This is your brain on social media

Social media has been a big part of my life for half my life. It doesn’t seem to be working as well for me as it once did. Now what?

I took a month break from social media in June. I’ve been using social media in various forms for more than thirty years, beginning with Usenet and online services in 1989, and then moving on to Twitter and Facebook in the late 2000s.

There has been positive value to all of this. I’ve made a couple of real-life friends. It provides social connectivity, which is important because I’ve been working from a home office since 1992, and I’m an introvert by nature, so it’s easy for me to fall into isolation.

But I no longer liked what social media was doing to my brain. It felt like a large portion of my daily energy was spent doing something that was not bringing me any value and was adding stress to my life.

So I took June off.

Or, to me more precise, I drastically cut back, with strict limitations about how and why I used social media.

I was inspired by reading the book “Digital Minimalism,” by Cal Newport, where he talks about the value of unplugging from social media for a month to do a brain reset, and using the time to fill your life with activities that are more important to you. I started reading the book on a whim, found I enjoyed it, and decided to take the digital reset on a whim as well. That’s odd for me—usually that’s the kind of decision I would take a while to think over.

If you’re someone who thinks you spend too much time on social media, or playing games, or otherwise staring at screens for non-work purposes, I recommend Newport’s book to you.

Setting boundaries

I immediately found it impractical to cut myself off from Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. It’s like going without electricity. Within hours of my social media fast, I found I wanted to look up some pieces of information on one of those sites.

Also, I manage the social media presence for the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club—we’re not very active on social media, but I couldn’t just walk away from that for a month.

And I use LinkedIn for work.

So I quickly evolved a rule for myself, without giving it much thought. I followed that rule throughout the month, even though I was only able to articulate the rule in words at the end of the month.

This was the rule

I would only use Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit for specific purpose—to look something up, or post a tweet for the Democratic club. I’d get on, do the thing that I set out to do, and then get off.

When I was on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit, I would not be there to check replies or scroll the feeds. That leads to hours spent all day doing that. That’s precisely what I was trying to get away from.

Normally, I also participate in one or two online forums and several Discord and Slack servers. I cut those out entirely, except for one online forum run by a real life personal friend.

Looking at the preceding paragraphs underscores to me how much social media I do. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, three or four Discord and Slack servers and a couple of online forums. No wonder I feel like social media has colonized my brain.

My June social media detox overlapped with a trip out of town that Julie took alone, to take care of family business in Ohio. She was out of town mid-May to mid-June, and I had the house to myself. Just me and the dog and cats for a month.

So what was the outcome?

I missed social media. My social media detox felt like quitting smoking. I missed those little jolts of pleasure when I posted something, or when I read something interesting or funny, or when I got a like or reply.

Like smoking, I found that I enjoyed social media some of the time—that first cigarette with coffee in the morning, or after I’d gone a long time without being able to smoke. But like smoking, I found I was often doing it out of habit, and felt bad while I was doing it. And the times I was doing it out of habit, and not actually enjoying it, may have been more frequent than the times I actually enjoy social media.

Smoking often felt shameful to me, and unpleasant, but I did it because I craved it. Social media activity has never been that bad for me, but it can be somewhat similar, particularly when it’s late at night and I should be getting up to go to bed but instead I’m just staring at the goddamn screen, dragging down with my finger to refresh.

During my break, I wrote a few blog posts, which was nice. The were inconsequential—reactions to TV shows and books I’ve been reading. But creative writing is something I’ve done less and less of over the years. It used to be important to me. And I feel like getting started doing that again is a positive feedback loop. An inconsequential blog post about a TV show today might become something more consequential tomorrow.

During my break, my brain did feel calmer.

I was more productive. Not by orders of magnitude, but a few percentage points. That’s something.

And then, in the final week of the month, I found I really missed one part of my social media activity, the part where I read articles and share links to them, often accompanied by excerpts and summaries. A big value I get from that is the additional thinking about what I’ve read. I also do it it with videos and podcast episodes. But mainly I do it with articles.

I started doing those brief write-ups again in my final week of my social media detox. But I did not post them. I just queued them up as drafts, and posted them the first week in July, when my social media detox was over.

And then July 1 hit and I spent a big part of the day catching up on my old social channels. And that was nice.

Taking a Sabbath

Years ago, I read an article by an Orthodox Jewish man who works in the tech industry, and he talked about the value of the Sabbath. He and his family are completely modern; they have phones and iPads and the kids play games and they subscribe to streaming video services. But they switch all that off, Friday evening to Saturday evening, sunset to sunset. He said they find that during a hectic week, sometimes they yearn for the break of Sabbath, and that’s part of the whole reason they observe Sabbath.

But sometimes (he said) during Sabbath, they get fidgety and yearn for it all to be over and return to their phones and other screens—and that (he said) was part of the value of Sabbath too. To make you pause and appreciate the benefits of modern life.

Another reset

And now here we are at the end of July, and I have resumed all my old social media habits—good and bad.

Another thing that’s resumed for me: Insomnia. I slept pretty well in June, and into the first week of July, but over the past couple of weeks I’ve been waking up in the very early morning—3 or 4 am, and one time 1 am—which has been a problem for me in the past couple of years. I suspect the culprit here is screen time—when I’m in bed getting ready to sleep, I scroll through Reddit and Tumblr, looking at memes and TikTok videos and midcentury ads and catalog photos and other found media.

So I think I need to pull back from social media again. Not cut it off entirely as I did in June, but put fences around my use.

Many years ago, I put fences around TV, and the habit has stuck with me. In the evening, we watch the news over dinner, and then around 8:30-9:30 pm we watch one show, usually 45 minutes to an hour, and then that’s it for TV for me most days. Every month or two, we’ll do a movie or a few episodes back-to-back on a weekend night.

I think I need to do something similar with social media. I scroll the feeds and check replies at fixed times, and then I’m not doing that anymore.

Also, no more bedtime screen time, which will drastically reduce my meme and found-media sharing. The world will just have to live with that loss.

I’m also finding less satisfaction in the link-sharing that I used to do multiple times a day—finding an article, summarizing it, posting the link to social. A lot of that seems pointless to me now. I’m doing less of it, unless there’s something I really want to think through, express, or fix in my mind by writing it out.

I do not expect the result of my change will be dramatically life-changing, but I think I’ll feel better and get a little more done. Maybe even get out more and socialize in person, which is something I need to do more of. It will be an incremental change. And incremental change can be a big deal—we, as a society, undervalue incremental change.

For much of my life I defined myself as a writer and a journalist. When that stopped working for me, I poured a lot of energy into social media. I defined myself by my social media presence to an extent that, taking a step back, seems ridiculous.

Social media doesn’t seem to be working for me anymore. So now what? Writing will always be a big part of my life; it is how I communicate best. (Look! I’m doing it right now!) But beyond that I don’t know.

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