Reducing social media use

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I first set the intention of reducing my social media, and general phone use, in December 2017. In that time, I have gone through phases from no-usage to high-usage during vacations. Standing here more than two years later, I am proud of my social media habits. I wouldn’t, however, be able to tell you why off the top of my head. My intention with this is as a reflection, to convince myself (and you) that I made the right decision to veer down this trajectory I am on.

How did I use social media?

Snapchat. Streaks were an especially guilty culprit. I remembered how consuming and laborious they were, yet I recall moments when I would prioritise keeping them alive at all costs. After reading [[Atomic Habits]], I now appreciate more of the intentions behind streaks and why they were designed the way it was. What seemed like a fun social exercise at the time was far more insidious in nature. I could apply this to all forms of social media to a some degree, but Snapchat streaks takes the cake for being the the most Machiavellian.

Facebook and Instagram were on my phone but I would not say that I was going overboard with those. Facebook Messenger on the other hand was where most of my online conversations lived. The incessant buzzing was the number one reason for me checking and opening up my phone. 

Going cold turkey

I went cold turkey in the beginning. This involved deleting Snapchat, Facebook, and Facebook Messenger. I decided to keep Instagram because, upon inspecting my screen-time statistics, it wasn’t a big culprit. The other big decision I made was to turn off all notifications. The only buzzing I left on was for calls, texts, and alarms. 

By timing this commitment with the start of my summer job, it made things easier to stomach at least during the work day. Instead of succumbing to the temptations of my phone at work, I did the only other thing available to me: chat and get to know my new colleagues. When I go home everyday, however, the first thing I would do was to go on Facebook and check for new messages. I made this commitment to myself, for myself, so naturally I did not broadcast it. I was getting messages at the same rate which was troublesome. My screen-time statistics improved on my phone, but my use only transferred to my laptop. I would spend the better part of an evening just replying to messages, the tab having reserved spot on my browser. 

The weeks rolled by and I started seeing the results. One by one, I told my friends of my commitment and have them text me for anything urgent e.g. changes to plans. In that time, I may not have reduced my overall time-spent on Facebook or Messenger, but at least I had restricted it only when I had my laptop which generally were just evenings. Progress. 

Being practical and eating and rationing my turkey consumption

Happy with the results, I reluctantly had to re-download Facebook and Facebook Messenger after three months. While working, it served me well because I had no real need of them during the day when I could still text people and make calls. What changed was the restarting of University for the year. Facebook was essential for access to course groups, while Messenger was necessary plan things with groups during the day. I kept, however, notifications turned off for everything except texts and calls. 

This worked for me, a nice balance of not being subservient to my phone, but having access to key apps as and when I needed it. I have now been running with this setup since February 2018. The only minor adjustment is now I have notifications for WhatsApp which is reserved generally for family.

The biggest takeaway from this entire endeavour is that I’ve begun to take notice more of what is around me. Especially when I’m public transport. The instinct to pick up my phone and browse is gone. Now, I aim to get a window seat and just watch the world go by. In doing so, I have taken note of just how many people are actively on their phones on the bus. Given a full bus, I would estimate that 70% are actively on their phone, 28% are listening to something on their phone but not actively using their phone, and 2% don’t use their phone.

How I define active use is one or both hands on the phone, heads are down. The most common cases are people concentrating either on emails, watching videos, or scrolling through instagram. Those with headphones plugged in are probably listening to music or a podcast. The final 2% often are reading books, or have their work laptop out. I say this not as a judgement but an interesting observation. I know that I was probably a founding member of the 70%. 

The other benefit of eliminating the instinct to pick up your phone is when with other people. Prior, my attention used to be scattered between the conversation I was having physically, and the ones I had digitally. The presence of mind that this commitment affords me is priceless. I can’t see myself going back to my old habits.

Final thoughts

While I have resisted the urge to turn notifications back on. I have had phases where I used social media much more liberally than I had described above. During periods of travel, for holiday or for work, I find myself on these apps much more than I would be at home. For a while, I thought this was problematic until I heard the following: Habits are not a finish line to cross, they are a lifestyle to live. I’m happy with my level of social media use and I accept there will be fluctuations as the seasons of our lives change. I gladly would make the same decision every time. 

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