Social Media Stress
A break from your digital addiction might be good for your
By Kate Morgan

The evolution of the digital age, says Jen Glass, can be summed up like this: “In 1999, there are seven websites. In 2009, there are millions of websites and you can spend all the time you want on them. In 2019, there are seven websites and you spend your whole life on them.”

That’s not an original thought. It’s something she saw – yes, she sees the irony – on Twitter.

In the last decade, social media use has exploded, accounting for a huge chunk of our collective daily internet usage. According to the 2018 Nielsen Total Audience Report, the average American over age 18 spends more than 11 hours a day “interacting,” mostly with apps on their tablet, phone or computer, and global social media users number an estimated 2.7 billion.

At 20, Glass is fluent in social media. For years – in some cases, since middle school – the Voorhees native had profiles on the major networks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. The college student grimaces now when she thinks about the hours she’s spent on the sites and apps. She doesn’t hesitate to call it an addiction.

“That word gets thrown around about a lot of things,” says Jim Brown, director of the digital studies center at Rutgers-Camden. “But when it comes to social media, ‘addiction’ is an appropriate term.”

The functionality of most social media networks, Brown explains, is designed to hook us, and then reel us in for hours of scrolling and scrolling and scrolling.

“Social media sites thrive on continuous engagement, and they’re designed to attract and feed that,” he says. “The design of spaces like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook lends itself to continuous scrolling, clicks and engagement. Videos play one right after the other, and before you know it 90 minutes have gone by and you have no idea what just happened.”

Even trying to take a break is made more difficult by the platforms’ attempts to suck you back in.

“Any attempt to step away is met with emails and notifications that say, ‘Come back! We miss you,’” Brown says. If they want to know things about you, they need to keep you continuously engaged.”

The result is that many heavy social media users end up living a double life: there’s the real thing, and then there’s the internet version, where everything’s just a little warped.

We communicate differently online, says Anthony Mongeluzo, president of the IT consulting firm, PCS. “People post things and say things they’d never say face-to-face,” he says. “People are dating less – they don’t have the skills anymore to go out and talk to people. Social media has taught us to be unsocial.”

The other major hazard is the risk to our self-esteem: posts on Instagram are filtered, Photoshopped, carefully cropped and otherwise perfect. Scroll through enough manufactured beauty, and it’ll be easy to get disappointed by what you’re seeing in the mirror.

Eight months ago, Glass realized she was stuck in that loop.

“I was looking at pictures of people on Instagram all day, and I realized it was just making me unhappy,” she says. “When I’d post, I’d use the best photos of myself, then I’d filter them, then I started touching up small things like whitening my teeth or erasing a breakout. I felt like I had to curate this image of myself, which I found exhausting and really bad for my mental health.”

So, she stopped. Cold turkey. Glass disabled her Instagram and Snapchat profiles, and deleted the apps.

Brown says the best way to ensure your relationship with social media is healthy or to treat a full-blown social media addiction, isn’t necessarily to cut it all out of your routine completely. Rather, he says, it’s best to think of it as taking a sabbatical.

“In academia, you take a sabbatical in order to focus all your time and attention on something else,” he explains. “It’s an interesting and useful metaphor because it forces you to say, ‘I’m taking a break from this platform to focus my life on X, Y or Z. For one reason or another, most of us can’t break completely away from social media forever, but maybe we should be taking sabbaticals to figure out what we want that relationship to look like. You’re in, so how do you want to be in?”

Glass kept her Facebook, which, she says, she uses sparingly to keep her family updated and to store albums of (un-retouched) photos. She also kept Twitter, which has always been her favorite social media platform (“It’s just a place where I can make jokes,” she says), but she made some modifications.

“I wanted to change everything about how I use social media,” she says. “I went through every single person I followed and started muting and unfollowing people. The more I stopped seeing people from high school giving their random opinions on politics, the better I felt.”

In fact, in addition to issues surrounding self-esteem and authenticity, politics and the divisiveness of political discussions on social media is a driving factor for many of those reporting a desire to step back.

And when it comes to political divisions, Mongeluzo says, social media has spawned a self-perpetuating cycle: “The problem is that everything’s 24/7, and it’s all based on algorithms that show you the things you’re most likely to engage with. You’re feeding your brain only the things you already agree with and want to hear, and anyone who has an opposing view you just ignore.” 

Glass, who studies public policy, says that while she unfollows or mutes anyone whose opinion she finds “vile,” she’s aware of the danger of inadvertently creating a feedback loop, where she’ll only encounter information reinforcing her beliefs.

“I try my best to mitigate being in an echo chamber, because I do think that’s an issue,” she says. “But at the same time, opinions on social media often aren’t nuanced, interesting points of view we can productively discuss. More often, they’re factually bankrupt or half-truths.”

Brown says the world’s become increasingly dependent on social media in a way that makes it too big to fail. It’s nearly impossible for us to collectively ditch the platforms, but we can be more deliberate about the ways we use them.

A good strategy, he says, is to restrict yourself to only using social media in certain time windows during the day. “So maybe I treat Twitter like a morning newspaper, but I don’t check it continuously throughout the day,” he says. “The idea is to get yourself thinking about what the platform is for, when you use it and why. If people ask themselves these questions, it might stop them from reaching into their pocket just because they’re bored or they don’t want to talk to someone at a party.”

But ditching social media isn’t easy, Mongeluzo says, and the companies that profit from our collective addiction only make it tougher.

“Social media is going to continue to integrate into our lives more and more,” says Mongeluzo, who talks tech regularly on Fox29’s “Good Day Philadelphia.”

“It’s really still in its infancy as an industry, but these companies know, ‘This is like a drug, let’s give them more of it.’”

It’s possible to resist, though, by at least becoming more aware of how much you use it. At first, Mongeluzo says, it might be tough to sever the constant connection. But ultimately, it may make you happier.

“There are apps – there’s one on the iPhone called Screentime – that shows you how much time you’re actually spending on your phone,” he says. “At my worst, I averaged seven hours a day. It almost becomes an adult pacifier or security blanket. By dropping the tech, you have the opportunity to enjoy the present. And most people report that when they’re not using technology, they’re happier.”

Glass says she’s constantly fielding questions about her social media usage (or lack thereof), and the explanation often elicits an interesting response.

“It’s not making any of us happier,” she says. “When I explain my reasons and how much better I feel without it, people are like, ‘Yeah, I feel the same way. I should delete my Instagram.’ It’s like, we’re all here, and nobody is having a good time.”

If you’re not ready yet to take your own social media sabbatical, Brown says, you’ll be doing yourself – and your mental health – a real favor if you just do one simple thing to take back a little control.

“Turn off your notifications,” he says. “I did that long ago, and now I have to go find out if I have replies or comments or whatever. Now your phone isn’t buzzing or dinging, and you only go to those platforms when you want to go to them.”   

July 2019
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