You Underestimate the Power of the Dark Side: Why I (Mostly) Quit Social Media

Puffball

I have a confession: my cat, Puffball, is an Instagram celebrity. (At least, compared to me.) I recently noticed that she has three times as many followers as I do. “How is that possible?” I thought. Puffball doesn’t even know or care that she has an Instagram account. I wish I could say the same about myself.

Even before the series of scandals that have rocked Facebook this year, I started questioning whether my relationship with social media was entirely healthy. After noticing how much time I was spending mindlessly scrolling through the feeds, I decided to create some boundaries. I drastically cut down on my social media consumption (especially Facebook and Instagram) beginning in early 2018. Then a funny thing happened: the less time I spent on these platforms, the less desire I had to log back in. It turns out that the same self-reinforcing cycle that keeps so many of us constantly checking our notifications also works the other way. As we become less reliant on getting that quick hit of dopamine, we are less inclined to go back for more.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some aspects of social media that I find valuable, which is why many of these platforms became popular in the first place, but each one also has a dark side.

The first is connection. Social media networks offer an easy way to stay in touch with family and friends, especially those who live far away. Social media makes it easy to “feel” connected, yet this connection is tenuous, ephemeral, and a poor replacement for a real interaction. Does someone’s clicking a ‘like’ on one of my photos actually bring them closer? Taking the time to send a quick text or an email to a friend means a lot more than our ‘like’. Similar to the empty calories of junk food, while these ‘likes’ feel good in the moment, they don’t offer nourishment and often leave us feeling empty. Perhaps cultivating real-world connections, even if that means we have to put forth a bit more effort, is actually more powerful and ultimately, more satisfying.

The second value of social media is self-expression. These platforms have drastically democratized content creation and lowered the boundaries for being seen and heard. When I first went on the Internet in 1997, one had to create a website if they wanted to share original content or anything they found interesting. I quickly learned HTML so that I could put up a simple website on GeoCities to share my photos and writing. Now it’s as easy as entering your email address. Yet, what we lose in that process is our agency and our ownership of that content. By putting our photos and posts on social media, we are effectively creating content for large corporations to monetize. In some cases (like writing this post), that might be an acceptable trade-off in exchange for reaching a wider audience. In others (like posting pictures of my kids on Facebook), I become the product, often without my consent.

And while there may not (yet) be an elegant alternative to the above benefits that social media provides, there is a growing awareness and discontent among consumers with how these companies have used our basic human needs, generously sprinkled in addictive elements (hello, dopamine!) and created something that doesn’t serve our greater good. As the time spent on social media platforms has skyrocketed, many of us are starting to feel the ill side effects of spending too much time on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. On the infamous Joe Rogan podcast, Elon Musk touched on the “compare and despair” aspect of social media, where we compare our everyday lives against the highlight reel of other people’s best (and often completely staged) moments, inevitably coming out disappointed by the comparison. This effect is supported by recent studies linking social media use with increased rates of depression. Even from my own experience, after ending up on Instagram recently and scrolling for a bit, I caught myself taking note of what other people were doing and comparing with my own life (not favorably, of course). I shut down the app and deleted it immediately, knowing it for the quicksand that it is.

Reflecting back on 2018, here are just some of the benefits that I have seen from drastically cutting social media from my life:

  • More time to do things that actually matter to me, like reading (or sleep).
  • Being more present with my loved ones.
  • Enjoying the experiences.
  • Worrying less about what other people think.
  • Being more selective with content that I consume.

As more people are starting to contemplate healthier boundaries with social media, here are a few things that helped me navigate this transition:

  1. Set an initial limit on how much time you spend. Quitting social media overnight is like going cold-turkey. It’s not for the faint of heart and not likely to stick.
  2. Consider deactivating your accounts (you can always turn them back on if you wish).
  3. Find a substitute for social media. Like reading or having coffee with a friend.
  4. Monitor how you feel. Are you noticing a difference?
  5. Spend time with people important to you, cultivate real-world connections.
  6. If desired, dip your toe back in and see how that feels.
  7. Reintroduce as needed, or give yourself permission to let go altogether.

Social media has many appealing aspects and even provides some positive value on the surface, so many of us underestimate its negative consequences, which can be insidious. The question is not whether we should quit Facebook, but whether we slowly, with each ‘like’ give away our power and sacrifice the quality of our life and relationships. By setting boundaries and becoming more mindful about how we consume social media, we can claim back some of that power. The boundaries may be different for everyone, but I believe the only way to find yours is to take a break and reevaluate how much (if any) place social media has in your life. As for me, you can still find me via Facebook Messenger or LinkedIn, although I much prefer email or text.