(I wrote this essay months ago at the request of an editor who then realized a different department’s editor at the same magazine had assigned something similar to someone else. Sooo it was dropped, and has been sitting on my laptop ever since. I’m finally posting it here because words should not be wasted, and because I have a feeling many out there can relate.
One thing first though: Lest anyone think I’m taking a holier-than-thou approach when it comes to social media, rest assured that re-reading this today forced me to re-confront the hold my phone and social media still have over me. I may one day return to Facebook, for professional or personal reasons, but not until I can use it rather than it using me. Leaving it was a giant step in my chosen direction toward living more and scanning less, but it was not a cure. Twitter, you’re next on the chopping block.)
I left Facebook on Feb. 6, 2017. It was a tiny act of defiance against the trappings of modern society that felt at once empowering and self-sabotaging, a way of relieving anxiety while generating a different kind.
My only regret is not doing it sooner.
It was my father’s 75th birthday, and that morning I posted an old photo of the cake we’d given him when he turned 40. I wrote a sweet caption and watched as the “likes” and good wishes began rolling in.
That’s when the anxiety hit. I wasn’t nervous about people’s reactions to what I’d written; I was anxious about my use of the social network, angry at myself for spending time wondering who was reacting to my post, and annoyed at how pressed I felt to check for and respond to people’s comments.
I had turned off notifications and deleted the Facebook app from my phone long ago, yet I still compulsively pulled it up on my phone’s web browser many times a day, and seemed incapable of closing the Facebook tab on my laptop for more than short bursts. When it came to social media in general, but Facebook in particular, I increasingly felt like a lab rat. I was a classic example of what behavioral scientists call being enticed by a “variable reward schedule,” pulling the social media slot machine lever again and again waiting for the next “hit” in the form of a “like,” a share or an amusing or enlightening tidbit posted by someone else.
Whether or not my life was actually being enriched by such things is up for debate. But one thing was becoming clear: My Facebook usage was more than a habit. This phone glancing and finger flicking had become an almost involuntary tic, filling just about every crevice of my daily existence that wasn’t already spoken for (and, increasingly, time slots that were spoken for).
And I hated it.
Anxiety and Dependence
It wasn’t my fault, exactly. In a 2012 University of Chicago study, social media and email communication were shown to be more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. Assistant professor Wilhelm Hofmann, one of the lead researchers on the study, had a plausible explanation for their findings. “Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist. … So, even though giving in to media desires is certainly less consequential, the frequent use may still ‘steal’ a lot of people’s time.”
Ohhh, yeah. Not only was my phone always readily available, but little nips of social media felt as harmless as popping a few M&Ms, momentary escapes into a virtual adult world of news, entertainment and wit to balance out hours of being immersed in the little kid shenanigans and grown-up stress of my real life.
But if I was honest with myself, many of those “momentary escapes” ended up lasting longer than I’d intended, leaving my real life swirling around me in the background as I passively scanned “breaking news” headlines and virtual updates on other people’s days. Not only that, but my general attention span had gone down the tubes; my book and magazine reading had taken a way-backseat; the voices in my head were increasingly unkind regarding my looks, accomplishments and life; and the country’s collective reaction on social media to our president’s first few weeks in office had spiked my anxiety level off the charts.
While some might think becoming anxious or depressed because of what’s shared on Facebook is an issue only for the most sensitive among us, Facebook’s own controversial study from 2012 gives my reaction some merit. For a week in January of that year, the Facebook news feeds of almost 700,000 users were secretly manipulated to show either all positive content or no positive content. Researchers found that those who were seeing only negativity created and shared more negative posts, and users who were treated only to positivity posted more positive content.
In short, what we see on social media affects our moods. And I was passively letting the increasingly unhinged body politic dictate mine.
Ironically, the only thing that gave me more anxiety than being on Facebook was the thought of not being on Facebook anymore. How could I walk away from the easiest means I had of knowing what my friends and family were up to? As a freelance writer, wouldn’t I be hampering my career by cutting myself off from the ability to share my work with the largest social network in the world? I would miss valuable tips and insider info posted in the private Facebook groups for writers on which I’d come to rely. And what about my kids’ classroom Facebook pages? I looked forward to seeing pictures and reading updates about what they were doing each day.
For a long time that Fear Of Missing Out kept me hanging in there, always pledging to check it less, to put down my phone for longer periods, and to refrain from posting more than a few times a week. But those promises were as empty as the ones I’m guessing smokers and alcoholics make to themselves, before they decide to do something drastic.
In the end, the fact that I grew anxious at the thought of leaving Facebook meant that I should – at least for a while. I didn’t like feeling dependent on something that in some sense wasn’t even real, and certainly wasn’t necessary. And for me, using a temporary blocking app like Moment or Offtime wasn’t enough. I needed a 24/7 detox.
I needed to go cold turkey.
So two hours after I posted my birthday tribute to Dad, I deleted it – along with every other trace that I’d ever been on the social network. Turns out everything becomes invisible when you deactivate your account. Until or unless I reactivate my Facebook profile, it is as if I never existed there.
Once the deed was done I felt an almost palpable relief, and as the day wore on I noticed the calm increasing. My mind was no longer buzzing, burdened under the weight of the massive amount of information, images, headlines, ads, opinions and invites it was used to taking in. And I was dumbstruck by how many times I caught myself glancing at or reaching for my phone, ready to queue up my web browser and refresh my news feed.
On the flip side, I felt lonely. At least I thought I felt lonely. I had made no public announcement about my departure, and I wondered how long it would take for people to notice I was gone. Would they notice? In those first couple days, it felt like I was living on a deserted island.
But after a few days I came to realize I wasn’t feeling lonely, I was just experiencing being alone. Without the crutch of grabbing my phone to pull my thoughts away at every turn, I was left with time to sit and think about whatever I wanted or needed to think about. Like a tentative, relaxing exhale, I began filling those little crevices in my day with daydreaming, and reading, and exchanging text messages with friends, and sometimes nothing at all.
In short: I traded Facebook for staring at the wall.
And time! I gained so much time. That first day, in addition to my normal workload and parental duties, I finished reading a magazine I’d been trying to get through for weeks, caught up on a TV show, wrote an essay, organized the rest of my work week, lingered on a birthday call with Dad, texted with some friends and family and got eight and a half hours of sleep.
Eight and a half glorious hours.
No Mo’ FOMO
Nearly seven months later, when I think about reactivating my Facebook profile, I get tense. I kept my Instagram and Twitter accounts, both because I have no intention of becoming a hermit and because those sites never siphoned away my time or spiked my anxiety the way Facebook did. Yet the most startling thing about leaving the giant social network is the fact that after several years of being one of its more active participants, having been routinely complimented there on everything from my parenting to my professional endeavors, I feel much healthier without it.
I do miss the easy access to people I like – watching their kids grow, enjoying their humor and talents, and supporting them in times of need or stress. But I realize they, too, were only sharing carefully crafted bits of themselves, just like I was. To really know someone, you have to connect with them personally, and I’m trying to do that in more intentional ways.
No matter how many “hits” I scored pulling that virtual slot machine lever as part of the Facebook community, those feelings of social acceptance and camaraderie are no match for having more time to live my own life in the here and now, to fully appreciate what and who is in front of me. Because we can have as many lives online as we feel like crafting, but we only get one shot at the real thing.