I’ve been battling for a while with social media and the presence I allow it to have in my life.
Before the election, I decided to deactivate my Facebook account because the things I was seeing were starting to affect my mental and emotional well-being. Every time I opened my news feed (which was frequently, by compulsion) I started to feel my anger and depression levels rise inch by inch. I always knew I hated political season on social media – which is saying a lot, seeing as how I’d only had experience with social media twice before during presidential elections (2008 & 2012) – but this time around felt different. Of course it was different. Nothing about the past 12 months has been “normal” politically, socially, globally, or even personally.
So, I deactivated it. And that went well for a couple weeks. But once again, like some kind of subtle vine creeping its way up a building, Facebook found its way back into my life. The first week after the election was incredibly hard for me; I felt like I literally couldn’t stop my compulsive need to check my timeline, even though I knew I was adding to my own stress and taking an active role in creating my own deep, rotting confirmation bias about everything that was happening in the world.
About a week and a half ago, I decided that I needed to do something again. Deactivating again seemed too counter-productive, as I’m currently in the process of planning a few events through Facebook, but keeping it as it was simply wasn’t going to work for me. So I cleaned house. I removed the Facebook app from my phone and downloaded the Events app. I “unfollowed” everyone on my friends list. And I mean everyone. My family, my boyfriend, my close friends, all acquaintances, all of the random people I’ve collected over the years. I “unliked” at least 100 pages and interests. I started reporting every ad I saw on my timeline as “not relevant” or “offensive.” I simply reached the point where the noise had. to. stop.
In the time since then, I’ve uninstalled and re-installed Instagram on my phone about 5 times. Instagram used to be my favorite regardless of how I felt about Facebook, but now even that is starting to annoy me. I have what could be described as a true love-hate relationship with the platform. I love taking photos of the things around me, and I love being able to share them. I hate the feeling I get when I compulsively open Instagram to see how many likes my most recent photo got, or to scroll mindlessly through the ultra-filtered, made-for-social-media photos of everyone and their perfect boyfriends / girlfriends / families / dogs / guinea pigs.
The way I feel about social media right now is eerily similar to how I felt about alcohol during my heaviest, most dependent drinking days. I saw (and still see) it everywhere. Everyone I know used (uses) it. Despite knowing that it wasn’t (it isn’t) doing me much good, I kept (and keep) using it. Reaching for my phone to scroll through my timeline was as compulsive as reaching for a wine glass at the end of the day. Both offer a temporary hit of dopamine that quickly diminishes; the reward centers light up just long enough to keep the addiction stimulated.
I want so badly to escape from social media, but it’s been built into our modern society in a way that makes leaving it behind almost as isolating as quitting drinking and watching your drinking buddies all go to the bar without you. The pathways to leave are convoluted and peppered with self-doubt and questions from friends, while the pathways to engage deeper with the addiction are made up of wide-open doorways and all of your smiling friends standing around waiting for you, drinks (or scare-tactic political articles) in hand.
I’m just… I’m just exhausted. I know the simple solution is to just do what’s best for myself and remove the social media influence from my life. But the simple answer is far from easy. As we all well know from our experiences with alcohol, getting sober and staying sober requires one simple concept: not drinking. The simplicity of not drinking, though, is the furthest thing from easy, and the realizations of how much better we feel after getting sober don’t usually occur until the withdrawals are gone and we’re sleeping through the night again.
And the frustrating part about it is that stepping away from social media for a while and returning at a later time is EXACTLY the same as sobering up for some time and then hitting the bottle again with the intention of moderating. Like, you think you’re now ready and capable of moderating your intake and being responsible about your consumption, as if you’re not dealing with the same addictive substance as you were trying so hard to escape from before.
Social media might not damage your liver or increase your risk of cancer or cause you to get into an accident because you were too intoxicated by the contents of the extremist article Aunt Judy posted an hour ago about the latest Donald Trump scandal.
But social media might influence your relationships or lower your self-esteem/increase symptoms of other types of mental illness like depression and anxiety. It might make you feel guilty about your life or the things you do, as if you’re not living up to the same potential that everyone around you clearly is. It might lower your productivity at work. It might get in the way of connecting more deeply with the people around you. It might disrupt your circadian rhythm because you’re up late scrolling through endless photos and status updates when you know you should be asleep. You might find yourself reaching for your phone or typing the letter “F” or “T” into your browser without even thinking about it. You might even close out of the browser window or app, only to open another window and go right back to the site you closed a few seconds prior.
These behaviors are now “normal” for a lot of people, including myself, and I sometimes worry about how this unlimited access to information, media, and the lives of others is going to affect how we function as a society and as individuals. It feels so daunting to think about. We’ve only had this level of human social connectivity for about a decade or so, and it’s already taken on a life of its own. And people are being affected. Jobs have been created, and jobs have been lost because of it. We’re shaping our entire future around the concept of this connectivity and I personally have no faith in the system at all.
Maybe I sound a bit dramatic, but if you start to think about social media usage as an addictive “event,” much like gambling or shopping or sex can be addictive events, the easier it is to see how dangerously we’re toeing the line with this as a society, and as individuals on our own.
As for me, I actually took a minute while writing this post to turn to my phone, post a photo to my Instagram, and then delete the app from my phone. It’s gone now, just like Facebook. Removing it from my phone was the easiest thing I’ve done all night. Keeping it off, though, will be another feat entirely. My brain is going to go a bit crazy now that I won’t get that quick hit of dopamine that comes with opening the app and seeing a little red heart notification pop up. I’ll probably look at my phone several times, even open it up and dink around in my “social media” folder, before I remember there’s nothing there for me to be looking at.
But, just as I did with quitting alcohol, I am looking forward to the quiet, as uncomfortable as it might become. I’m looking forward to being able to know myself better. I’m looking forward to seeing who and what I can be with social media diminishing as a force in my life. The only question is how long I can manage to last.