In January 2015 I went on a personal social media fast, which for me meant staying off of Facebook and Instagram. No activity or logging in allowed for the duration of the month. In the spirit of commitment, I removed the sites from my computer bookmarks, took the apps off my phone, announced the plan publicly, and for fun also set my profile pics to show “offline” status.
I have been back “online” for well near two months now, which has given me plenty of time to watch for new or reemerging patterns, and also dig in deeper with the results of the experiment in order to more thoughtfully articulate my experience, insights, and the lessons gleaned therefrom.
Why Bother Fasting?
I think most of us are at least aware of the ways in which social media influences our behavior, but without stepping back to get a clear view of it all, we aren’t likely to be the ones in command. If you have never had a solid 100% break from the social media sites you use (on purpose within your normal routine, not just those times when you don’t have WiFi access!), then do yourself a favor and try a fast.
Whether it be for a day, a week, or a month, any amount of unplugging will be sure give your psyche a probably much needed rest. It will provide a clearer perspective on both the negative and positive aspects of using social media, so that you can make more conscious decisions about doing so. Perhaps you would not do anything differently as a result, but with openness, curiosity, and a little courage to step outside of your comfort zone to test it, you might be surprised at what you end up uncovering about yourself and your habits.
When you consider the value of a fast in dietary terms, it’s easier to see the value in abstaining for a time from something so pervasive in our daily lives. I have fasted from sugar and processed foods, and from all animal food products; fasting from social media led to similar personal benefits.
A food fast gives us the opportunity to cleanse the body, to re-set habits, to retreat in the opposite direction of indulgence. It brings “normal” eating behavior into focus and under scrutiny, serving to disconnect the thought from the action from the consequence (e.g. craving a cookie, eating it, feeling the effect), so as to observe the self without this chain of sensation clouding awareness. It inspires a refreshed perspective and ultimately more mindful way of viewing what we do and why.
Kicking The Habit
The changes I experienced with the fast were subtle initially, but what I noticed right off was just how many things popped up throughout the day that went concurrent with the urge to share it online. I definitely enjoyed getting to simply observe and then allow those impulses to melt away without acting upon them. As I settled into the not-sharing, my mind felt more relaxed in the moment. I didn’t have to make a decision of whether to post about something or not, which relieved some mental energy.
Lacking the temptation to check up on alerts and newsfeeds, I saw a definite improvement in my ability to focus on tasks and follow them through to completion without interruption, since I wasn’t regularly “taking a quick break” to look in on what was happening online. As the urge to check for new activity began to subside, I realized that the habitual behavior had been significantly short-circuiting my attention span.
It seems innocent enough, especially with discretionary time at home or during a work day, to jump on, dabble around, zone out. Yet I came to see how social media had often been a kind of crutch to slow up and avoid engaging directly with more immediate, consequential activity. It provided a mental breather and ever-available buffer between me and taking action or making a decision. While this helped at times to take the edge off, by the same token it dulled my presence of mind and frequently interrupted (or prevented) the momentum of actual physical actions. This realization was profound for me in its implication of how mental resources can be frittered away by excessive social media use.
While fasting, I appreciated the overall calm and quiet that came with being off the grid. It brought along with it a sense of real privacy that I didn’t know was missing. Of course I’m always at liberty to keep private what is happening in my personal life (and generally do), but without any option to publicize it whatsoever, I could do things and go places without even considering announcing it to the world. The pressure was wholly off. It was a pleasant change of pace and an unexpected little sweetness. I slowed down. I spent considerably less time online, finding fun and entertainment elsewhere.
One thing I have noticed, both before and after the fast, is the extent to which I can get sucked into social media and how there is an addictive pleasure to being on there. It may be more entertaining, or else less demanding, than the activities available in my physical environment, so I’ll keep at it for unnecessarily lengthy periods or return to it too often. Although I’m enjoying myself, the fact is my body gradually becomes strained with tight muscles from hunching on my phone or computer too long; my eyes grow sore and tired from staring at the screens; and my mind gets rather burnt out as well. The cumulative effects are a warning against prolonged or too frequent activity. It’s just not very healthy.
It’s deceptively easy to get on my accounts “real quick” and then spend way more time than I originally intend to do, and nothing else gets done. While I may be posting things that matter to me, chatting with people I care about, reading interesting articles, or just futzing around having fun, it nevertheless fills up spaces in my days that would ask me to be still, quiet, and reflective instead—or to otherwise renew my focus on other matters, clarify what’s next, and get some bigger/better things accomplished.
When I ignore this call to attention, and feed the habit instead, I feel inner conflict start to build up. My body tries to tell me. The back of my mind whispers. Get off, log out. You’re draining your precious energy and wasting your time. You are missing real life.
Social media has a sneaky tendency to generate enough of a feeling of productivity and connection that we feel justified using it regularly, but ultimately we can all pull the plug and find much more powerful, enriching activities for ourselves and modes of communication with one another. So why do we network this way? The answer to that is for each individual to define for themselves, but for me I found the answers by fasting and having some “Ahas!” through the experience.
Finding The Light
Despite the observations so far speaking against social media, the fast actually renewed my appreciation for what interacting and sharing online can be. At its best social media is both tool and toy: It is a playground where I get to goof off and have fun with friends, and a positive creative outlet for me to tune my voice through writing, hone my eye for the good in life, and generally catch the light in my world, sending it outward through the prism of social media to increase the light in others’.
Not having this expressive outlet during the fast, some things rather lessened in significance when I could not share them. They came into being and faded back out, existing briefly for my own appreciative eyes and heart, but having no extended life beyond that, no farther reach. It was good to be present and relish experiences for their own sake, yet I discovered that through generating positive ripples by sharing, I derive even greater meaning in life. Little delights, humorous incidents, glimpses of beauty, flashes of insight—these acquire added depth, value, and pleasure when I can put them out there to brighten someone else’s day; to gladden, inspire or empower another.
Through social media I have realized that being a source of positivity sings to me of my higher path and purpose in life. It is very motivating and fulfilling to know that by sharing the things that make me happy, that move, excite, and uplift me, I can be a catalyst, in however small a way, for someone else to feel better. It’s mutually supportive and reinforcing to do this, too, as staying positive online keeps me consistent and accountable in being that way offline. Sharing what makes me feel good, that reflects more of who I am and what I am about, keeps me on track in daily life to walk the walk and talk the talk.
Without access to Facebook or Instagram, I did catch myself texting what would have been posts to various friends and family. It was interesting to consider the specific people who would most appreciate or benefit from it, and reaching out to them directly. It forced me to connect with more individuals instead of the collective; another point in favor of fasting. Still, it’s enjoyable to capture and curate the little things of life via social media, and then letting it do its thing for whomever it may bring a smile or generate good vibes… even if it means for just me when I browse through.
The stuff that makes its way to my Facebook page or Instagram channel is as much for me as anybody else. I like having these digital records of my days and getting to look back on that. They act as part photo album, part scrapbook, part notebook/journal. With the public side of it, there is the added function of keeping family and friends in the loop and keeping us in touch. While it may be only peripherally at times, it’s nevertheless good to have them there. 🙂
Self vs. Selfie
One kind of funny—and revealing—thing that came out of the fast was a lack of selfies. I logged back in at the start of February, went to change my “offline” profile images, and discovered that I was almost completely absent from the pictures of the previous month. There were only a few shots of me, all with other people. I’ll admit to sometimes conducting mini photo shoots with the idle intention of nailing a good new profile pic. “Hey I look a bit of alright! Maybe it will reflect in a picture…” (Maybe not, heheh.) Without social media, however, capturing images of myself lost its appeal considerably. Once I got back on, guess what? So did the selfies return! Alas, when in Rome… ;P
I think there is something both empowering and disempowering to the self-focus engendered by social media. It taps into our innate desire to be heard, seen, and validated by others—desire that is natural and human, and can be enjoyable to fulfill, yet can certainly become distorted if not kept in check. Whether uploading a pic of ourselves or posting about something we did, there is a line to walk between personal expression and public performance; between healthy self-love and vanity (or, conversely, insecurity); between sharing for fun and from the heart and doing it for attention, from boredom or out of habit.
When we’re constantly immersed in the social media sphere, it may not always be certain where we’re coming from with it, what our motivations are. Thus I think it is important to stop now and then and evaluate our relationship to social media. Is it enhancing our lives, adding pleasure, supporting who we are and the direction we’re choosing to go, or is it merely distracting us from the real work of living?
To that effect, the biggest and most valuable fasting take-away for me was the heightened ability to discern between impulse and inspiration when it comes to online socializing.
Impulse vs. Inspiration
These two categories cover a range of sensations that help me determine when to get on or off, and indicate whether social media is a worthwhile use of my time at the moment or a waste of it.
Acting on the level of impulse, for example, is often marked in varying degrees by feelings of uncertainty, stress, hesitation, self-consciousness, irritation, nervousness, seriousness, a sense of triviality, tension, contraction, mindlessness, dullness, and/or boredom.
There’s not a lot of heart behind the impulse. It’s the zombie or robot self posting, liking, and sharing because it can, not because it cares. It’s zipping swiftly and dazedly through the feeds, without truly absorbing what’s there. The online experience can be a rather shallow and noisy affair when it is done this way.
By contrast, showing up from a sense of inspiration makes the experience so much lighter and more lucid. It is characterized by playfulness, humor, honesty, authenticity, joy, passion, flow, awareness, connection, and confidence; it feels expansive, exciting, pleasurable, easy, soothing, amusing, compelling, empowering. It’s the human self being true and having fun.
These are the distinctions that I watch for when I’m on the ‘book or using Insta. When I start to feel the inspiration dry up, or it’s missing altogether, I either shake it off and get back to being human or else robot dance my way off stage. With the impulse/inspiration barometer in effect, I’m becoming comfortable with checking out as needed and good at recognizing those instances when I’m online and doing nothing but spinning my wheels.
It is a balancing act to be sure, but I now feel more in control of how and when I participate online since the fast. Reflecting, analyzing, and clarifying for myself what it means to use social media, what is important about it and what is not, has me better equipped at minimizing the downsides while amplifying the ups. With increased awareness and deeper understanding, I am learning how to apply social media more proactively and constructively in my life, rather than letting it use me by being passive or compulsive with it.
Be A Human Being
Social media trains the brain to be incessantly distracted. If we expect our minds to be applied to greater potential, it is necessary to counter-balance that conditioning often. Occasional fasting, regular meditation, or simply practicing mindfulness can help us be better arbiters of social media’s presence in our lives. I find that making a firm decision to stay offline for a short period of time, an afternoon or a day, helps immensely in relaxing and enlivening my mind and regaining center.
I only regularly use a small fraction of the social media avenues available. The number and type of platforms out there seem to be continually growing, and it has become our society’s primary way of communicating and connecting on virtually all levels. That definitely bears examination.
Whether you choose to fast from social media or not, do a bit of self-scanning and get a feel for where you’re at with it. Even if you don’t post much, but you log in frequently—why? How often do you slip into robot mode when you’re on? Do you pay attention to what social media does for you vs. to you? Does it drain you or uplift you? Does it serve any meaningful role in your life? Or is it mostly filling a void, killing some time? Does it support the real you or hide it? Are you giving it priority in your day-to-day over taking responsibility for and making progress in your real life? Are your feeds full of low-priority noise or negativity? Is it truly enjoyable to be on there?
To ensure you’re in a healthy, human place while plugged in to social media is to stay connected within. Notice how and when you approach it and pay attention to the times you feel “off”. Do what is necessary to remain grounded, and give yourself a chance to step back if you find yourself numbed up or bogged down by online socializing, relying heavily on others’ responses to you, or are too engrossed by the digital world to ever be fully present in your physical one.
We are here to experience life. Social media is a medium through which to share that together, but it is by no means the experience itself. Keep it in its place by engaging with it mindfully, bringing online the best you have to offer, and keeping your focus first and always on living fully and living well, offline. 🙂