I didn’t announce that I was taking a break from social media, but I suspect several of my friends breathed a sigh of relief when they realised I’d disappeared.
I’d been through a period of having rather a lot to say!
A couple of months on, it’s quickly proved to be one of the better decisions I’ve made. In this article, I will explain why. Do you want better mental health, more time to concentrate on things that matter, and a generally happier outlook? If so, please read on.
When Social Media Goes Toxic
As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m located in the UK, although the majority of the site’s audience in the US.
In late 2019, we had an enormously contentious election, combined with the closing stages of the debate on Brexit.
To say the country was divided would be a huge understatement. In many ways it remains that way. Britain is split almost entirely down the middle on the issue of leaving the European Union. And there are also other considerable divides based on everything from generation to the region you live in.
All of this played out (and continues to play out) on social media. And I’m not ashamed to say that I developed an extremely unhealthy relationship with it.
Twitter becomes a place to be furiously affronted by people with opposing views, then mollified by your echo-chamber. Facebook, though less time consuming, is perhaps even worse. That’s where the opposing views / hateful options (delete as appropriate) come from your “friends.”
It’s not all about politics. As I’ll move on to in a moment, there are plenty of other good reasons for taking a break from social media. But politics certainly triggered my own desire to quit Facebook and Twitter.
Something had to change – and from speaking to several other people about it, I was far from alone in thinking that.
Disadvantages of Social Media
We’ve already touched on the exposure to angry political dispute, but social media can impact your life in other dark and depressing ways too.
Let’s start with an obvious one:
Comparing the Real You with an Edited Version of Everybody Else
I actually quit Instagram quite some time before this latest social media detox. My relationship with Instagram is something I’ve talked about on this site previously.
Nobody really posts the reality of their existence on social media, but Instagram is where this is taken to the extreme. People create these shiny, filtered, aspirational lives, and anybody who joins Instagram feels inclined to do the same. (Take a look at my own page here for an example!)
The thing is, there are times in my life where I AM on holiday, or feel like I’m nailing the freelance lifestyle. Sometimes there are phases where I’ve simply had a run of doing lots of home cooking and recipe creation.
But that’s all you share, because it’s all you photograph. Funnily enough, my wife and I don’t take pictures when our two-year-old is having a run of refusing to sleep and we’re practically hysterical with fatigue.
And while I might take pictures when I grab a week in the sun, the iPhone camera stays firmly in my pocket the week I get back, complete with the virus I caught on the plane and that resurgence of anxiety and OCD that catches me unawares.
Instagram is the worst for this. Can any “influencers” really have a life consisting of nothing but sunshine, travel, fulfilling work, yoga and workouts? I don’t buy it, and press reports like this one increasingly shed light on a far less glamorous reality.
Facebook’s not the same, but it’s similar. Your friends are only sharing the good times.
If you’re ever at a low ebb, it’s human nature to fixate on these other lifestyles. Why are these people doing so much better? Why are they happier? Why aren’t I getting it right?
It’s all nonsense. TOTAL nonsense. But it’s almost impossible not to fall down that rabbit hole, especially when you’re not at your best.
The Time Drain
There are countless studies that show how much time people waste on social media, yet many of us vastly underestimate HOW much time we spend endlessly scrolling.
Having backed off from social media, I can conclusively say that I was utterly deluded about how much of my time was being poured down a social media drain.
When you give up Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and take them off your phone, you suddenly become acutely aware of how much time MANY people spend on these apps. And the “addiction” doesn’t discriminate.
Forget any stereotypes of “millennials” and their digital obsessions. Since I reduced my use of social media, I’ve seen at least as much intense scrolling from much older generations!
Mental Health Problems
We’ve already established that social media robs you of the time you could spend socialising and bonding in the real world. And we know that it can cause you to make unhealthy and unrealistic comparisons with your peers.
It’s hardly any wonder that there’s extensive data to say that social media is genuinely bad for your mental health. Over 41% of people surveyed say that it’s caused them symptoms of anxiety and depression.
With scary statistics like that around, getting a grip on your use of social media shouldn’t be just a fleeting idea. It should be a priority.
Diminished Social Skills
We’ve all been in social situations where the atmosphere is diminished due to people staring at their phones. Mine remains an enormous distraction thanks to messaging apps and lots of email accounts.
We’re all forgetting how to be the social animals we’re supposed to be. We can’t go back in time, but we do have control of which apps we use and how we use them.
The Practicalities of Taking a Break from Social Media
So…you’ve decided to have a social media break. But how do you actually go about it?
In truth, it can be rather more complicated than it appears on the surface. Here are some things you’ll need to consider:
Messages and Staying in Touch
It’s one thing to close your Facebook account, but what about all the people you communicate with using that platform?
You do need to give this some thought. My solution was to deactivate my personal Facebook, but leave Facebook Messenger on my phone. As such, I can still have one-to-one and group conversations with my Facebook “friends,” without joining in with sharing the minutiae of their daily life.
It’s not entirely straightforward. Doing this has meant that I no longer have Messenger on my laptop. It’s harder to send a friend a link to a new song I’ve discovered, for example. But the benefits far outweigh the small inconveniences, as we’ll see very soon!
Managing Business Pages and Groups
Many of us use social media for work as well as play. Annoyingly, this can make it harder to leave your social networks than it might be otherwise.
In my case, Twitter was easy. I have a separate business account, so all I needed to do was stop using my personal one. I actually changed the password and intentionally didn’t make a note of the new one. This places an annoying password recovery procedure between me and temptation.
Facebook is harder. If you manage Facebook groups and pages and leave Facebook altogether, then you have a major problem. I’m involved with several, the most important of which is my private group for members of HomeWorkingClub (feel free to join here!)
All I could really do to get around that was to set up a new Facebook account, and grant permission to that account for administering the pages and groups. I also added my close family members as friends on that account, so I still get to see pictures of nieces and nephews.
There can be a little bit of work involved in “quitting” social media cleanly if you still need some access for business. It’s worth thinking it through to avoid any unintended consequences.
The Adjustment Phase
The first few days of being away from Facebook and Twitter felt really strange, but they taught me some very quick lessons.
The first and biggest was around just how much of a compulsion Twitter had become for me. As I have (had?!) two Twitter accounts, I used to be logged into my business one in Google Chrome, my main browser, and my personal (politics!) one in Safari.
For quite a while, I must have opened Safari dozens of times each day. The scary thing was that I was doing this as a pure compulsion. It was like muscle memory. It was genuinely disturbing how much of a habit keeping up with my Twitter timeline, and all the hatred and bile within, had become.
A similar problem was when I was relaxing with a drink or waiting in a queue. I’d get my phone out of my pocket and feel at a loss what to do with it. The good news is that I quickly found much more rewarding and productive things to do with it.
A Quick Venture Back In
About a month after deciding that I was taking a break from social media, I had a random feeling that I was missing out.
Instead of venturing back in myself, I asked my wife if I could borrow her phone and look on her Facebook. We have mostly mutual friends, so it was a way to see what everybody was up to.
This was incredibly enlightening. I’d just spent Christmas watching various guests spend quite a significant amount of time scrolling through various social timelines.
I handed my wife’s phone back within five minutes. Same people, same patterns, same dramas.
I was bored almost immediately. I felt I was spending time that could be spent working on projects and hobbies. Because that’s what I’d quickly started using the time for instead.
The Benefits of Quitting Social Media
After a short period of adjustment, you quickly start to feel the benefits of stepping back from social networks.
Let’s look at some of the main ways you life can improve:
MUCH More Free Time
If you’re not convinced that easing back on your social media usage can give you MUCH more free time, think again. A recent study showed that on average, people spend a staggering 142 minutes on social networks and online messaging each day.
That’s a LOT of time. It’s over 16 hours per week. That’s two working days.
In my case I found I had time to distribute to so many other things: work on this site and other projects, reading, listening to music, playing with the new DJ console I bought myself for Christmas.
You don’t truly realise how much time you spend on social media until you stop doing it. Watching my book pile shrinking instead of growing has been hugely gratifying, as have the several trips to bookshops to stock it back up again!
Improved Mental Health
Mental health is a complicated thing, but we’ve already established that online social networks can have a detrimental effect on it.
When I was spending hours on Twitter, I started to develop a certain level of disdain for people who don’t watch the news, or keep up to date with politics or current affairs. But the reality is that you can do this by quickly checking a news site a couple of times each day. My news app bings at me if there’s anything I really need to know about anyway.
Whipping yourself into a frenzy about world affairs that – realistically – you can do nothing about, is pointless.
I still firmly believe that people should inform themselves and work to make the world a better place. But screaming into a virtual void really isn’t the way to do it.
(One of the many books I’ve read since having more time is Factfulness by Hans, Anna and Ola Rosling. I’m going to write about it soon, so I won’t discuss it specifically here. But I will say that if you need cheering up about the state of the world, it’s ESSENTIAL reading).
We’re all very busy.
I have a business, two young children, and a ton of commitments. I’m forever convinced I don’t have enough time, and in fairness I often don’t.
But you can’t have time for hobbies AND a regular scrolling habit! Even if you’re a light user of social media -say half an hour per day – that’s still over 182 hours each year – which is over a week.
You can do a lot in that time.
I remember one particular Saturday morning when the children were at a party and I had a relaxed morning in bed. Instead of flicking from Facebook to Twitter and back again, I sat creating music and doing artwork on my iPad.
It made me happy and sad. Happy I’d learned you can carve out time for absorbing interests. Sad that I’d wasted SO many hours composing the “perfect tweet” to put some political opponent in their place. What had been the point?
Disadvantages of a Social Media Cleanse
Leaving social media isn’t all wonderful. There are some disadvantages too. Let’s have a quick look at those:
Missing Out on Useful and Friendly Groups
One thing it’s easy to forget is that social networks do have some useful features.
One particular thing that I didn’t consider were all the Facebook groups I belonged to – everything from business to special interest pages. Some of these were a time drain, but others kept me informed on tech news and useful industry developments.
Yes, it’s possible to rejoin these, but they were build up over years, and many are closed groups you can’t be sure to get back into.
Similarly, there are some online contacts I miss – the kind of people I didn’t know in the flesh, but who had views in line with mine and felt like kindred spirits.
Feeling Out of the Social Loop
If you’re going to quit the social networks your friends use heavily, you may feel out of the loop sometimes. However, the irony is that if you’re strict about staying away, you won’t know what it is you’re missing out on anyway!
My own solution to this has been to be more socially engaged in the real world. Instead of aimlessly liking photos, I’ve checked in on people using messaging apps, or – shock horror – actually picked up the phone for a chat!
It IS reasonable to mention those particular friends, usually from the past, who we are all only in touch with because of and via social media. The fact that they fall by the wayside as part of a social media detox is an undeniable downside.
There are a few practical issues you’re likely to face when you give up social media. They’re mainly around problems maintaining contact with people and businesses you DO want to keep in touch with.
For example, switching to a trimmed down Facebook account (for business use) has meant I have two different Facebook Messenger accounts. There’s one on my computer with only a few people on it, and another on my phone with everybody. This means I often stop replying to family I have on both accounts mid conversation, unless I tell them to start messaging the other account.
Similarly, there’s a chance people will say “well, I sent it to you on Twitter / Facebook / Instagram,” without realising you’re no longer checking them.
Essentially, you ARE closing down lines of communication, so it’s worth giving some thought to whether you’ll inadvertently leave people hanging.
Should you Quit Social Media for Good?
If you’re in any doubt as to the health of your relationship with social media, taking a break is definitely a good idea.
As to whether you should quit longer term, that should really be informed by how you feel during that break. If you feel better for not using it, the obvious question is why you would want to go back.
Will I be Going Back?
My own social media detox was originally intended to be temporary. But I’m now almost certain it will be permanent.
To be clear, I’m still using some social media. I’m very active on my own groups, especially those for this site. I’m also trying to use my business Twitter account to share advice and contribute to valuable discussions.
But politics? No. Pointless observation of other people’s lives? Definitely not.
One thing I’ve observed a LOT over the years is that many of the people who appear less active on social media are actually those who are scrolling compulsively. Just because people don’t like and share very much, it doesn’t mean they’re not extremely heavy consumers of that endless, pointless information.
I’m just not that interested any more. And it only took a short break to decide that.
I HIGHLY recommend it.
Tips for Taking a Break from Social Media
- Work out a plan if you’re responsible for business or community pages – it could make your exit a little more complicated.
- Make sure you know how you’re going to continue to communicate with your “nearest and dearest.”
- Think of anyone who may be worried by your online absence and make sure they know your plans.
- Think of things you never have time to do, and make sure you DO them with some of the spare time you create.
- When you DO use social media, think carefully about how it makes you feel. If it’s not adding to your life, there’s really no point in doing it.
- For more on mental health, check out my article on anxiety and how it can affect your working life.
- If you’re upping your social media use rather than reducing it, have a look at our review of Crowdfire.
- Check out Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now