Why everyone should take some time to change their relationship with social media

There is currently a high degree of moral panic around social media. In my opinion, the push-back on social media, and the companies that own the platforms, is not without justification. It’s simply that the justification is not all that accurate. The current moral panic does, as it tends to, centre around two things – it’s harming us and it’s harmful for our kids. There is a lot being said about social media being harmful for our kids; the media is having a field day. There is also a multitude of books on the topic, which seem incredibly one-sided and alarmist – here are just a few: World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Zucked – Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe, and The Coddling of the American Mind

It is said it makes you less happy. Science has picked this up and there are now a lot of (on the surface) robust studies looking at this; it is very much in vogue for scientists as well. But the science, as it tends to, is fairly inconclusive (this might be dependant on who you speak to). 

So does it make you less happy? Is it harmful? 

For an idea of how many studies have now been done on this, see the table below. It’s extensive. 

This table is taken from an open access paper, which is important to highlight because it is most applicable to my experience over the past month. A trial of 2,743 people run at Stanford randomised people to participate in a month of not using Facebook at all compared to going about their Facebook use unchanged. They found a small change in happiness (subjective wellbeing) scores in the group randomised to abstain from Facebook, and I mean it is a small effect. These kinds of results and this entire line of science is something that gives me goosebumps; there’s something just a bit off with the whole thing. 

On the other hand, an analysis of data that definitely does involve children and teens is from a group out of Oxford. They grouped several large European cohorts – coming to an amazing 355,358 youths – and examined the reported variation in reported mental health disorder alongside other variables over time. The use of social media amongst these teens explained about 0.4% of the variation in mental health disorders over time. For your information, this is very small, about the same effect that eating potatoes has on youth mental health.

So, the jury is definitely still out. And unfortunately, while we bark about the harms of social media in youth (of which there may actually be some, we just don’t know yet), the real issues of social media goes unnoticed. 

Generally speaking, for the underhanded dealings with what is now the world’s most valuable commodity – our own data – and for running a monopoly on what was once a Utopian dream – the internet – I think it is only fair that the general public is given some brief airtime to voice concerns. The companies that own the social media space, and some would say now own our attention, are nation states with more capital and power than the world’s hyperpowers but with about as many laws and regulations guiding their activity as you would see in a travelling circus. So complaints against social media are definitely warranted, but instead of discussing health concerns, I think we need to focus on hard facts – our civil liberties are being silently attacked and we have no say in the matter.

Why I undertook a month of no social media (why I went cold turkey)

I have recently had a month of disengaging from the social media sphere, but this hasn’t been a ‘cleanse’ or some other ethical and moral stand. This has simply been to re-calibrate and change my physical habits. For me, I have steadily (very slowly – in fact over the last 5-6 years) become more of a ‘user’; this has purely been for professional reasons. I have used these platforms to build a professional ‘persona’. And in the last year, I have gone about this like I would do with any other job. So in essence, this was a long overdue holiday. 

I realise this is not how most consider their use of social media, but for me it is my way of ‘rationalising’ my use of it. And my use is just about as addictive as anyone else’s – and I do think this is physiological. I am an addict, with a habit that interferes with my home life, my role as a father and a husband, my work life and other relationships. So, if I am providing you with my honest appraisal of why I have undertaken this, it was to: 

  • Become a better father and engage more with my son

  • Become a better husband and be present with my wife

  • Get more ‘deep work’ done, rather than surface level work (not helped by constant distractions).

Put simply, this month freed my time and attention to gain things back into my life that I had lost. And to be very clear, I really don’t think social media is the cause of the lack of attention or inability to focus; using social media is likely a symptom of the deeper motivation behind attention and focus. So why did I go cold turkey? To change my relationship with a habit, and gain back some control over other areas in my life that are priorities for me. Think ‘Dry July’ or ‘Sober October’, and just like those months, this month is about being intentional about altering something and replacing it with healthier, sustainable patterns.

Eventually, yes, I would like to see many people do the same thing. And here is why. 

Why most people, especially health professionals and researchers, should take some time out from social media.

I don’t think this should revolve around harm or negatives; that’s a problem far too complex to get dichotomous about. But for many of the individual reasons that I’ve heard from many people, I would encourage them to take some time out. This year, a group of friends and I tested the concept. Some – like me – went cold turkey, but most simply made a pledge to change their use of social media – to reduce their time, or avoid certain apps. The reasons I have heard are all quite similar. It revolves around wanting to have control over your time and being intentional about changing that. It revolves around building things into your life that you have lost or haven’t quite been able to achieve.

For health professionals and researchers, it is important to challenge your own thinking. We’ve all heard about the filter bubble issue; I think health professionals are as guilty of this as anyone else and unfortunately it may not be the best thing for our patients. Spending a lot of time on facebook or other social media platforms can be a very positive experience – you learn more from people who think like you. But therein lies the issue – our time on social media tends to be positive, because it is designed to be that way. Our human psychology makes it ultimately much more appealing to interact with people we agree with and there is no other human arena out there quite like social media to ensure we seek out and interact with people we agree with. It’s just nicer that way, who would blame us. But if we used a month of reduced use or abstinence to go out of our way and interact with those people we don’t normally interact with, we will have conversations and debates about all manner of things that may help us grow more as people and clinicians. 

Researchers, in particular, may find it a worthwhile exercise to spend a month out of the now commonplace methods of research dissemination (Twitter, Facebook) and actually talk to people about their research – ideally the consumers (the public, other researchers, or clinicians). As I spend most of my week as a researcher these days, this idea has merit in my opinion, and I hope is something that continues to develop. My hope is that more researchers and health professionals hear this plead to do more of this and join in next year.

In conclusion

Ultimately, the reasons why social media is demonised in the popular media may be a moot point. The real reason that social media’s harms may be just really difficult to discern may be that, the human psychology is complex and people’s use (and their consideration of why they are using it) is more important than the actual act of using it. In other words, the  motivation for use may be the primary issue (Andy Prsybylski); it depends on why you are using it in the first place. 

So, this month is more around recalibrating your motivation. This month may be about gaining some control around your habits. This month should definitely be about growth and gaining aspects to your life. For me, it has definitely made me more focused on the important things in my life – my family. Changing my relationship with social media has made me more intentional with work – I have been more productive and gotten more ‘deep work’ done. It has though been disruptive for my business and I can’t say whether it has made me happier. That’s not the point though; this month was about different things and for these reasons I think people need to join in.  I want to continue to use social media – I enjoy it and it is incredibly beneficial. This month has reminded me of the reasons why I use social media moreso than serve as a reminder of why not to use it. It is great to now be more in control over this motivation. 

So, if you’re interested in exploring this concept, please join in with my friends next year. But not because you’re expecting to be happier or become a different person. Join in to grow, join in to change, join in to gain things rather than take things away.

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