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.

Herald on Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

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.”

Brett Phibbs

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