Changing our relationship to social media

Like my last post, this post was inspired by a Twitter conversation, specifically a reply from my friend Nathan Johnson. Thanks, Nate.

I took a social media hiatus in January 2017 after my first five-day silent retreat. On that retreat, I learned that I could live without social media much to my surprise. In fact, I liked not having compulsions to check it. My stress reduced, I felt happier, and I connected with real—not virtual—things, like nature and people (yes, even on a silent retreat). What I thought would last a few months lasted over a year, until August 2018.

Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay

When people learned I wasn’t on social media anymore, especially Facebook, they asked me why and how I did it. Social media is a part of our daily lives, and it can feel like it’s in control of us. I definitely felt that way, and I learned that other people did, too.

So, why and how did I do it? Three words: Boundaries, honesty, and intention.

Setting boundaries

Social media can distort boundaries: personal, professional, time, and energy. We can feel closer to people than we really are. We might feel pressured to share things we’re not wholly comfortable sharing. We spend more time and energy on it that we want to or need to.

I was violating my own time and energy boundaries more often than I realized. Checking social media became a compulsion. I spent more time and energy caring about and reacting to things that didn’t affect me or that I couldn’t impact. Meanwhile, I was taking time and energy away from things that really did impact my life, like catching up on academic reading or just relaxing.

Being honest

Truth time. Social media made me feel disconnected from people. My newsfeed was becoming a cesspool of people who thought they knew what they were talking about but had no information to back it up.

I also was frustrated with seeing the highlight reel of people’s lives. I wanted to connect with people beyond carefully chosen words, poorly constructed soapboxes, crafted selfies, and vague-booking. It wasn’t good for my mental, emotional, or spiritual health.

Fear motivated my decision to stay on social media. Social media made me feel good about life sometimes. More often, though, it made me feel terrible and put my Imposter Syndrome on a loud speaker. I was afraid to live without it, the good and the bad. Would I feel disconnected from my friends? Would I miss life events? Would I miss sharing my own news and receiving the instant gratification of people’s virtual support, even if it was artificial?

Following intention

Ultimately, my decision to leave social media stemmed from deep intention. I cared about my friends and family, but I cared more about my relationship with myself.

Social media put the focus on everyone else, how well or not well people were doing and how my life compared to others. It anesthetized my feelings and spirituality. It was draining, and I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Taking the leap

Fear wasn’t strong enough to stop my intentions. I turned off email notifications on my phone (they’re still off). I deleted all social media apps. At first, I just didn’t log into my social media accounts to check them or to post, but eventually, I deleted Facebook permanently.

Trusting my boundaries, honesty, and intention was a challenge, but it worked. I gained so much time back. My productivity has increased, as did my happiness. My eyes are less fatigued, and my neck doesn’t feel as strained.

My fears of being disconnected from people never manifested, as usually is the case with fear. I stay in touch with people, although it requires a bit more effort to reach out to people, but it’s worth it. When someone posts an event on Facebook, my friends will text me to let me know. I’m still in the loop, so to speak, without violating my boundaries.

Dipping a toe back in

In August 2018, I co-chaired SIGDOC and saw that a social media wasn’t an all-or-nothing relationship. I was in control of what I shared, who I followed, and what I liked, which might sound obvious, but I forgot that.

At SIGDOC 2018, Twitter became my way to connect with the academic community in more productive ways than Facebook ever offered. Plus, I decided to start this blog at SIGDOC 2018, and Twitter was a good way to share posts.

I welcomed Twitter and LinkedIn back into my life, which I had only used for academic and research purposes. I shut off the notifications. These platforms didn’t have as much of the noise of Facebook, and I do not miss Facebook at all.

Then, this summer, I returned to Instagram (still with notifications turned off). My good friend Rachel told me one of my favorite resale shops closed, and they announced it on Instagram. I was fairly disappointed and used that response to re-assess my Instagram use. I re-activated my account, but I changed my relationship to it.  

I chose to only follow community organizations, restaurants, stores, dogs, and select celebrities and accounts who cultivate positivity (e.g., Lizzo, RuPaul, Michelle Visage, nonairbrushedme). That way I could learn about community events and stay positive, which helps me follow my intention of staying connected.

Then, I lovingly detached from personal Instagram accounts by muting, not unfollowing, them. That was hard because I felt like I was cutting people off, even though I knew I really wasn’t. It was a challenging process, but my gut was telling me to detach by muting. If I really feel compelled to catch up with people, I send them a message. It isn’t all or nothing; I found a comfortable middle ground.

Continuing to hold boundaries, to be honest, and to follow intentions

I aim to live in that middle ground but sometimes I slip. Some days I check Twitter and Instagram more often than I’d like to.

But here’s the difference now: Thanks to strategies I learned from my spiritual director, I pause and ask myself a series of questions.

  • What’s driving this need to check these accounts?
  • Am I stuck on a project that I’m trying to avoid? For example, even as I wrote this post, I felt compulsions to check Twitter and Instagram because writing this was a bit challenging. I wanted distraction but ultimately knew it wouldn’t be useful.  
  • Am I avoiding a difficult email or a challenging phone call?
  • Do I subconsciously want to awaken my Imposter Syndrome?
  • Am I anesthetizing some feeling?

Those questions invite me to slow down, return to intention, remember my boundaries, be honest, and act accordingly. Sometimes I stop scrolling and log off. Sometimes I keep scrolling because the drive to check is to get an update on the world or participate in conversations, like WomeninTC’s Mentor Monday.

Social media plays an important part in our lives, especially in academia where our colleagues are dispersed across the world and knowledge is shared instantaneously. How we define that importance is up to us.

If any of our relationships, even with technology, are not contributing to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health, perhaps it’s time to change it.

Image by geralt from Pixabay

Questions to ponder

  • How would you define your relationship to social media? Happy? Unbalanced Stressed? Annoyed? Useful?
  • Is there anything you’d like to change about it? Why?
  • If you want to change something, what steps can you take to achieve that goal?
  • What drives your social media use? Curiosity? Fear? A need to compare or share? A desire to stay connected?
  • How do you feel before, during, and after using your social media accounts?
  • If you want to stay in touch with people but want to take a social media break, what other methods can you use outside of social media?

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