Opening social media every day to see news of death and destruction can be exhausting. And then there's the discourse, the unwanted comments, the public shaming, the virtue signaling, the lives of others constantly shoved in your face.
Over the summer, I couldn't take it anymore. I'd been mulling it over for weeks, but knowing that it was an unwritten part of my job, I'd been resisting it for some time. I deactivated, without warning. First went Twitter, then Facebook, then I hastily deleted all social media apps off my iPhone.
"Your friends will miss you," Facebook told me. I sat at my desk in shock that an app would dare tell me how to live my life. Fuck this. I really am done.
For the first time in a long time, I could breathe. I was by myself. The noise of discourse and unsolicited comments on my every move and outrage were silenced.
I was only reachable via email and phone, only by those who already had my contact info. Those who did wasted no time. I became subject to a number of concerned emails and text messages—and even some IRL "Are you OK? I saw you aren't on Twitter anymore."
But I was OK, more than I'd been at any time in the last year of my life even. I was no longer obsessively opening and closing social media apps and was able to process current events without seeing people endlessly and sometimes pointlessly opine about them.
Recently, after hesitantly reactivating all my social media accounts, I reached out to therapist and head of clinical development at Talkspace, Nicole Amesbury, to make sense of why people seemed so pressed about me taking a break. Talkspace is an online therapy company that has a program meant to treat people with dependency on social media.
Why were people so concerned over me taking a break from something that is known to be mentally taxing? And with it being innately part of my job, as it is for many people, was it OK for me to step away and take a breath that I so desperately needed?
"If you're off of it, people start to wonder if you're sick, [they] haven't heard from you," Amesbury told me. "It can be very flattering: 'We miss your posts, you don't like my [posts] anymore.' It's not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it's not going away—you shouldn't necessarily fight it, but you should find out how to make it work for you."
It became clear to me when I kept accidentally grabbing my phone the first few days of my break to check my Twitter app, which no longer existed, that I had been experiencing a loss of control over my impulse to refresh my timelines. Amesbury said that this is one sign that could point to problematic social media use.
"I think a lot of people experiment with what feels comfortable to them," Amesbury said. "When you start to feel like you're losing control, that's when problems start to occur."
Even when I started to feel isolated, though, I knew I was avoiding the witnessing of other people's trauma, of words and images that, for want of a less cliché word, triggered me. Especially since I'd been grieving the suicide of a close friend in the last year, Twitter hasn't exactly a safe space for me considering the expression of suicidal ideation seems to be commonplace among young people on it—"I wanna die lol" in thousands of iterations. It's a dark humour that facilitates connection with others who feel the same; except, it's not all that funny when you recently lost someone to suicide.
"People [are] talking about the president's Twitter account, how people are talking to each other, and some of the Facebook Live things that have happened that are quite traumatic," Amesbury said. That said, in the context of all the mess that we're experiencing, is social media really good for society?
Whenever anyone would ask me how my social media break was going, I would describe it as "bliss." I was alone with my thoughts, at peace, without the pressure of getting into stressful discussions with strangers on the internet. I saw more friends, I took more photos with no intention of posting them anywhere to be validated. I took trips to waterfalls, spent time with the person I love. But throughout all of this, it was hard to completely escape when people I was with were on it, or when friends would send me links to tweets containing memes or news.
Amesbury pointed to how a number of people are opting to fully unplug and take social media breaks while on vacation from work. But if you don't have the vacay time and still find yourself having to be on social media, she has a recommendation.
"I think everybody is dealing with it," she said, recommending what she referred to as the "20-20-20 rule." Amesbury said "If you're 20 minutes in front of the screen, after that you should take 20 seconds and look 20 feet away. Look at something completely different not to do with the computer screen at all, and give yourself a breather."
Though the 20-20-20 rule is traditionally for eye health, Amesbury said, it can be helpful for developing mindfulness when using social media. "Stretch, look away, think, OK, did I get what I wanted to get from my experience of logging on?" she said.
Even though I felt a pace behind others in the news cycle, still, it was a feeling I revelled for many moments throughout my social media break: disconnect. After a week, though, I found myself reactivating Facebook in order to do my job properly. (Facebook is basically a modern Yellow Pages book, and therefore less avoidable for me.) But, I took over a month off from Twitter—a really big deal for me since I haven't deactivated since I started using it in 2009. Every day, I want to pull the plug again and leave the "psychic crack-cocaine," as fellow VICE writer Drew Brown calls it, behind.
Though I've replugged, I do so with my own personal boundaries in tact. I usually don't get on Twitter except during business hours; I don't get as personal in my posts (for now); the Twitter app is not on my phone; I have muted all social media notifications; I do my best to use email and text message over communicating on social media. I have plenty of words muted, I unfollowed some people, and I opted to turn my quality filter on.
But as much as I hate this shit with every atom of my being, it's still a part of my life and job. In all likelihood, it might be for you too.
"If anybody thought that social media was shallow or that it was some passing fancy, or that this was just a way people showed their egos, I think they'd be wrong," Amesbury told me.
"People use it in incredibly personal ways, moving and touching, and it has just as much ability to do great and incredible things as it does harm."