I am a social person. An extrovert. Outgoing. I love to be with people, to feel connected, to feel needed, and wanted, and involved. But you probably wouldn't know it given the fact that about half the time you'll find me phone in hand, scrolling through one social feed or another. That’s the irony of the phrase “social” media: it makes you decidedly anti-social.
Up until now, I would fiercely defend my social media use. That screen with the crack in the right-hand corner was my portal to maintaining relationships, keeping tabs on loved ones far away, and creating somewhat of a facade of myself and my life, and the image that I wanted people to see. Or at least, these were my rationale. I liked the attention I got from these apps, and I liked the way they shared my life with the people I would allow to see in. When chided for scrolling at dinners or in the presence of my technologically-challenged parents, I’d say, “It’s how my friends and I stay connected. I miss them and it makes me feel like I’m with them.” And maybe that’s largely true—until it also makes you feel less like you’re with the people you’re physically with at that moment.
We’ve all been there. You see a photo or post or story of a person—be it a family member, a crush, an ex, or even a total stranger—and sheer curiosity sends you headlong into a fit of mindless, timeless cyberstalking. Simply put, I probably spend way too many hours a day scrolling. After all, I’m a millennial who thrives on the insatiable feeling of knowing what my friends are doing and how and when and where and who they’re with.
Alarmingly, a study by Flurry says that U.S. users spend more than half their time (51 percent) on social media, messaging, and media and entertainment applications, while one Gallup poll found most American smartphone owners keep their phones near them all day, many even while they sleep, with a majority checking their phone at least a few times within each hour. Even if you spend just two hours on social media every day, it would amount to a total of five years and four months spent over a lifetime.
When I spoke with Dr. Andrew Lepp, who studies social media behavior at Kent State University, he advised me and others like me to take a conscious break from the push notifications and constant distraction of our phones. Specifically, to reflect on how constant connection to these “social” apps is really cutting into our free time and distracting us from more valuable pursuits.
According to Lepp, “Studies show the really intensive smartphone users—the ones almost always distracted by their device—report that their relationships with parents and close peers aren’t as strong as people that use the phone less or use it in a more calculated manner.”
As a self-classified extrovert, that’s obviously not what I wanted. At the very least, I wanted to see if I could do it. So I quit social media for a week and here’s what happened.
The Deletion Process
Note: In order to make the experience completely mine, I decide not to broadcast to others that I will be taking a break from any apps. My phone is to be primarily used for calling, texting, and email.
My friend and I sit cross-legged on her apartment floor, making vision boards for 2018. It is 10:09 p.m. on a Saturday. I have vowed to delete my social media apps at midnight, and this has been the first test. Instead of scrolling our feeds, we flip through real magazines, skimming articles, and cutting out our favorite phrases and pictures. Mine says things like “taking risks,” “experience new things,” “be brave," etc.
When we finish, we marvel at the completed products. Steeling myself, I snap what would be my final post for the week: our completed boards. Then, I delete my digital social life: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and, the hardest, Snapchat. I stare at how empty my phone screen looks without them. The group photo from the beach weekend I set as my background months ago now uncovered to reveal smiling, sun-drenched faces.
I oddly wake up on Sunday and incessantly refresh my email. ON A SUNDAY. When that weird need to see something new fill my screen at the swipe of a finger is not fulfilled, I try reading. As a kid, and even a teen, I would read for hours on the weekends. Now, I can’t remember the last time I sat down and read a book without it taking me months to finish. The hours of solitude that were once meant for respite are now filled with boredom, and satiated by social media. My attention span has definitely suffered in the digital age. I get out of the house for the day and find ways to keep myself busy and productive. I still feel a little disconnected, but I fill the void with a long to-do list.
My biggest challenge comes when I have to resist the urge to tweet out a hashtag during a major awards show that airs at night. I’m testing my willpower.
Though I usually mindlessly scroll Instagram on my commute to work before switching my phone to airplane mode and listening to music, I enjoyed a mostly silent commute. I find myself reaching for my phone throughout the day in anticipation of a Snapchat, which I already could see as my hardest habit to kick. The thought of letting go of my over 100-day snap streak with my best friend is a little difficult, but I decide to schedule a phone call for later instead.
Without even thinking about it, I maneuver to the top of my browser and type “fac” into the search bar. I swear it happens like instinct. When “Facebook” appears as the first result, I immediately come to my senses and go back to work. I’m learning how easy it is to form a bad habit, and how mindless my searching can be.
My friends are starting to notice my absence. For someone who is usually active online all the time, the people I communicate with daily are beginning to notice the sudden radio silence. Only when they text me do I respond with the reason. As mentioned earlier, I wanted to experience my lack of connection unadulterated, so most people are unaware of the intentional break. I decide that if certain people are curious, they will ask. When many of them do, they’re generally impressed with my endeavor.
Now armed with the knowledge that I am free of social media, my friends contact me directly to share stories. It actually fosters more personal communication. I received two phone calls and a text today all starting with something along the lines of, “Hey, I know you’re not on social media this week so you didn’t see….but I just have to tell you about it.” I’m learning that if something is important enough to share with me, I’ll hear about it directly, not on someone’s page, feed, or story.
Unburdened by the over-saturation of endless photos, videos, memes, and the like, I almost feel like there’s extra space in my brain to complete more productive tasks. I trek downtown to meet with a fellow writer and blissfully enjoy the stunning view from her building—without documenting it on snap or Instagram. We chat for an entire hour and not once do I break gaze to glance down at my phone. It sits on the table, undisturbed, just like me.
Though I’ve already felt like the benefits of deleting my social media outweigh the cost, I find myself craving that fix on the first day of the weekend after what felt like a long week. It’s a weird sensation not to roll over on a Saturday morning and scroll through what everyone was up to the night before. Instead, I wake up to a missed FaceTime call and a text from an old friend asking to get together.
This suffices. I spend the rest of the day—my final day completely social media-less—surrounded by family, something I cherish for its rarity. For the first time in a long time, I am truly present with them, savoring every moment. It’s the first time I have not completely drained my phone battery in a day.
Seven days was actually nothing for giving up my most-used apps. It went by faster than anticipated, and I found that when I finally re-downloaded them all, I was apathetic. It was blatantly apparent to me that I spend entirely too much time reading posts and looking at pictures of people who I simply don’t really care about. It can be powerful to remove the temptation of those mindless cyberstalking fits. I not only felt more empowered for doing it, but recognized that nothing good was actually coming from them, and the negative feelings could be avoided with a little willpower.
Lepp tells Domino that the overuse of our devices and, in turn, social media, can have some concerning health outcomes. “People who spend more time on the phone than others tend to be more anxious, they may experience a decrease in face-to-face communication with people in their lives—and that decrease in face-to-face may actually weaken some of our important social relationships.” I now fully understand this.
In the end, I decided not to re-download the apps all at once. I did so over the course of a couple of days (to the tune of over 75 notifications) and re-evaluated the times I most wanted that feeling of connection. Unsurprisingly, it was when I was bored or lonely that I most craved the immediate, superficial gratification of social media.
I plan to severely cut down on, if not eliminate, my social media use during the week and save it for the weekends, while restricting some forms of social media to just my computer. If you need me, call me, text me, interact with ME, not my page, story, or the image I put out there.
And if you haven’t yet tried it for yourself, I challenge you to hold yourself accountable for your social media use and see the way it makes you feel. Above all, consider this: In an age where we are constantly hyping ourselves up for the attention of others, exist for yourself, on your own terms. Do something that makes you forget to look at your phone, go somewhere where it feels out of place, or simply place it out of sight for an hour a day.
My biggest lesson? The people who are important and interested will come to you. They will ask because they genuinely want to know, they will engage because they legitimately care. And no tweet, snap, Facebook post, or ‘gram will compare to that.
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