COLUMN: Three days without social media
I check social media pretty often, especially for someone who rarely posts. I refresh my feeds during awkward silences, when I feel a vibration in my pocket (even if it's just imagined), or when the fear of missing out gets to me. And even though the point of social media is to connect users with other people, I often find that I feel lonely after using it a lot.
Last week, I went on a three-day social media blackout to test the effects of social media use on my own loneliness. The inspiration for this was a March study by University of Pittsburgh researchers, which uncovered a correlation between use of social media and perceived feelings of social isolation. The study grouped people by how often they checked social media each week, and as frequency of checking social media increased, users became far more likely to report high isolation.
What isn’t clear from this study is the causal relationship between the isolation and the social media use--is it isolation causing us to turn to social media, or social media causing us to feel isolated? I asked David Evans, a PhD psychologist, Microsoft employee, and former researcher at MSU, how he'd answer that question, and he issued me a challenge instead.
Why, he asked, doesn’t someone test the findings of this study by experimenting with their own social media use, as an unscientific study, to try to answer the question of which way that correlation goes?
For three days, I deleted every social media app off my phone--Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat--and logged off all of them on my laptop. I could still use live online interaction (text, email, calls), but I couldn't scroll through Facebook or watch Snapchat stories in moments alone.
At first, I wasn’t sure that I’d miss social media very much, but it turns out I underestimated my own social media addiction.
On my first day without social media, I had a particularly lonely study session. I was studying alone in an empty study room, trying to concentrate on getting ready for an upcoming exam. Here, I discovered that I turn to Facebook specifically to dampen feelings of loneliness.
Ten times within a three-hour study period, I reflexively typed in “control-T, F, enter” to open a new Facebook tab, without thinking twice about what I was doing. I wasn't logged in, though, so I just had to keep closing the tab.
Evans said social media addiction could be caused by the variable-ratio reinforcement schedule of social media, or what he called the “slot machine of social interaction," as he discussed in his new book Bottlenecks: Aligning UX Design with User Psychology.
I check Facebook so much because I never know when a friend request or tag is coming, yet past experience says it might come now if I look for it. When I’m lonely, even a slim chance of a social media interaction is better than no chance of a real-life interaction.
Though I couldn’t fulfill my urge to incessantly check my social media feeds, I wasn’t any more productive. Instead, I filled my Facebook time by starting text conversations, which made me feel a little less lonely.
It's a lot easier to scroll through Facebook than to text someone who might just choose not to respond, but Evans said live online interaction like texting or messaging is more robust than the asynchronous (non-live) interaction of scrolling through a social media feed. For example, he said texters can interpret social cues, such as level of interest or energy, in a way that is far more difficult over social media.
On my second day without social media, I was hanging out with a group of friends, and I felt more present in the moment than I usually do. Since I wasn’t refreshing social media during every lull in the conversation, I felt like I was better able to stay engaged, come up with new topics, and generally feel involved in the conversation.
“When people are face-to-face, they have to engage a little bit more,” Evans said. “But, you know, you can scroll through social media posts and headlines and not really sort of consume them really thoroughly, and I think that endless scroll of headlines could be another contributing factor to, ‘ok, after an hour, how do I feel now?’ ”
On my third day without social media, I watched a movie, and discovered another benefit of not having access to social media: my attention span improved. I made it through an entire two-hour movie while only checking my phone once--something that, sadly, would normally be unheard of for me. There was none of the residual anxiety that normally comes with missing out on some possible interaction. I’d already accepted that I was going to miss things, and I felt at peace with that fact.
After the initial shock of losing access to social media wore off, I felt happier and less lonely not knowing what others were doing all the time. If I wanted to find out what was going on in someone else’s life, I had to ask them, leading to a real conversation. When I logged back into social media after three days away, I suddenly found myself feeling a little more aware of my own loneliness after watching the highlight reel of everyone else's weekend.
My unscientific conclusion is that the relationship between loneliness and social media use goes in both directions. I discovered that I do turn to social media to make me less lonely (as I tried to when I was having withdrawals on my first night), but it is also social media that causes some of that loneliness.
I learned a lot about the negatives of social media use in my experiment. Social media can make me jealous of those living more fun lives, help me avoid more fulfilling but riskier forms of interaction, and might even be wrecking my attention span.
But there are some positives that I missed during my three days away from social media. An interesting post can be a jumping-off point for a live conversation with the person who posted it. Social media can also enhance real-life interaction; I noticed friends would often show me a funny post from their Facebook feed during a conversation.
I came out of my social media blackout with the idea that I'd try to at least keep the apps in question off my phone for a little while longer. But even after seeing the positive effects of walking away from social media up close, I couldn’t leave it forever. The closest you can come to a guarantee of positive reinforcement from social media is staying off it for three days and then logging back on, and three days' worth of notifications got me re-hooked. Still, I'll try to check social media less frequently in the future--as I learned, too much time on those services can be bad for you.