How one woman realized she need time away from her social media feeds, and what to do if you need a hiatus, too.
One day last summer, I realized I needed a break. Not from a busy work schedule or family commitments—but from my Twitter feed. I would often grab my phone while I was still in bed to scroll through the morning's updates. Before I knew it, 20 minutes would pass and that lovely sleepy feeling would be replaced by the lives and news of the people in my timeline, some of it upsetting. I'd be off-centre before the day even really started.
This isn't the first time social media has got to me.
Four years ago, I quit Facebook. Between comparing myself to others and dealing with political rants I disagreed with, I felt crummy every time I was on the site. When I logged o for the last time, I turned to Twitter; I really enjoyed the short snippets of news and the interesting conversation the platform fostered. But when it started making me feel like Facebook did—gloomy—I knew I had to log off.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like have become xtures in our media landscape, changing the way we communicate. Mostly, this is a good thing; it makes it easier to meet intelligent and diverse people and to keep in touch with world-changing social movements. But its ubiquity can be overwhelming. Research is starting to show what many of us have already noticed: a link between social media and our mental health.
Pioneering research published earlier this year in the journal Depression and Anxiety looked at the relationship between depression and using one or all of the most popular social media platforms, including YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and LinkedIn. Researchers found that "any level of social media use was associated with an increase in the risk of depression," says the study's senior author, Dr. Brian Primack, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Primack, also assistant vice-chancellor for research on health and society at the university, notes that the study didn't look at causality; in other words, the question of whether increased social media usage causes depression or vice versa still needs examination. "It's very plausible that it could be a little bit of both," he says.
For most people, however, spending too much time on social media is less about a formal diagnosis and more about a general sense of well-being. A 2014 University of Michigan study about social media breaks (specifically, those who gave up Twitter for Lent) found that "three concerns surfaced with respect to social media use: spending too much time on it, trade-o s of not spending time elsewhere, and a concern about social media not being ‘real life.' "
I knew it was time for a break because Twitter had lost its vibrancy; there was too much scrolling and not enough engagement with what I was reading. Patricia Pike, an addiction and intervention specialist with private practices in both both Vancouver and the San Francisco Bay Area, says that's an important indicator. She advises asking yourself these questions: Are you neglecting interactions with loved ones? Are you distracted and unable to complete day-to-day tasks? Are you living for your next social media hit? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it might be time to rethink your relationship with social media.
I wasn't planning to leave Twitter for good—I don't think that's possible, or even preferable, in today's connected world. Instead, I decided to take a month off. I deleted the app from my phone, logged out of my account on my laptop and prepared to white-knuckle it through the next four weeks. But it turned out to be surprisingly easy. For the first week, I was constantly reaching for my phone, used to scrolling through my feed on a work break or while wait- ing in line. But then, the desire to log on died down and, perhaps stereotypically, I began to feel more peaceful and focused. I started filling my newfound pockets of time with other interests: reading, knitting and suing my phone to call friends and family (gasp!). When my month was up, I cautiously reentered the fray, but I found I didn't feel the old urge to check in constantly.
The break allowed me to do what Dr. Primack recommends: "Learn what patterns of use are more problematic and what patterns are more beneficial." I realized some social media platforms just aren't for me. (No to Facebook, some- times to Twitter and yes to Instagram; I mostly follow knitters, so it has always felt like an oasis.) And now I know I don't have to be "on" all the time to enjoy the boons of social media; these days, my Twitter usage is much more measured.
It's clear that social media—and our increased Internet usage, in general— plays an ever-growing role in our mental health. But temporarily unplugging is a valid form of self-care, a way to minimize overstimulation and hit the reset button. Give me a break, indeed.
5 steps to a successful social media detox
1. Have a plan. Decide how long your break will be, but resist the temptation to make it permanent. "Shutting social media out of your life completely is a great way to set up failure to control your social media needs," says addiction expert Patricia Pike.
2. Write down your reasons. Think about what you want to achieve this break. Is it figuring out which platform works best for you? Or do you feel overstimualted?
3. Use technology to your advantage. Delete the social media platforms you want to avoid from your phone. (If they're not there, you can't mindlessly click on them.) And on your desktop, use time-management apps like Anti-Social or SelfControl to block sites you want to avoid for a period of time.
4. Enlist help. If you think you'll be tempted to long on prematurely, have a partner or a trusted friend change your password for the duration of your detox.
5. Set limits. When you return to social media, put limits on your usage, says Pike. And give yourself a schedule, says Dr. Brian Primack, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health. For example, restrict logging on to your coffee break, instead of intermittently all day long.