Why you need a social media detox
Need a break from the angst brought on by the endless showreel from people who all seem to have better, happier lives than you, asks Cherie Howie. It might be time to turn off the devices and try a dose of life without Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter.
There was no lightbulb moment.
No sun-soaked holiday snap or cutesie baby photo that pushed Brad Smeele over the edge.
The realisation that social media was dragging him down, that it needed to not be part of life for a while, came slowly.
So he logged out.
For two weeks — a lifetime in the relentless information onslaught that is modern life — the deep blues of Facebook, with its dangling red-bait notifications and its creepily intrusive algorithms, disappeared from the 30-year-old’s smart phone.
Snapchat and its squiggly ghost vanished.
And on Instagram, where 25,000 people follow Smeele’s photos of life before and after a wakeboarding accident left him a quadriplegic, the uploads came to a halt.
Other stuff was going on, too. Smeele, confined to a wheelchair since shattering his C4 vertebrae when he smashed neck-first into a ramp while attempting a double somersault, was dealing with pain and life-threatening complications from his spinal cord injury. And, as many fellow Aucklanders can relate, he was over winter and its “crappy weather”.
No one can stop the rain falling on Auckland every year, and Smeele can’t change what happened on Florida’s Lake Ronix three years ago. But he has some control over his health.
So when he checked in to a spinal unit for two weeks to get help for his physical problems and emotional “demons”, he decided to also go cold turkey on social media.
Emerging back into the full glare last week, Smeele told his 15,000 Facebook followers he was back, feeling refreshed, and he challenged them all to try a social media holiday — whether for two weeks, a week or even just a day.
“Filter out all of the bullshit and pull things back to what’s really important.
“Appreciate what we do have and stop focusing on what we don’t.”
Smeele is keen to ensure he doesn’t come across as an online addict. He’s not.
He just didn’t like the space it was taking in his life — both time wasted “mindlessly scrolling” and the emotions sometimes sparked by it, he told the Herald on Sunday.
“It was a good opportunity for me to re-set things and just to look at everything I was using in my life as coping mechanisms, cover-ups just for some of the emotional things that come along with being a quadriplegic and being in a wheelchair.
“But I [also] think it’s just something that affects everyone.
“We’re all so tied up in social media these days and sometimes we’ve just got to remind ourselves of what’s actually real and what’s actually beneficial to us.”
What is real? Plenty enough times, it ain’t social media.
Photo filters hide the blemishes on our skin and that 45cm journey from heart to brain takes a sledgehammer to the mundane, upsetting and depressing parts of our lives.
Yes, we all have that friend who shares everything, but for the most part social media groans under an avalanche of joy and wonder, humour and humanity.
As Smeele discovered, the “highlight reels of other people’s lives” made the challenges of his own life only more apparent.
“Sometimes it makes it hard not to feel like I lost the life I was supposed to have.”
It’s a realisation not unfamiliar to Louise Thompson.
The life coach and Herald columnist even has a name for it, thanks to social media’s role as a repeat offender in contributing to clients’ unhappiness. Comparisonitis.
“It’s something I see a lot in my practice,” she says.
If you’re struggling to have a baby, going through a messy divorce or have just lost your job, being confronted with screens full of new life, lovey-dovey relationship updates and career achievements are not just going to catch your eye. They’re going to snare your soul. Real life can’t compare with a showreel, which is what social media is, Thompson says.
“No one goes on there and says: ‘Here I am with no make-up on, in the laundry separating the colours from the whites, and the cat has just puked on the floor’.”
Others are relying on their online world to build a sense of self-worth.
But no one can control whether someone clicks like or not, she says.
“It’s dangerous if you put your self-esteem in how many likes you get on Facebook and Instagram. It’s chemical. It’s a hit of dopamine when someone needs you or likes you, but you can’t control that.
“But if you get up, eat a good breakfast, go to the gym, call your mum, be kind to your dog — that’s in your control.”
ADanish study from 2015 suggests those who log out are happier. Social scientists at The Happiness Research Institute split 1095 Facebook users into two groups — half had access to the site and half had to quit — and found that after a week those who abstained were less lonely and stressed, more sociable, more satisfied with life and had better concentration.
One described a feeling of “calmness from not being confronted by Facebook all the time”, the Guardian reported. New Zealand researchers have discovered Facebook does have a negative impact on some Kiwis’ sense of belonging, long-recognised as a primal, fundamental part of what makes us happy and keeps us well.
Facebook’s mission, according to the global social media giant’s own Facebook page, is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”.
But a New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study questionnaire with 6000 respondents found in 2009 that introverts had a worse sense of belonging and felt less connected if they were also Facebook users. Auckland University PhD psychology student Sam Stronge, part of the team conducting the 20-year longitudinal national probability study that began in 2009 and looks at social attitudes, personality and health outcomes of randomly selected Kiwis, says a later study investigated whether Facebook use affected body image satisfaction.
The results were stark — no matter the age or sex, the 12,000 respondents were more negative about their body image if they used Facebook.
“It was particularly bad for women in their 30s and 40s.”
Facebook is far from the only social media platform that takes up so much time for so many of us.
Snapchat, Twitter, Flickr, Imgur, Pinterest, tumblr and Instagram, the latter owned by Facebook, all have followers in the millions.
Even My Space, famously crushed by Facebook as social media emerged in the mid-2000s, still had about 50 million monthly users in 2015.
But Facebook is the sun around which more than a quarter of the world’s estimated 7.6 billion
inhabitants orbit. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in June the 13-year-old company has 2 billion monthly users.
A statement from the social media behemoth later revealed 2.9 million of those people are in New Zealand. So how it affects our lives matters. Stronge hasn’t any statistics on people going on “Facebook detox”, but, like for so many of us, the term isn’t unfamiliar.
She knows people who have taken the plunge. “They seem to realise when Facebook is making them feel negative.”
Even the queen of the selfies has preached the anti-social media message.
The New York Post reported in August that Kim Kardashian, who has more than 100 million followers, didn’t post for three months — an estimated drop in income of $300,000 for each sponsored post — after she was held at gunpoint and robbed in Paris.
She told friend and broadcaster Ryan Seacrest that everyone should take a break from the screens.
“No matter what you do, who you are, how old you are, you need a digital detox.”
Netsafe executive director Martin Cocker is also familiar with the term.
A straw poll of his office of 10 reveals a third have checked out of social media. “They had different reasons. Some felt it was becoming too intrusive in their lives.”
It’s a reflection of the rapid and recent rise of social media that as a society we are still trying to learn how to use it, Cocker says.
But it doesn’t have to control our lives — ultimately we are in control.
A break is a healthy step for some, but even small steps can help, such as removing social media apps from smart phones, forcing us to limit access to the sites to only via desk computers or lap tops, he says.
It’s also well worth exploring the settings for each social media platform.
Notifications can be silenced or switched off completely and posts hidden, encouraging algorithms to favour the posts of those we most want to see.
After all, social media is not inherently bad, he says.
It’s how we use it that matters. Thompson sees it as a force for good, with distance no longer a barrier between sharing our lives with those we love.
“It can be incredibly uplifting and incredibly connecting.”
Social media breaks were common and could be really powerful, but she also recommends setting boundaries.
That went for habits of use, and of thought.
Don’t make what you see on social media personal, when it isn’t.
And absolutely don’t use it to compare your life to those of others, she says.
“It’s a game you are always going to lose.”
Afew days into his new, less social media-influenced life, Smeele is feeling good. He’s not sure exactly how reduced his use is, maybe less than half as much, he says.
He certainly doesn’t see social media as evil.
The support that reaches him through the smart phone mounted in front of him, which he operates by using a mouth stylus, is huge.
And as a person who spent much of his life competing abroad, he has a lot of mates overseas he wants to keep in touch with.
But his days of mindless scrolling are over.
“What it comes down to is being present and actively experiencing the life that you are living, and the world around us.
“There’s so much that we miss if we are looking at our phones.
“We’ve just got to look up.”