were saying. Instead I satiated myself by reading newspaper articles about it.
Friday, May 19
After a terrifying, early-morning thunderstorm with the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard, I woke up to find that my cable modem and router got fried from a power surge through the coaxial cable, the only part of the setup without a surge protector. I really wanted to complain about this on Twitter.
And then the week was up. I’d made it! Yay!
Reflecting on my unplugged week, I came to several conclusions.
Revel, complain, question, distract
There seemed to be four reasons I wanted to check Twitter or Facebook during my offline week.
1) I wanted to revel in something I liked, such as the appointment of a special counsel.
2) I wanted to complain about something and get commiseration for it, like my fried modem.
3) I had a question about something, like why the baking show takes place in a tent.
4) I wanted a momentary distraction, either from work or from boredom after work.
I was somewhat embarrassed that “find out why my friends are up to” was not on this list. Usually that’s one of the reasons I tell myself I’m checking Facebook, but I think it’s more likely I’m doing it to distract myself and finding out what my friends are up to is just a way of doing that. Or maybe I’m an awful person? I dunno.
Notably, both items 1 and 2 seemed to be ways of reaffirming that an opinion I had was correct. Since then I’ve noticed I still do this, sometimes for something frivolous like how obvious it was that Katy Perry was lip syncing on SNL, or other times for something more serious like the fact that Jared Kushner tried to secretly communicate with Russians was hella’ suspicious. Basically, I was seeking confirmation bias, and we all do it to some extent.
I felt like I was in a better mood at the end of the week than if I’d been sucked into social media sites like I normally had been. When a news story breaks, social media has a way of amplifying whatever you’re feeling. That can be fun when it’s something you’re happy about, like how good the reviews for Wonder Woman are. But it can also amplify your depression if something happens that you think is bad for your country. Of course, commiserating with someone about bad news can be helpful too, but that’s something you can do offline, no Twitter of Facebook necessary. As a result I found myself calling my mom and texting my brother more often than normal so I could get that commiseration instead of sending a tweet out into the interwebs.
Doing other things to block boredom
I spent more time reading newspapers and magazine articles during my offline week than I normally did. And when I did read something I was focused on it for several minutes instead of flitting from post to post every 10 seconds like I would on social media. I noticed it was a lot more productive than constantly reloading Twitter or Facebook every hour.
As Aziz Ansari said in that interview I mentioned earlier, “When you look on your Facebook feed and you see these pictures, none of that shit really matters. You just want to see a new thing on there and it gives you something to do. I’ve sat at my computer. I still do it. I go on like Facebook or whatever and I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’ I’m going on a loop with these same four sites for no reason. I’m not genuinely interested.” He may have well been describing me, because I have been known to frequently reload social media sites over and over again, scrolling through posts even when there isn’t any new content, like an addict looking for a hit.
People who can’t escape their phones look more like addicts to me
When I see someone who can’t step away from their phone, more and more I see it as rude and addictive behavior, similar to smoking. I feel this way about people who read their phone as they’re crossing the street or that guy who just had to use his phone for three minutes halfway through a movie. If you can’t avoid looking at your screen during a two-hour movie or when you’re doing something as potentially dangerous as crossing a street, you are an addict. You need help. You need to take an objective look at your phone usage and determine whether it’s healthy for you. (It’s not.)
When I’m in a situation where I don’t have anything particularly interesting to do, like when I’m waiting in line, I try not to immediately whip out my phone to distract myself. It’s important to me that I know I am capable of just sitting with myself for several minutes. It’s like knowing you don’t need to dart out for a smoke break at least once an hour.
Whoops, I missed your wedding!
There were some negative things about staying off social media for a week. The biggest one was that I missed the fact that a friend of mine from a high school summer camp had gotten married that week. I only found out a few weeks later when I’d let myself back onto Facebook for limited periods of time. I felt bad about this and wondered if I’d missed any other significant events during that week.
Even though I don’t want to be a social media addict, I realized there were some people in my life I wanted to keep track of on Facebook. However, I didn’t want to get sucked into the News Feed again. I discovered that Facebook lets you set up lists of people, so I created a list of my real-life friends and other people I thought were most important to interact with and bookmarked that list. I try not to go to the Facebook home page anymore, just go directly to that list. As a bonus, those posts are always listed in reverse chronological order instead of mashed up in a strange order by the Facebook home page algorithm. Similarly, Twitter lets you set up lists, so I created a new one that’s basically non-political and just includes friends and family and some people I find amusing or entertaining.
Despite all the good reasons not to, I have occasionally gotten sucked into the endless void that is Twitter and Facebook after my week off. Usually this has happened when I’ve been bored in the evening or when a piece of juicy news hits or a TV show is on and I want to know how other people reacting. I have a chronic headache and because of that I’m not prone to do things in the evening that require brain power. When you’re in pain, reading a book is hard, but reading Twitter is easy. It’s made me think I need to get a hobby, one that doesn’t require much thinking. I’m not sure what to take up though.
Are other social media sites less unhealthy?
As you can tell, Twitter and Facebook are the social media services I use most heavily, but there are plenty other ones out there. Last year I used Snapchat briefly to find out what it was, but it was one of the first apps I deleted from my phone when I got a warning that I was running out of disk space. Tumblr seems to be a fun place if you’re into a certain TV show or movie or actor, but doesn’t seem to have much real substance (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). I have an Instagram account and follow people on there, but I’ve never gotten into it like I did Twitter. On the bright side, Instagram seems to be a more positive place to hang out, particularly post-election. Twitter used to be fun before November 8th, but afterwards it became a tumultuous whirlwind of emotion.
I’m not sure if some of these services are more addictive than others, or if some of them have better or worse effects on your health. Like anything, they’re probably fine in small doses, but if you find that you can’t step away or you’re using them to fill some other hole in your life, you probably need to reassess your usage. I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad about social media, it just depends on how you’re using it. It’s just like there’s nothing inherently bad about ice cream, but if you’re eating a quart of it in one sitting, you might have a problem.
I’m glad I stepped away from social media for a week. I’m glad that I was able to do it at all. I’d still like for it to be a part of my life, just not a part that makes my life worse.