I've lived with anxiety problems since I was a teenager. It took me years to figure out that's what was going on finally seek help for it, and even longer to fully understand why it was happening. It's only in the last two years, particularly the past year, that I've finally gotten a real handle on it and learned what it feels like not to be spinning around inside my head at a dizzying speed, day in and day out. This means approximately half of my life was spent in a haze of uncontrollable thoughts and anxiety. In my quest for a calmer mind, I've discovered several changes that have helped, and one of them is modifying how I use social media.
This spring, I took a month off from Facebook. Now for those who might not know, I use Facebook a LOT. I've got family and friends I want to keep in touch with spread around the world, and because of my health problems I rarely even see local friends in person. I'm a recluse, and these days Facebook is my main connection to the world. I also use a multitude of other social media, read blogs and news online, write online, etc. but Facebook is the BIG one. I can spend a lot of time on there, and it's not all well-used time. Much of it is what a friend of mine recently termed "scrolly-scroll", ie. where you find yourself zoned out and endlessly scrolling down the page.
In the spring, I did a Facebook fast. But as much as my Twitter usage has declined since back when I was working in tech, it easily substitutes my usual scrolly-scroll of choice. Nothing else sucks me in like those two platforms. YES, they are an effective way to connect and engage. YES, they are a convenient way to keep up to date on things. There are tons of positive things about them! But they change the way we live our lives, and not always in a good way. I know they change me. And over the last year or so, I've developed the distinct sense that they change how my brain functions when I use them too much.
Moderating and managing
In my previous life, I was a project manager. I will shamelessly say I'm a natural at it. My brain constantly wants to find more efficient solutions, and better ways to organize and problem solve. I do the same in my personal life, including the ways I use the internet. I have countless email filters, siphoning everything into its appropriate folders so I can move the non-urgent and uninteresting out of the way and give my attention to the things that matter...like personal emails! Getting a personal email from a friend or relative these days is - well I won't say it's like getting real physical personal mail, but it's always a welcome break from the myriad automated mailings. Which reminds me - unsubscribe! Unsubscribe! And unsubscribe some more! Keep the newsletters that feed your soul, or maybe make a folder for the really good coupons and discounts. But get rid of the rest and don't look back!
Sometime last year, feeling sickly and overwhelmed by life in addition to the sheer volume of information to keep wading through online, I made some drastic changes to the way I use Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter and blog RSS. I was ruthless - I defriended probably half my Facebook list. I believe it went from somewhere in the upper 500's to about 250 (since then, of course I've added some new people). Tons of old acquaintances who I had zero present day relationship with. Tons of acquaintances I'd met through work/tech, who I had zero in common with outside of tech. My main measuring stick was: If I ran into this person on the street, would we be likely to stop to have tea and catch up? If no, strongly consider defriending. Sure, some people for whatever reason you just connect with or want to stay in the loop with - I kept those people. Some people you feel obligated to keep because you run into them in your daily life on occasion, fine. But a huge proportion of the people on there I'd become "friends" with, without much thought.
I also unfollowed probably hundreds of Facebook Pages. I cut down my follows on Twitter and blog subscriptions via RSS as well, and then used the magic of Twitter and Facebook lists to further refine the noise vs. signal ratio. Now, if I want, I can go the entire day without looking at either, and then in 5 minutes catch up on the people I most care about via a quick skim of my lists, and I make a point of doing this. It's just a fact, some people are "friends", and others are capital-F Friends who I care deeply about outside of online life and want to know what's up with.
How to cope with guilt and withdrawal
How can I just ruthlessly unfriend all these people!?! Won't I feel guilty? Doesn't it make me a bad person??? That is one of the big lies that your brain tells you to keep you addicted to the flow of information, and your high friend/follower counts.
Let me tell you once and for all, NO. No, moderating and managing your online life doesn't make you an asshole, not at all. It makes you sane. Before the advent of social media, nobody in their right mind would expect you to stay in touch with everyone you ever knew! It's crazymaking. It's just not feasible. It's okay to say no to that pressure (whether internal or external). It's okay to prioritize your own sanity and wellbeing over the obligations you feel about how to behave online.
Is it really going to matter if you defriend the person who sat behind you in grade 12 math class, who you haven't interacted with since they friend requested you 6 years ago? No. Well, yes, actually. It's going to matter in the sense that it will help make your online engagement easier to deal with, which will make your life more peaceful. And frankly, lots of those people won't actually care if they even notice. If you don't feel comfortable unfriending or unfollowing, there are also a few handy features now like Facebook's "unfollow" or Twitter's "mute", that allow you to quietly remove peoples' posts from your feed.
If on the other hand, you don't feel guilty doing this, but you feel something more akin to panic over everything you might miss out on, you've probably got a different monkey on your back.
"FOMO" and addiction
Advance apologies for use of the trite acronym FOMO (fear of missing out). I wouldn't say that I have any particular bent towards addictive behaviour, but I was raised on a hell of a lot of television, and tend to use TV and the internet to self-soothe. Compounded many times by social isolation, and fatigue that limits my ability to do anything active, it's easy to get sucked into spending a lot of passive consumption. You know passive consumption: channel surfing, scrolly-scroll websites, anything that feeds you a constant flow of information/stimulus without any real effort on your part.
At times, I find it hard to moderate my time spent online, which is large part of the reason I had to resort to just culling the amount of information coming at me. Even then, I sometimes find myself getting overly sucked in, having that compulsive need to constantly check my computer or phone for whatever has been posted since I last checked in. What if I *gasp* miss something?!
Mix with that a propensity for stating my political views online, a healthy appetite for respectful debate (no respect, and you'll be reminded via defriending that it's a privilege not a right to be in contact with someone, I don't have space for that in my life), and the genuine boredom I often suffer being stuck at home with no energy... Well, I've realized that my brain can get a little too attached to the stimulus and information. (Side note: Wikipedia has a lengthy page on "Internet Addiction Disorder", yikes.)
The thing is, we start to feel like we're not okay without engaging online. Like something bad will happen if we're not plugged into the enormous feed of information.
This is a lie.
When I find myself believing this lie too much, I take a few steps back from my computer, and go do something else. Or sometimes, like I did this spring, I take a large chunk of time off in order to recalibrate.
Fasting - a calmer November
Fasting is primarily an act of willing abstinence or reduction from certain or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. An absolute fast is normally defined as abstinence from all food and liquid for a defined period, usually a single day (24 hours), or several days. Other fasts may be only partially restrictive, limiting particular foods or substances. The fast may also be intermittent in nature. Fasting practices may preclude sexual intercourse and other activities as well as food.
I'm going to be embarking on another month-long social media fast, like I did in the spring, for the month of November, ie. starting tomorrow! Let's call it a partially-restrictive fast. This will be a fast focused on passive consumption and zoning out. My main goal is to detach my brain from the compulsion to check for more new input, particularly on the "scrolly-scroll" types of sites, namely Facebook and Twitter. I want to detach, and also just decrease the massive time-suckage, so I can spend more time doing other things.
Here are the basic rules I'll be aiming to abide:
- No reading Facebook
- No reading Twitter
That's it! Simple, right? Those two are by far the most addictive and vortex-like, at least for me. None of the other time I spend online is comparable.
Here are the things I will continue to do online:
- Write and respond to PMs/DMs on Facebook and Twitter
- Post/respond in a few of the Facebook groups I use regularly which are either A) chronic illness support groups or B) art and textile/sewing communities (the whole point is to remove passive consumption, not to isolate myself or stop active participation/engagement
- Read blogs and news websites
- Watch videos
- Write (mainly here, as well as on Medium and my Chronically Yours Tumblr)
- Share or push links for things I write to Facebook and Twitter and respond to comments on those posts - because apparently nobody uses RSS anymore, whaaaaat??? I'll be setting Facebook and Twitter bookmarks straight to the notifications pages and checking them occasionally. And seriously, I don't know how people read blogs without RSS.)
- Upload to and browse photo sharing platforms
- Research and read anything else online as long as I am not being passively fed the content from Facebook and Twitter
- Email, text chat, Skype (not really social media, but just to be clear)
See, not so bad! Again, the point is to decrease passive consumption, not completely disengage. And there's so many other offline things to do! I can't wait to immerse myself in them as much as I can.
That's it! If you want to get in touch in November, I'd love to hear from you - email me, write me a letter, comment on a blog post, tag me in a photo! I'm still here, and I always write back to nice people.