There’s no denying that our near constant use of smartphones and social media is impacting us – but exactly how it’s impacting us has yet to be seen. So much has changed, so dramatically and so quickly, that we simply haven’t had the time to evaluate what this invasive technology is doing to our lives, our relationships, our bodies, and our minds. The studies are conflicting, some citing positive aspects, while others play up the danger. But without a control group to look at – almost everyone these days is plugged in – it’s simply impossible to find a correlation between cell phone/social media use and anything else.
I’ve been plugged into Facebook since 2008. First in small, open doses which increased in frequency but became more strictly cultivated as my network expanded beyond my inner circle. The 2016 election cycle was definitely the height of my participation in this networked space – logging in countless hours sharing my views and becoming distraught over the views of others. Recently I’ve become even more addicted to checking in. It doesn’t feel right, deep down, but I lack a method for measuring the impact. I understand my desire to log into the site is driven much by its creators’ design, but what that means for me has yet to be determined.
As an extremely shy introvert, there’s no doubt Facebook has helped me connect with people. The ability to sit back and carefully craft my language and manage my interactions from behind a screen is a great social equalizer. It’s enabled me to reach out to people I normally wouldn’t have, and then slowly cultivate those relationships on my own terms, often evolving into meaningful face-to-face relationships. But over the past few years it’s taken something from me too – my ability to focus. I increasingly find it more and more difficult to focus on a task to completion. The desire to log in is sometimes overwhelming, and once I do I quickly fall down a rabbit hole where time seems to disappear. After being plugged in for ten years, it seemed like a good time to take a break.
DAY 1: SATURDAY
At bedtime on Friday night I decided to quit Facebook cold turkey for five days. I knew if I allowed myself even a few peeks, I would quickly get sucked back into my familiar routine. It’s all part of the design. So starting on Saturday I quit. At first it required deliberate focus to NOT go onto the site. It has become almost second nature when I grab my phone. So I tried to stop picking up my phone. I left it behind when I went out, and left it in my purse for extended periods of time. Once while looking up directions, I found myself mindlessly typing in the Facebook URL. That’s how ingrained it’s become. I didn’t even realize I was doing it.
DAYS 2 & 3: SUNDAY & MONDAY
Sunday was an easy day to go without – I typically try to minimize technology on the weekends and be more present with my family. By Monday I was in a good routine of avoiding it. I had an incredibly productive day, knowing I couldn’t log on and distract myself. I made it through piles of things to do at work, and felt really energized and focused. It was an incredible and productive day, and I felt awesome at the end. Maybe there’s something to this Facebook abstinence, I thought. I felt victorious.
DAY 4: TUESDAY
Tuesday I bottomed out. Now without this being a controlled experiment, my crash could have been the result of a huge variety of factors in my life. It would be hard to pinpoint the exact cause of my feelings, but one thing was certain – I wanted to check into Facebook. It bothered me all day that I couldn’t check in. I felt anxious, and frustrated, and lonely and disconnected. I felt like I didn’t have an outlet to express any of that, and I didn’t have the opportunity to go online and fix those feelings by finding something to distract me. Nothing else I tried to do would settle my mind. I felt a general, overall frustration.
DAY 5: WEDNESDAY
Wednesday things turned around again. I woke up inspired and ready to take on the day. Without the habit of logging into Facebook, my schedule had a bit more breathing room. I checked things off my to do list that had been lingering there for a long time. I felt like I had better focus, and a clear vision of what I wanted to do with my day. Without the ability to check into Facebook, I found I was using my phone dramatically less. It had little other appeal than the newsfeed. I felt oddly calm, and then I was annoyed with myself for feeling that way, for imagining that a cell phone could have such a negative impact on my mind (and that I had allowed it!)
PLUGGING BACK IN: THURSDAY
Thursday I woke up excited. I knew it was the day. I quickly got the kids off to school and sat in the work parking lot, anxious to see what I had missed. I had 2 private messages, and 35 alerts. My mind spun with the anticipation of what I was about to find out. But alas, I had missed nothing. The messages were insignificant. The alerts were meaningless drivel, random likes, and irrelevant group posts. There were a few notes from friends, but none were essential to my life. It was a bust. I scrolled through the newsfeed to see what others had been up to – nothing. I left Facebook for five days and I had missed NOTHING.
So I did what anyone would naturally do. I posted a status update about it. 23 people liked it and 12 people wrote comments. I felt a little better.
What I did I learn about being off of Facebook for 5 days? I learned that I really don’t need it. I am more attached to it than I should be, and it really does linger in the periphery of my brain almost constantly, begging to be accessed. I learned that without that ability to distract myself, I have more time on my hands. I can get more done and be more productive. I also felt less aggravation towards people in general, and less annoyed overall. It was easy to give up – much less painful than I would have anticipated. And most of all, I didn’t miss anything. I have a slight suspicion that Facebook has sort of run its course. I have seen friends slowly drift away from the service in the past few years, especially after the election, and beyond as it became a space for hostility and argument. I think people are finally starting to understand the data and privacy challenges that we face when we share our content so freely online. And I think more and more people are waking up to the reality that Facebook’s mission isn’t to connect us with each other, but connect us to ways to spend our money.
My biggest fear of giving up Facebook was lack of social connection. Inspired by the Dear Data project, I tracked my interactions with other humans during my five-day Facebook break. In person interactions are represented by lines, and the dots represent text messages. The primary people in my life, both friends and family, were each represented by their own color. Grey represented strangers who I interacted with (such as the grocery store clerk, security guards at work, and the gym lifeguard). It became clear throughout the week that I have plenty of social interaction, that texting is an important part of my social life, and that I also have some nice chunks of uninterrupted time in the middle of my days.
Going forward I am going to try to stay off Facebook for 5 day clips at a time. I want to see what happens after a more extended period of doing this. Do I start to get my ability to focus back? Will I find it easier to get more things done in a day? Will I lose connections to people who I don’t see on a regular basis, or will it actually deepen my relationships with the people immediately around me. I don’t think there’s any way to know but to try. The research simply can’t come out quickly enough, and the ability to control groups of people in order to study this is nearly impossible. For now the only way to understand how social media is impacting me is to give it up and see what happens. The results just may surprise me.