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I’m Finally Quitting Trying to Quit Social Media
January 10, 2024

I’m Finally Quitting Trying to Quit Social Media

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Quitting Social Media Is Great. It’s Just Not for Me., This year, I’m striving toward something better than that., How to quit quitting social media, and try something that might actually stick.

In January of last year, while visiting a friend in Florida, I found myself staring at a cluster of palm trees. As the fronds blew in the wind, they produced an almost ASMR-like sensation in my brain. I felt kind of high.

But I wasn’t! I was just taking a break from Instagram. Instead of looking at palm trees on my phone, like I usually do, I was looking at the literal palm trees around me. They weren’t perfect, the way that palm trees online are—but, wow, they were a marvel.

We all know that social media can tank your mental health and destroy your brain. I—perhaps like you?—have fantasized about fully quitting one platform or another, or leaving the whole enterprise behind for good, for quite some time now. And yet, after that vacation, I signed back into Instagram (OK, OK: I signed in briefly during it; I ran an ultramarathon on the trip and I couldn’t resist bragging). I’ve sworn off Twitter and its descendants, only to realize that those places are really, really useful for my job. I’ve even thought I was quitting Facebook for good … thought it so strongly that I wrote about doing so … only to realize that Facebook really does have its merits after all (groups; remembering birthdays). God help me, I’ve even begun posting on LinkedIn, just a little bit. I mean, I want people in my professional network to read the stories I edit.

In my fantasy life, I do not use social media. There, I am a calmer person, using my newfound swaths of abundant, unlocked brain space to read and write.

Back in reality, though? Well, these platforms are just part of the fabric of how we interact with the world now, even if they can also serve to make us feel distracted, dull, and generally worse. Quitting them entirely would take a lot of effort, and I think would ultimately serve to make me less connected with the world, not more tuned into it. So I’ve developed a new strategy—not to hold the bar so high that quitting is the goal. To lower it, and to make peace with that.

After I got back from that Florida trip, I devised the following truce with Instagram: I don’t have it on my phone. This naturally cuts down on the time I spend on the platform dramatically. No scrolling in bed (well, unless I take my laptop in bed, which, yes, I do constantly). No looking at pictures of other people’s beautiful palm-tree vacations while I’m freezing on a subway platform. It also reduces the amount of time I spend posting on Instagram. I have to really want to post something. A picture from my wedding? Yes. A picture of my dog in a fluffy coat? Well, I’ll just send that to the family group chat.

Lots of people, it turns out, have these little truces. ‘My relationship with social media hinges on boundaries and balance,’ says Candice Lim, co-host of MediaDownloader’s ICYMI, about internet culture.
She has two X/Twitter accounts, a professional one and one ‘where I repost Lee Pace thirst traps.’ She also keeps her phone set to grayscale, on the advice of a tech-y friend, though she’s not really sure if this helps. ‘My Twitter timeline is still funny in black and white!’ (Instagram, less so.)

Leigh Stein, the author of the novel Self Care, a satire of Girlboss-y influencers, practices a ‘Tech Sabbath’: ‘I turn off my phone completely from Friday night to around Saturday evening, Saturday late-afternoon.’ If there’s an emergency, people can reach her through her husband. It’s something she’s hoping to do more regularly in 2024.

Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist based in Tennessee, is trying to use social media mindfully, mostly by actively noticing when she’s starting to tense up or grind her teeth. She’ll talk herself through the feeling: ‘Hey, what’s that about, do you need a break?’ And she’ll try to not go online to endlessly look at information about the news and other things that dominated discussions at work. She’ll let herself read up a little bit, and then tell herself ‘you need to really do something for you.’

Arthur C. Brooks, who, among many things, co-hosts a podcast with Oprah, tells me he will simply have other people run his social media accounts when he knows it’s going ‘to start getting at me, like when I have a book coming out.’ His advice for the rest of us who don’t have that option: Keep it to 30 minutes a day, all in one sitting.

I also got the advice to strictly limit social media use from Anna Lembke, though what that limit and use looks like will vary person to person. Lembke does not have a truce with social media: She avoids it, and in fact only got a smartphone recently, and only uses the device for work purposes. How does she maintain this almost monk-like existence? She’s the author of Dopamine Nation, as well as the chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, where some of the patients have issues with, yes, social media, so she has a deeper understanding than most of us as to how it can warp our sense of the world.

Despite these credentials and personal habits, she is oriented toward getting people to a place where they can use social media in healthy moderation, if that’s what they choose. She often has patients entirely cut out problem apps for a month, which can ‘reset reward pathways’ in the brain, making it naturally easier to reduce use going forward. ‘You want to start with a dopamine fast, and then create a very specific plan,’ she explains. If you never ‘reset’ your brain, she theorizes, you might find yourself making a huge effort to cut back while still constantly craving a fix, which is a shitty middle ground to be in.

Moderation isn’t the starting point for everyone. In 2019, Kevin Roose, a technology columnist at the New York Times, wrote a piece titled ‘How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain‘ in which he detailed the strict boundaries he set around phone use in order to improve his relationship with it. It was … working, and then, well, the pandemic happened. ‘All of a sudden, minimizing screen time didn’t seem like the biggest priority,’ he told me.

Eventually, instead of trying to treat his phone like an ‘obstacle to be overcome,’ he started thinking about what his phone was useful for. He ditched what he calls the ‘barrier apps’ that limit screen time, and now he has a folder with a green check mark that contains apps like Kindle and Audible, and one with a red flag emoji that contains apps like TikTok; the categorization serves as a gentle reminder to not get sucked in. He also had a kid, which his says helps keep him accountable. ‘He’s watching, and so I want to model good behavior for him.’

Liz Moody, the author of 100 Way to Change Your Life, likewise doesn’t limit herself to a set amount of time—but she’s strict about not scrolling right after she wakes up, and right before she goes to bed. Her book even includes the suggestion to literally change your life by simply keeping your phone out of your bedroom. Many people’s reaction to this is so outsized that she already has responses to common excuses to do otherwise (‘But I use it as an alarm!’ ‘You can buy an alarm clock for less than $10.’).

Moody also recommends asking yourself, ‘What am I trying to achieve in the time I’m spending on social media?’ and then unfollowing accounts ruthlessly that don’t fit that goal. (‘What if looking at other peoples’ beach vacations makes me relaxed? I ask Moody. ‘I just think you need to be incredibly honest with yourself,’ she says.)

By the time I talked to Moody, I’d already unfollowed most of the true influencers who were making my life miserable, so I did a round of culling on Instagram that involved something I’d come to realize was sapping my energy in a more specific way: the type of person who I once knew in real life, but don’t any longer. Sometimes it’s nice to keep in touch passively on Instagram. But some of these people’s posts were—crucially—just making me kind of irritated, even gossipy and bitchy. If there’s one thing that I really hope to quit about social media this year, it’s hate-following.

I felt kind of guilty about this. Why are my reactions to these random acquaintances making me feel so catty? A conversation with Matt Bell, a professor of creative writing at Arizona State University and the author of Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts, helped me see this differently. He follows a lot of authors, and he put it this way: It’s just easy to dislike the version of a person that shows up on a platform, even someone whom you like in any other form (one-on-one conversation, at parties, in their longer, more considered written work, etc.). If social media ‘didn’t have mute and block, I wouldn’t be able to use it,’ he says, later adding, ‘to show someone your mute list would be like—a kind of intimacy I maybe have with no one.’ You can mute the people who, if you told them to their face, would be upset to learn you muted them. We are, in fact, still allowed our privacy, even if we have to remember to claim it.

One thing I learned while writing this piece is that actual research doesn’t have as much to offer when it comes to categorizing the benefits of fully quitting these platforms. That’s because ‘it’s difficult to find participants who will agree to be randomly assigned the task of dropping social media forever,’ wrote John Malouff, a professor of behavioral science at the University of New England in Australia, in a piece on the Conversation. But on a recent phone call, he told me that he’s working on studying the success of various interventions that people use to cut down on scrolling. And he had something to tell me, in the meantime, about what the basics of psychology say about quitting: ‘If you strip something away, you create a void,’ he explained. Twitter isn’t (just) silly or stupid—you are going there because it’s giving you something. The key is finding what that is and finding a reasonable way to get it, maybe a little bit by using a Twitter replacement, and a little bit by looking elsewhere in the world for it.

So, this year, along with yet again setting more boundaries for myself around scrolling, I’m also trying to fill my life up with the kind of stuff that naturally takes me away from my phone. More books, more yoga, more restorative yoga, specifically, where you just lie down in a room in various shapes for an hour. The kind of stuff that’s fulfilling—but too boring to go online and brag about.


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