I’m lost in my living room.
But fortunately I’m adrift in the warmth of a song playing through the speaker of my record player.
One month of completely giving up social media has resulted in 86 unread Facebook notifications, seven unopened Snapchats, and countless instances of Twitter telling me “so and so and 150K others liked so and so’s tweet.”
Yet, here I sit with my eyes closed while Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon echoes off the walls.
Can a Millennial raised in the cocoon of constant social media really unplug without feeling unplugged from reality?
That was the experiment. Quit social media sites cold turkey for a month. It went better than expected, but I’m still recovering from that sense of disconnect. I never thought of myself as a social media junkie until the month I had to do without it.
In a country with a population of 323 million, 69 percent of U.S. adults over 18 use social media, with some 70 percent of them engaged on at least one social platform, according to the Pew Research Center. This doesn’t include teenagers. And if you check Facebook daily, you’re part of its 1.3 billion worldwide user club.
“We are accessible nearly everywhere we go,” said Lisa Hanasono, associate professor in the college of arts and sciences at Bowling Green State University. Staying connected has become a way of life for an entire generation.
Is it even possible to step away from the constant “likes” or “retweets” in an online trending world? Thirty days without social media is a long time for someone in his mid-20s who has been plugged in since middle school.
And a long time feels like an eternity.
A month in solitude
Life away from the screen was spent fighting the urge to check social media platforms five to seven times a day. Gone was the social fulfillment via digital conversation by scrolling through my newsfeed. The realization hit hard of just how few face-to-face friendships I actually have.
“We are physically alone, but socially and psychologically we are connected,” Ms. Hanasono said. “There is a human desire to feel connected socially to other people. Our digital devices open a portal to connect with millions of people.”
But when that “portal” is closed, the feelings of being psychologically and socially connected are replaced by the reality of how to occupy my mind during moments of waiting in line at a coffee shop, over lunch, walking the dog, sitting at a bar, hanging out at a relative’s place, and just about any other hour of the day. During those rare moments of socializing in person, you realize the high level of addiction that exists in the number of times friends check their phone. It was fear of missing out, ironic given that we were interacting in person.
“Someone got engaged; this event is happening,” Ms. Hanasono said. “Sometimes people just feel that particular craving, too. There’s been some research how social media fulfills a variety of gratifications. Collectively those fuel our addiction, our desire to utilize social media on a regular basis.”
More phone calls were made to family, and feelings of living in the moment surfaced. As more physical social interaction increased in my daily routine, the world seemed quieter. The digital din was silent in my life for the first time in more than 10 years.
A 2017 American Psychological Association “Stress In America” survey found that constantly checking electronic devices is linked to significant stress. Those who constantly checked social platforms exhibited higher stress levels than those who did so less often.
“Taking a digital detox is one of the most helpful ways to manage stress related to technology use,” said Lynn Bufka, associate executive director for practice research and policy for the APA, in the report. “Constant checkers could benefit from limiting their use of technology and presence on social media.”
A similar 2017 study in the Journal Of Affected Disorders put it more bluntly: Excessive social media use can lead to dispositional anxiety symptoms.
I didn’t salivate like Ivan Pavlov’s dog from the famed experiment every time my phone or computer made a noise from a notification, but there were constant urges to screen scroll.
“People are driven for a sense of connection,” Ms. Hanasono said. “[For] some people it’s about identity; they want to share everything. It’s a way to feel in control of their own identity. They want a cathartic relief. They are looking for some way to relieve stress or escape realities. Some people use it for information. That’s why people feel compelled to go on.”
Gone were the frequent updates on the life accomplishments of acquaintances and opinionated political posts. No more Snapchats from friends speaking in squeaky voices or dressed in dog ears and nose using a filtered effect. So long to the edited Instagram pictures.
Scrolling urges were now channeled into more frequent app checking of the weather, email, and my bank account; sometimes I’d lift the phone and unlock the screen for no apparent reason other than to fill the void of needing to check something.
A hooked fish
The social media platforms know when you haven’t been plugged in.
Agnieszka McPeak, associate professor in the college of law at the University of Toledo, said the social media platforms collect data from each user and know every time you have an active session.
“They want your information and attention,” Ms. McPeak said. “They want engagement, they want you to log in and post. The more you’re on the platform, the more they can figure out how to market to you. They actually use psychological techniques, behavioral interventions to get you to keep coming back.”
The more information a user presents on social media, the more that platform learns how to use specific techniques to draw that user back.
“There’s a lot of back end data tracking that happens,” Ms. McPeak said, adding that she doesn’t ever see social media ceasing to exist.
“You’ll see it become more and more integrated with reality,” she said.
Ms. Hanasono said social media websites are pressured by parent companies to bring in profit by strategically working to keep users loyal to the brand. She mentioned the use of data algorithms that connect like-minded people who share similar values and perspectives, which could limit potential diverse viewpoints.
“We need to be very critical in messages being shared,” she said.
‘A calm and modest life’
Back in my living room, the album stops spinning. It’s time to flip to Side B, and I open my eyes.
There’s a torn-out newspaper clip sitting on the coffee table in front of the couch of a story about Albert Einstein’s theory of happiness in a note scribbled to a bellboy in 1922 at a Tokyo hotel. The quote itself struck me more than the $1.3 million it sold for at an auction in October.
“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”
I look at my two dogs sleeping comfortably on the floor. The television is off, and it’s already dark outside at 6 p.m.
And in that brief moment I was at peace.