A Digital Detox Social Experiment

Remember a time when we didn’t have smartphones? Back then we had dial-up and landline phones. Texting was limited to pagers, SMS, and AIM. Email’s purpose wasn’t purely professional: it’s how we kept in touch with friends and family in different cities. We used to walk looking straight ahead instead of looking down. Magazines and small talk occupied awkward silences and queues. Now we mostly spend one-on-one time with our pocket companion who is always available and always on 24/7. Inundated with information (mostly noise nowadays), our brains hardly experience quietness anymore.

Routinely I wake up to my phone, eat with my phone, and go to bed with my phone. There’s a need that seems to always exist: a need to buy something, to consume, to wish for. Sometimes after scrolling Facebook or Instagram, I find myself fantasizing a different life and becoming unhappy with my own: “Why don’t I own a nice home like that?”, “How can I make myself look more attractive?”, or “I wish I could be an Instagram celebrity who travels everywhere.” The travel advertisements I saw multiple times a day gave me terrible wanderlust and withdrawal. It was a drug to always get the best deal.

Last week I got fed up and posted my last Instagram:

The beginning of my digital detox

The Theory:

My theory is that social media and always being “on” breaks down our mental health, attention spans, and patience. It distracts us, and many hours are lost in scrolling and absorbing content we don’t retain in long term memory. My theory isn’t new; there are already hundreds of books published on this cultural epidemic. Just Google “digital detox”. As a digital marketer who’s been doing this as a career for 12 years, I know the psychology behind subliminal targeted ads and the power of suggestive content. In fact, I’ve created many of my own! However, when the tables are turned I can get annoyed. With 91% of people using social media who say there are more ads today than two years ago, can we ever really “turn it off”? I wanted to test this theory on myself and see how others respond.

The Questions:

  • Am I addicted to social media?
  • Can I still function professionally as a marketer without it?
  • How does social media and instant gratification affect my overall mental health? How will it change?
  • Will FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) overcome me?
  • How will my experiment affect others? (those who knew about it versus those who didn’t)

The Rules:

I gave up social media, texting, and certain apps for a full week starting at midnight on Jan 28, 2018: specifically Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder, Bumble, WhatsApp, and iMessages. My smartphone was only used to make / receive calls, to send / receive emails, take pictures, and practice Spanish on Duolingo, a language app. All notifications were turned off and I would only know I received a text or email if I looked for it. The ringer stayed on. I could still use my laptop, but only for email, Google, Netflix, and Spotify.

The Methods:

Literally. You have to call me.

Other than my Instagram post, I didn’t tell anyone I was doing a digital detox for a week. My family and friends who don’t follow me on Instagram had no clue. I could still receive their text messages, but I could not reply — that was the rule. I’d call them instead. Why? I didn’t want to ignore them, but I also wanted to see how they’d react. The people who were in on it called to say hi or make plans. These were my most engaged social media friends.

The first day of the experiment I wrote to a friend who invited me to a local Startup Grind community event. It would be my first networking event in months. As I walked to the venue (looking ahead and not down at my phone), I saw something beautiful. I took a photo with my phone but didn’t share it anywhere with anyone. I didn’t even put a filter on it.

Moments before a Southwest plane flew into frame

It was a good turnout and I got to tour the new WeWork space downtown. Ironically, the host speaker brought up a book called “Hooked” by Nir Eyal that encourages the behavior I’m trying to break. It covers the “hook model” where companies subtly encourage customer behavior for sales — social psychology at its finest. We had good roundtable conversations and I walked away with some business cards. Not a bad way to start my experimental week.

Yours truly on the far right

Later that night, I chose a Netflix series that would teach me something. I finished two seasons of “The Crown” and know a bit more about the British monarchy. I also picked up on the nuances between British and American English — their communication style, how they resolved conflict, and how they convinced others. It’s an unfamiliar etiquette that would inspire me to practice my writing during the week.

For the next few days my routine consisted of waking up to my phone’s alarm, applying to jobs, sending emails, phone interviews, cooking meals at home, writing, reading a book, Netflix, and Duolingo before bed.

The Data:

The experiment didn’t phase my family (they thought nothing was out of the ordinary), but it was a hit with friends. They thought it was fun and would oblige. Some of them turned it into a game and tried to break the rules: one would Facetime me (which technically wasn’t off limits) and one would text me until I called him (he refused to call first as a power play).

I found myself trying to do more things outside with more people. When things got boring or I had time to blow, social media was there. Without it, my curiosity grew and I paid more attention to my surroundings. I craved in-the-flesh connection and became more extrovert in the pursuit of it. I played tennis, invited a friend to a movie, coordinated happy hour by email, and made new friends at dinner. Before the experiment it was much easier to make promises to hang out or make excuses to bail (don’t judge you’ve done it too). Texting and social media dulls our empathy and commitment sometimes. We tend to hide behind our screens.

It was more interesting with dating. The men who were into me played along, those who weren’t didn’t (no surprise there). One Bumble prospect I already had a first date with (pre-detox) cancelled our second one (post-detox) and wished me luck. He loved sending gifs and Instagram DMs. Another pre-detox connection agreed to switch to email before our first date, but soon forgot and went back to texting. I cringed when he sent me “c u then”. One positive dating strategy I gained from this experiment was that emails and calls are so much easier than deciphering texts! It takes more effort and that’s the point.

My overall happiness improved. Within 24 hours of my digital detox, I literally felt liberated and more aware. It was almost the same kind of high I get when I travel to somewhere far and new. My focus became more fine tuned, and I accomplished more professional and personal goals each day. The expectation to know current events, to be on call through my device, and the self-imposed ones all disappeared. It felt good to be a nobody for a little while.

Given

There’s a correlation between social media usage and time spent on a phone. Between Jan 20, 2018 and Jan 27, 2018 I used 3.9 GB of mobile data. 26% of that usage was social. From Jan 28, 2018 to Feb 4, 2018 my data usage was 0.4 GB and 0% came from social. Did you know that the Facebook and Facebook Messenger apps suck up your data and phone’s storage the most? I downgraded my data plan and now I’m paying $30 less per month.

The Results:

I concluded my experiment at midnight on Sunday, Feb 4, 2018. Now I have answers to my original questions.

  • Am I addicted to social media? = YES! You probably are too along with everyone you know. The good news is you can moderate it and now you’re conscious of the effects. Knowledge is power.
  • Can I still function professionally as a marketer without it? = It’s not easy, but I can compartmentalize work social media from personal social media. I had to do preliminary marketing research for a potential client and used my company’s Facebook account. The temptation for likes is real.
  • How does social media and instant gratification affect my overall mental health? How will it change? = I think subconsciously it was depressing and isolating me. It’s very easy to get into a routine where social media replaces real social interaction. There is no inertia. I felt change when the pressure of responding in a timely manner lifted. Once removed, I instantly felt better and less distracted. In this case, ignorance was bliss.
  • Will FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) overcome me? = I didn’t experience this as much as I expected, but I did miss big events like the Grammy’s (my girlfriend told me over happy hour), the State of the Union (I only knew it was on when I walked in a bar broadcasting it) and the latest Bitcoin crash (Coinbase told me). I did get to watch the Super Bowl and all the entertaining commercials on Sunday after my experiment ended.
  • How will my experiment affect others? Those who knew versus who didn’t? = It was interesting how each person reacted. I could not predict their behavior. One friend was running late to happy hour and emailed me about it instead of calling (which would have been faster). Another friend thought I was purposefully ignoring them and took it personally. Someone called me weird. The people who knew found it amusing and engaged with me. The people who didn’t know didn’t accommodate me. My Facebook friends who left messages a week ago didn’t fuss when I finally replied. The outcome depended upon the relationship strength, the timing, and the personality.

Other Observations:

  • I wasn’t tempted 24/7 by food in my social feeds (those dessert ads really subconsciously get to you)
  • Some things would have been more efficient if I texted in lieu of calls or emails (ex: ETA’s and change of venues)
  • My time was better spent reading, learning history, writing, learning languages, and meeting new people
  • I strived to become a better communicator by thinking before I wrote or called someone
  • I was less envious and felt adequate (it’s hard not compare yourself to others with social media)
  • I had nothing to prove to anyone and it was awesome
  • Personal privacy was something I took for granted
  • My phone didn’t feel like a necessity or life line
  • Turning off notifications was “out of sight, out of mind” – great for detoxing
  • I took less pictures (and no selfies), but the ones I took were worthwhile

Summary:

Some might argue that I really didn’t do a digital detox and didn’t do it long enough to find real results. Well, I think there’s a big difference between a digital detox and going off the grid (or unplugging). In my opinion, to unplug is to be sans phone and computer — no technology and no electronics. A digital detox can be a customized vacation of your choosing. For the purposes of this experiment, I gave up the most addictive channels that were hindering my growth. Even though the experiment only lasted a week, a noticeable change was evident to my quality of life. I still haven’t re-installed the Facebook or Facebook Messenger apps, and I’ve come to prefer a more toned down online presence. I used to think that I have to be at the top of my game with my personal digital presence as a marketer. Now it’s just a job, not a life.