I deleted my social media apps because they were turning me into an idiot

Giving up Facebook and Instagram made me realise I was using them to block out real emotions with likes. But I couldnt help going back

In January I deleted all the social media apps from my phone because they were turning me into an idiot.

For months Id been avoiding engaging with anything challenging or anxiety inducing. Worried about where Id be living next year? Dive into Instagram. Tax bill prickling at the back of my mind? Open Facebook. That grief I thought Id processed piercing at me again? Disappear into the realm of likes and follows and push the feelings away. Distract. Binge. Escape.

Whether it was the Pavlovian thrill of the little red circles of like notifications, or a genuine need to connect with others, there was something that kept me along with 1.86bn other active monthly Facebook users going back. With social apps so accessible on my smartphone, this had turned into compulsive checking. Statistica research shows that 47% of UK adults use social media every day, and a GlobalWebIndex report found that at the end of last year people were spending a global average of almost two hours a day on social and messaging networks. I was one of them.

Hours of my evenings, train journeys and lunchtimes were spent hopping from one app to another, cruising for attention in the form of likes. Id open Facebook, then Instagram, then Messenger, and in the time it had taken me to look at the latter two there was a chance that something might have happened on Facebook. So back Id go and open it again. Then Instagram. Then Messenger. The cycle would continue. It was annoying the hell out of me.

It wasnt even meaningful attention I was seeking if social media wasnt forthcoming, Id dip into work email, or even my banking app, in the hope of finding something new there. I just craved something anything in the form of a new notification. I felt like a frantic lab rat waiting to hear a bell ring.

Daniel Gerrard, family interventionist and founder of Addiction Helper, believes that social media addiction is a process addiction that is similar to gambling: The more you do it, the more you want to do it, and the more you block out the outside world. So whether you win or lose, you still get that high feeling. And the more you do it, the more you block out whats going on.

I didnt think I had an addiction, just strong habits. I could, however, understand the pull of social media as an escape from the real world.

So I went clean. I took them all off my phone. Id still use social media on computers, but I wanted to make sure it wasnt always with me every second and everywhere.

Freedom

With my apps gone, I realised that I was feeling bad more often than Id thought. All of a sudden I had to deal with tricky emotions. I would lie on the bed in the evenings with racing thoughts, making worry lists to try and slow down the anxiety. It affected my relationship: I would offload on to my boyfriend, and ask for more reassurance about niggling thoughts. Id come home in the evenings and sit down on the sofa, thinking I didnt quite have the energy to read a book or watch a film. So Id reach for my phone, then realise there was no plaything there, and wonder what I was going to do with the half hour I had to kill.

women
Choosing to dive down a digital rabbit hole in order to be mindless didnt seem like a good choice to be making in my 30s. Photograph: Frederic Cirou/Getty Images/PhotoAlto

I could have fired up the laptop and logged on to Facebook there, but in the time it took to go and get it, I realised the silly comments I was going to stick up were pointless, and werent a good use of my time. Worse still: the effort involved made me self-conscious choosing to dive down a digital rabbit hole in order to be mindless didnt seem like a good choice to be making in my thirties.

It would be a neat narrative if I could say that after initially struggling with stepping away from digital frivolity, the clouds quickly cleared and it made me more functional. But it wasnt that simple.

Being more proactive gave me a greater sense of control and confidence in my ability to overcome small obstacles. But I also missed the control the apps gave me over my mood. Some research has indicated that some of the success of social networking sites is down to how they make you feel. An academic paper by Mauri et al showed in 2011 that the experience of Facebook was different to a state of either stress or relaxation, but that it had its own unique core flow state. While outright avoiding problems isnt necessarily a sensible way to approach life, making time to feel good is and to some degree social apps gave me more control over my immediate mood.

Time-wasting

One way heavy social app use unambiguously crapped all over my feelings, however, was with the guilt that came with the time-wasting. Studies by Christina Sagioglou and Tobias Greitemeyer in 2014 suggested that using Facebook can lead to low moods afterwards, and a feeling that you havent spent your time doing anything meaningful. In my case this was painfully true. I hadnt sorted my living arrangement, Id lost touch with friends, Id neglected hobbies, I was going out less than I used to. I hadnt read a book in six months. Id become a mental slob. This wasnt all down to social use, but it was eating up a lot of my time.

Dr Ciarn McMahon, a Dublin-based academic writing a book on psychology and social media, commented that this sense of time-wasting is a problem for Facebook: They do want you to stay there the whole time, but it can make you feel like youve achieved nothing. Its quite a pleasant feeling, a flow state reasonably similar to reading a book. But after reading a book you can say youve read 20 pages, but if you spend the same hour on Facebook, you have no sense of achievement.

After I deleted Facebook, Twitter and Instagram from my phone, I was alarmed at the amount of free time that suddenly emerged. I used to think I was way too busy to read these days. But within a month Id read two novels and listened to an audio book all in the free time when Id otherwise have been prowling around social apps looking for validation. If Id made this change in, say, June, I could have read the whole of the Man Booker shortlist, plus 14 other novels. In the moments before bed, while waiting for my boyfriend to finish brushing his teeth, rather than checking Instagram, I put a drawing pad and pencil on my bedside table to sketch out photo ideas.

Beyond this, I also found that in moments of boredom, Id text or email friends or relatives I hadnt spoken to for a while. I even phoned some people for a catch up, which felt weird at first. The need to socially interact, which can be difficult in a big city, was no longer taken care of through a passive screen presence. If I wanted to see how someone was, Id have to actively get in touch and find out. It felt a lot more meaningful, especially with older relatives, who were probably on the same page on social media, but not on it compulsively with a smartphone app.

Falling back in

Part of the reward of social media is the sense that you are important. You can be alone in your house but have a million Facebook or Instagram friends it can put you in a false reality, Gerrard says. Without this fake reality, I was living in the present, and gone was the feeling I was haemorrhaging life through my fingertips. Learning, creating, communicating meaningfully felt more wholesome than the narcissistic cesspit of selfies, likes, followers and favourites. So why did I go back?

Scene
At the Womens March, social media wasnt just liking someones cat photo it was a way for millions of people to communicate where they stood politically. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

When I went on the Womens March at the end of January I wanted desperately to connect with other people friends or strangers who were also present, felt the same and shared the same values me. The most immediate way of doing that was to redownload the apps and search and share. So I did. Social media wasnt just liking someones cat photo it was a way for millions of people to communicate where they stood politically. Id also missed Facebook and Twitter as instantly accessible ways of looking at multiple news sources, which, in the age of Trump and Brexit, felt like something I shouldnt do without.

I would like to say that, the cycle broken, I let the apps back into my life but only to use occasionally, for wholesome purposes, while continuing to nurture offline relationships and reading lots more.

But its hard to manage the pull of compulsive checking. Unlike other bad habits, or addictions, abstinence isnt really an option work, news and socialising are now contingent on this technology.

Two months on, things are complicated. It hasnt been quite the same between me and the apps since the big break. But just like returning to an ex lover, its easy to fall back into the same old dynamics. I enjoy being connected, but casual use soon can easily become compulsive checking, and when I catch this happening, I go nuclear and delete them. But then Ill be out and want to post a picture on Instagram, or check if anyones tried to contact me, so Ill redownload. And the cycle continues.

Im not sure whether this ritual is any more functional than what I was doing before. Its disconcertingly easy to leave when you know you can go back whenever you want. I do notice more quickly when Im wasting time, however. I get more done, and I feel less like a 31-year-old teenager. And yet it worries me how easy it is to fall into the trap. It worries me that these networks encompassing everyone I know provide empty, addictive rewards for pointless behaviour. And it worries me that as long as I have a phone in my pocket, that scrolling idiot Im capable of being is only ever a few clicks away.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/14/deleted-social-media-apps-facebook-instagram-emotions-likes