It was Nov. 25, 2020 when I first started drafting this post. At that point, I’d deactivated my Facebook account a couple of days before. This wasn’t the first time I’d done this, but I had the feeling it was going to be the last.
Social media had become such a fundamental part of my life, such an important lens/filter in my consumption of pretty much everything: ideas, opinions, news, and even actual physical items purchased. It was such a significant part of my life that I’d never realized that something was wrong. I would often gawk at beautiful interior design, longing for my home to match the curated spreads, or watch beautiful, strong women lift 5x their bodyweight and swipe through sports supplement product catalogs immediately after.
When I did post, I’d share happy images, self-improvement stories, motivational quotes, or silly jokes/statements; things you would expect a happy and healthy person to say or do. But then I would compulsively check my notifications every few half hour just to see what reactions or responses I would get. All of these things compounded, and I had so much busy-ness and so many different external stimuli to engage with, that I didn’t engage with the most important information of all – my own self-image, self-compassion, and self-awareness. I ignored and masked my depression from everyone, including myself.
But then, the illusion started to break down, about a year or so before writing this post, when I looked up, dazed, after a mindless procession of scroll after scroll on my phone, to find over an hour had passed me by, unnoticed. While I had no other plans for how to fill those lost hours that day, I knew something had to change, or eventually, years of my life would float by me in the same, steady procession of un-seized and unused hours.
I hadn’t quite started calling it an addiction yet. It seemed mostly harmless, like I had just “let it all get away from me” and I just wanted to get my time back under control.
I started by uninstalling all my social media apps – Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn (yes, it is a social media) – the typical suggestion that the platforms offer – and I kept my accounts open. I thought that by adding some friction into that interaction (the process of typing the URL, loading it, and logging back into the social media accounts) I would slow down the desire to scroll and limit the apps’ hold on me. I’d use my Chrome browser on my phone to periodically log in and check on things.
The friction strategy helped for a little while. But, frustratingly, the notifications slowly transformed from being 1-2 in-app notifications meant for me personally, to 9+ notifications updates for which groups had new posts (in particular, for Facebook). Hardly constituting a worthy reason to allocate attention… But, still, I scrolled anyway, seeing what others had to say, only being further driven into either anxiety (from the drama of random strangers and acquaintances arguing on the internet) or depression (from the lack of personal connection). The minutes online started turning back into hours of unfulfillment once again, and it seemed the friction of Chrome was still incapable of holding back this compulsive desire to keep scrolling.
The Firewalls & Timers
In some ways, the Chrome workaround may even have made the compulsion to check social media worse. I would try to type “Gmail” in my desktop browser, only to find I was typing “Facebook” instead. At this point, I realized this addiction had taken root far deeper than I intended. I started setting “focus” timers (I used the Freedom app to help with this) on my computer which would literally create a firewall and block my ability to access these websites during specific hours of the day – because even when I wanted to work or reach my email, I would accidentally, subconsciously wander into social media sites. The focus timers and firewalls somewhat worked, but in the hours I left unblocked, I STILL scrolled on social media.
I set app timers on my Android phone’s Digital Wellbeing app, setting limits to 30 minutes at a time hoping that would do the trick. Instead, I would fly to the end of these limits every morning, then commence my work… but still bored in the evenings, I would creep into the settings in my app to extend “just five more minutes” over and over again, until once again, I neared 1 hour of time on these apps every single day (just on my phone alone). I still found myself staring into my phone in total silence on the couch next to my husband. Day after day after day.
This definitely would not do.
What was most horrifying to me was how it all had also taken over so many of my waking hours, even when I was not using social media.
When I was supposed to be working and doing errands or spending time with family, I was still thinking about social media: what others might be saying about any given topic, or when I could use it next to share a cute story with my friends. However, even when I didn’t want to use it, I was thinking about how NOT to use it: how I might wean myself off of it, how to create a digital environment on my phone and desktop that would allow me to focus more at work, how to change my social media consumption habits so I didn’t always feel compelled to buy random stuff that gets advertised to me, how to still feel connected to others if I don’t want to use it anymore…
So much of my time was spent thinking about it and thinking about NOT thinking about it, that I no longer had an active passion or deeper vision for what I want to accomplish in my life. This may sound like hyperbole, but I mean it when I say I felt like a shell of myself that inhaled and exhaled social media like it was air.
I will give some credit where it’s due: with social media, there is this incredible ability to see what was happening elsewhere, to feel involved without being involved, to live through the eyes of another human. It is irresistible in its allure. But, the reality was that I was using these experiences, these photos, these updates, this stupid memes and jokes as a way to feel like I was living. In other words, by finally tearing my eyes from the screen, I realized I was not an actual, active participant in society, and was depressed in the fullest sense of the word.
So, I finally deactivated my Facebook and Instagram accounts.
The Great “Unplug”
To be frank, it’s unclear which came first, the depression or the social media addiction. I mean, we are in the thick of a global pandemic that has prevented all of us from seeing our family and friends, so it’s not like that doesn’t play a huge role in all of this. But, regardless which came first, I can, with full confidence, tell you that the social media addiction fed my depression, and my depression fed my social media addiction.
It was only through “unplugging” that I realized how massive the void in my soul had become, because I could no longer pretend it was full with likes and memes. Without social media, I was forced to face my existential dread (and boredom) head-on. It was excruciatingly hard — I had to be bored, on purpose, so that I could find new hobbies and reconstruct my life. I had so few deep drives or life goals because they had previously been supplemented and replaced by consumer “wants” instead. I had to remember what I was passionate about before social media. It has been so hard to do all of these things that I’ve literally done the above cycle of uninstalling-deactivating-reactivating-reinstalling at least 3 times over the last 5 years.
In the early days of “the great unplug” (and even now, to some extent) I would flick the phone open compulsively, only to stare at my home screen listlessly, with nothing to look at because I’d taken great pains to turn off all notifications and uninstall all the “fun” apps.
I did leave the workout/health apps, to-do lists, habit trackers, food delivery service apps, meditation apps, news apps, and my investing/banking apps, so I could at least spend my time doing positive things like reminding myself of my account balances, meditating, or reading the news. I also kept messenger apps, because 1:1 communication was more fulfilling to me compared to mindless scrolling. I made my phone as utilitarian as possible so that I could ensure the “real world” was more appealing than the digital one. It’s still not perfect, but it’s a lot better than it was.
(Side note, I used this FANTASTIC article / guide on how to set your phone up to be a productivity-boosting and mental health-promoting tool. I highly recommend reading it.)
It’s a bit tragic, to be honest, as a tech researcher. As someone who’s supposed to be “up” on all the latest trends, taking such great lengths to withdraw from social media feels like I’m turning a blind eye to an incredibly fundamental part of the online experience. That said, continuing to delude myself that I “have it under control” or pretending that “I can moderate my own behavior” would not just be hubris, but it would also be risky for my mental health.
Who knew that websites could become occupational (mental) health hazards someday?
I don’t know how many months it’s been since I’ve deactivated Facebook. At least 6 months if I had to estimate. Instagram was made private for a number of those months, and recently I’ve deactivated it. As for LinkedIn, I consider it a professional necessity, but luckily it hasn’t crept up my Screen Time charts just yet. (We’ll see how long that will last.)
I think I’m on the downward trajectory at this point, and don’t expect I’ll be joining or using much social media into the future. I’ve often been encouraged to check out TikTok as its UX community grows, but I drag my feet at the prospect of having another addiction to battle.
Since UX is my primary profession, and my research centers on understanding human motivation, psychology, and neuroscience and how to apply it to interfaces, I find myself regularly facing a troubling ethical dilemma. How can I live with myself if I continue to contribute to this “vortex” that dominates the lives of innocent people? What is my ethical responsibility as a tech professional? How can I continue to advocate for engaging and attractive experiences when I can’t disengage myself? I worry that if we don’t become stronger advocates for humanity as a whole, we won’t have much humanity left to advocate for.
Anyway, if you’re reading this on your phone, I encourage you to take a deep breath, close your eyes for 10 seconds, put down your phone, and open your eyes to the world around you. When you do, I hope you see more than your surroundings. I hope you see the life, the people, and real experiences that await you. And if you feel hopelessly alone, like I did, know that you’re in good company, and others are patiently here, waiting for you.
If you think you or a friend or family member might be experiencing social media addiction, you can learn more about symptoms and resources at AddictionCenter.com.