my social media breakup
Before you ask, no, I did not break up with my life partner of almost 16 years over social media.
But I did, at least momentarily, take an extended break from social media in my life. What I learned in the process, in some cases, surprised me and in others did not. To the extent that it is helpful, here is the why, the how, the result, and the next of my social media breakup.
Like many, during the middle of the pandemic, I realized I had shifted my screen consumption from less laptop to more mobile. I had burned through my screen time protections of social media in an attempt to keep up with the pandemic and the political news cycle. It was instinctive. I couldn’t walk to the restroom or have a free moment without naturally having my hand gravitate towards my right pocket and pull out my phone. It was like some endless loop of sameness: check news, check texts, check emails, check the stock market, check Rhone daily sales, check Slack, and check social media.
I knew it was bad for me, and I knew that it was pulling my focus away from my kids and being present. I knew that if I locked it up, I would feel better and that I should be doing more sleeping, more meditating, and certainly more IRL socially distant and appropriate socializing. But it was like I. Could. Not. Stop. Myself. Which for someone who prides himself in self-control and discipline, made me feel even more frustrated and very much out of control. That was when my older brother Spencer asked me if I had seen “The Social Dilemma.” I hadn’t, and unlike many, I had actually found I was watching less TV and movies during the pandemic. But I was drawn to it after learning the initial premise because I already knew that social media was an issue—not just for me but also for society at large.
I won’t scare you with the statistics. If you want, you can easily find them. But you already know what I’m talking about. According to my screentime reports, I had gone from spending an average of 25 minutes a day on various social media platforms (primarily Instagram but occasionally LinkedIn and Twitter) to well over an hour. I’d be embarrassed to admit that I had my fair share of late-night scrolls generally ending up watching a Jimmy Kimmel clip or some SNL skit, but when I looked into the average social media usage time I was still at half of the national average.
And then I actually watched the Social Dilemma. If you haven’t watched it yet then make the ironic time of watching a screen for 2 hours to make yourself aware of how often you look at a different screen for hours and hours each day. Here was the quote that stood out to me:
“Realistically speaking, you’re living inside of [old] hardware, a brain, that [is] millions of years old, and then there’s this screen, and then on the opposite side of the screen, there’s these thousands of engineers and supercomputers that have goals that are different than your goals, and so, who’s gonna win in that game? Who’s gonna win?... We’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid we have a digital pacifier for ourselves that is kind of atrophying our own ability to deal with that.”
Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and co-founder of Centre for Humane Technologies
Before the documentary was even entirely over, my wife and I had deleted half of the apps on our phones. It was a full whiplash but a good wake up call. We had tried the willpower game of leaving our phone in places not near us and putting in screen time stops, but that wasn’t enough. It was time for a full unplug.
If you want to reduce your phone time usage then step 1 is to go to your settings and review your screen time.
STEP 1: Remove addictive applications even if temporarily to brute force break the cycle.
Look at your top five used apps and delete every single one of them. For me, two of the five were crucial and by crucial I don’t mean email. One is an app that helps control my blood sugars (a modern technology miracle) and the other was Google Maps. The other three I deleted, and one of those was email. I also deleted all social media apps. I decided if I need any of them for work I could access them through my desktop which is far less addictive.
STEP 2: Reduce notifications.
Next, go into your notification settings and remove all of your non-essential notifications. Trust me, this takes five minutes but is well worth your time. Remove those sports score notifications and the email alerts you don’t need. Remove and reduce.
STEP 3: Clean up your home screen.
I dramatically reduced my home screen to 6 apps in total. I did not want any of these to be apps that would pull me away from my intention. How many times have you pulled out your phone with the intent to do one activity and then found yourself doing something completely different 15 minutes later? A cleaner home screen was a lifesaver.
STEP 4: Add in Screen Time Rules
If you are using an iPhone, you can use Apple’s new Screen Time features to set restrictions on phone usage and app usage by time of day, length of use, etc. This really only matters for reminding yourself of what you already committed to. Yes, with a simple passcode or FACE ID entry you can bypass any of these restrictions but I found it to be a great last reminder of what I had already committed to.
By making the simple changes above and trying to be more conscious of my time on the phone, I reduced my daily phone usage by 46%. That’s the equivalent of hours and hours each week that I got back into my life. The added time was nice to have, but truthfully, I’m sure some of that “found time” was spent time wasting in other areas or distractions. But what really stood out to me was how much more present I felt and how much more clear my thought patterns became. If you are like most people, you are picking your phone up 150 - 250 times A DAY. Think about all of the micro distractions that creates over days, weeks, and years. I have found that reducing that to sub 100 or ideally sub 75 is a game-changer.
The screen reduction also improved the quality of my sleep, though for the first two weeks, I did have a harder time falling to sleep, being left with my own thoughts that would spin a bit. Since then, I’ve learned to get that mostly under control.
Lastly and most unexpectedly, I did not find that I felt more socially present with friends or family. In fact, I did feel some isolation during the two months I really took off. I was out of the loop on people’s lives that I care about, and I missed some precious moments unless I proactively asked to be kept in the loop. All that is to say, there was a distinct part of me that also saw the benefits of social media when I gave it up. There are people who I do exclusively know through Instagram or met initially through Instagram and later met at events. I follow people I care about and who have great posts that uplift, inspire, and bring real laughter into my life.
So while I was contemplating missing it and whether the tradeoff had been worth it, I was presenting at a virtual conference, and two of the attendees reached out directly to me to tell me that they really appreciated my posts and one even mentioned how it had inspired him to start his own family tradition. I was really shocked that my measly following and inconsistent posting had any impact on anyone.
As I took a step back, I realized two things.
1. Social media did add some richness and connection in my life that I did in fact miss.
2. Sitting as a critic on the outside and blaming negative social media content was just being an unhelpful critic. At the very least, I could try and help offset that negativity by trying to be a positive force in my own little ecosystem. And while my precious 4,000 followers on Instagram is just shy of a poor version of a Kardashian with a lowercase “k”, I consider what it would be like to speak to a room of 4,000 people every day. Maybe it’s not the full sphere of influence or the method I wanted, but it is an opportunity all the same.
I have kept my reduced notifications, screen time settings, and simplified home screen, but I have allowed myself to have a few apps back like Instagram in limited doses. If it ever starts to feel out of control again, my commitment is to simply delete it again. I have set a 30-minute timer, reduced those I follow by half, and committed to trying to use the limited voice I have to be a source of positive content for the causes, brands, and most importantly people that I believe in. It’s not perfect and it is still my social dilemma, but I’m grateful for the break. If you are looking for tactics, ideas, or tips, then give it a try and let me know what you think. I’m available 30 mins a day in my DMs on Instagram or LinkedIn.