Updated: Oct 27
Over the last few years, I’ve been breaking up with social media.
Image Courtesy of Wix
The relationship is on and off. Some weeks I crave it – longing to waste an hour, or two, or five ceaselessly scrolling in search of something interesting to watch, to read, to ruminate. In these weeks, I’m all too aware that I’m clearly seeking an endorphin hit – chasing the short-lived euphoria we naturally feel at being “liked”.
In other weeks, in moments of what many would call madness, I find myself deleting or deactivating all forms of social media, purging from relentless information overload.
At first, purge weeks are strange. I begin to notice odd habits; how many times my hand twitches, greedily groping for my phone ‘just to check’ a screen that will undoubtedly be blank. I notice too, how every 20-30 minutes I randomly click the home-screen button, even though my phone is on loud and I know no notifications have appeared – do I just want some form of focus? Or have I developed a tic?
Then follows, an uncomfortable sense of shame and I begin to berate myself for allowing social media to dominate my everyday habits, frustrated at how it has become so insidiously ingrained into my daily routine.
Finally, I look up. I notice the space around me, the way the light seeps through the high windows above my desk, the gentle beat of the clock, the distant sound of a lawn mower, the cry of a lonely gull. This is a moment of nothingness, of life unfiltered and suddenly the world is still, and I am calm.
Still moments like these used to terrify me. As a child, I was always moving – tumbling and squirming, running and talking – a livewire who needed constant stimulation. Being quiet didn’t suit me. With the advent of social media coinciding with my teenage years, I inevitably began to channel some of this overwhelming energy into it, excited by the realisation that I could converse with my friends all the time. Quiet moments were no longer quiet because I actively combated them by logging onto various social media accounts. I was keeping myself stimulated (or perhaps over-stimulated) 24/7.
But as I grew older, I began to experience an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia when I found myself unable to meet the perpetual demands of reading, watching, liking and responding. I also identified that I grew anxious when I didn’t have anything to do and I was quelling this anxiety by simply picking up my phone and doing…nothing. I was caught in a web and I needed to get out.
Speaking to friends and family about this feeling, I found I was not alone. As I dug deeper, I learnt that in Western culture in particular, moments of nothingness are anxiety-inducing for a high percentage of the population. Because we are glued to our phones, and because we are conditioned to celebrate grind culture, we are ever connected to the demands of both our working and our social lives. From the moment we wake up to the moment we sleep, our phones plague us, buzzing away like neurotic insects. Day and night, we are digitally distracted, and the ability to rest, to truly rest, is destroyed.
This realisation was really the catalyst behind my tentative move to remove social media from my phone, and though at first, those quiet moments I had been so terrified of were still, well, terrifying, slowly they transformed into a regular and reliable companion.
Interestingly, not only have these moments now become indispensable to my happiness, they have also given me the time to properly and positively engage in the narrative of my real life.
Instead of spending quiet moments in the virtual ether of the digital world, nitpicking the small things, hyper-aware of the flaws in myself and in my life, I find myself dwelling on the things I do have as opposed to the things I don’t. You see there’s no longer another narrative to compare my life to, there’s just one; the one I’m living.
This narrative is at once joyful and messy, quiet and loud, over and underwhelming, but at least it’s authentic.
And isn’t authenticity what we are all missing?
Before social media, authenticity was, in my opinion, achievable. We did things, quite simply, because we wanted to do them, not because we wanted to get the perfect “gram”, not because we felt the pressure to update our status or story to prove we are doing something, anything with our lives. Before social media we didn’t feel the need to share a perfect, filtered narrative of our daily affairs. Before social media, we didn’t deal our lives in for forgery and lies.
Ok – that's definitely verging on the melodramatic, but there’s an element of truth in it. Social media allows us to engineer a narrative where the “reader” has no real agency because the “writer” offers only one meticulously crafted perspective. Never offered the whole story; we only see the curated version. We are thrust into a bizarre liminal space that exists somewhere between what is true and what is false, and inevitably we therefore become distracted by the shadowy world of online narratives, and as a result, blind to the stories unravelling around us.
But many would argue, is this necessarily a bad thing? Social media is, in a plethora of ways, a powerful medium of escape from a world that can be unforgiving. It also offers us the opportunity to become the sole author of our stories by providing us with the tools to create and craft our ideal identities, whatever they might be. Storytelling, after all, is a natural function of being human. Our capacity to interact, to learn, and to understand the world around us has always had its foundations firmly rooted in storytelling. From the epics of Classical Mythology to Paleolithic cave art, narrative in all its forms has been the medium through which we have passed on our history and our cultural identity. Social media simply offers more people the opportunity to do this. It is, in fact, a powerful democratic tool.
On reflection then, I think when engaging with social media we should consider the reasons why we are doing it. Are we harnessing social media in a positive way that aligns with our ethics and values? Or are we simply looking for a point of focus, too intimidated by the unfiltered, unedited and uncontrollable life around us? Are we trying to prove ourselves, seeking validation, or are we using it (and many people are) to participate in a conversation that truthfully reflects the world around us and our experience of and in it – the beautiful and the ugly? And perhaps most importantly, are adults actively teaching young people how to use social media safely so that it can be a healthy and empowering part of their lives?
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If you wish to explore this topic further, Tell Me A Tale recommends:
Adam Alter, Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy