What Would I Do Without Social Media (For Two Weeks)?
Illustrated by Van Nhan Bui
This might sound like the opening line of a joke, but it isn't:
Why did the students take a break from social media?
It was a Tuesday evening early in the fall of 2016. I teach at Dawson College, an English-language CEGEP in Montreal, where I wear two hats––one as an English and Creative Writing teacher, and the other as a coordinator for an interdisciplinary initiative called S.P.A.C.E. (Sciences Participating with Arts and Culture in Education), which offers students from
diverse academic backgrounds the chance to get together and experiment with ideas.
In my almost decade coordinating this initiative, students have proposed all kinds of innovative ideas: enlarge images of human cells to make wallpaper; crochet strange geometric shapes; engineer a bridge out of popsicle sticks and ordinary glue able to withstand five tons of weight; or, the most ambitious, arrange over a hundred squares of painted Plexiglas, like puzzle pieces, on a giant rectangular light box to artistically re-create a scientific photograph of the universe. (This feat of engineering, art and science currently illuminates the corridor outside the office of Dawson’s Director General.)
This Tuesday evening, though, a student suggested an idea that was beyond anything I’d ever heard. She was dressed in black and introduced herself as Pascale. Pushing her hair back from her face, she said,
"I'm thinking of quitting social media. Cold turkey. As an experiment. And I thought some other people here might want to join me. Afterwards we could all write about our experience."
In the circle we were sitting in, another student looked up self-consciously and turned their phone face down in their lap.
"What would we do if we couldn’t be on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat?” Pascale said. “I’m curious what I would do.”
The other student began fidgeting with their phone, spinning it around and around against their leg.
As a teacher, I was used to watching students in class tap on their phones surreptitiously under their desks, or in the computer lab hide Facebook behind their Word documents. And I knew the pull my own phone exerted on me. So naturally I was intrigued.
I asked what had inspired this idea?
"I've fallen into a vicious cycle,” Pascale said. “I feel the usual insecurity about whether I am doing enough, or the right things, with my life. So I go on social media to look at what other people are doing. But everyone on these sites projects their ideal self, so I wind up feeling even more discouraged and inadequate. After an excessive number of hours, I shut my laptop, but I still feel this insecurity. So I pick up my phone and keep staring at more pictures of people who seem to be living the best life ever.”
She looked at the young woman sitting beside her, who looked back knowingly.
"I spoke with some friends, and I realized I'm not the only one having a hard time on social media. It was funny, actually, how we all wanted to talk about how much we were struggling.”
The young woman beside Pascale nodded.
“I want to challenge myself to face the things that are stressing me out in my real life. To not avoid them.”
People shifted in their chairs. They glanced around the circle at each other.
Another student leaned forward.
“Oh, I so need to quit,” he said. “Social media, and also video games. I can spend so much time playing video games. You have no idea.”
The young woman beside Pascale lightly bit her fingernail. “Yeah, I kinda need to quit, too.”
“I could never stop checking Instagram,” someone else said flatly.
“Tumblr is how I share my artwork with others, so I need to be on it,” a person across the circle said.
"I grab for my phone whenever I feel anxious," a student next to them said. "It's gotten almost scary. It’s like I’m running all the time from what I’m feeling.”
“I have been wanting to read A Murder of Quality by John Le Carré since high school,” said the young man who had mentioned video games. “If I quit social media for even a little while, I would totally have the time.”
The discussion continued. Like Pascale, I was surprised how eager people seemed to be to have this conversation. Finally, I asked for a show of hands.
Who wanted to take a break from social media and write about the results?
Pascale’s hand went up, along with four others: the young woman beside her, her friend Maya; the young man who talked about video games, Ross; and a couple of other students.
“This is going to be hard core,” Ross said, with what sounded like a note of pride. Pascale and Maya agreed. There would be tough moments, but they would be there to support each other.
I smiled. A break from social media was turning, paradoxically, into a social activity, a group adventure into the unknown.
The rest of the semester, the students brainstormed the parameters for the experiment. Was Facebook Messenger considered social media? Or was it just a form of texting? Could other distractions, such as video games, be included?
And how long would be a good length of time off? One student proposed a week, which seemed long to everyone. Another student said that if the idea of a week was making them anxious, they should stop for at least two.
They waited for the new year to start their experiment. It seemed fitting to begin at the same time that other people were also trying to break old habits and form new ones.
Then, on Wednesday, January 11th, 2017, at the stroke of midnight, they logged off of social media. For two weeks.
As might have been expected, they began to experience withdrawal symptoms. But the intensity and nature of some of their symptoms was surprising. They were sharing their experiences with each other via group email, and Ross wrote about feeling “drowsy and zoned out” and at the same time “anxiously pacing around the house, like a chain smoker unable to take that longed-for puff.” Without a phone or video game controller in his hands, he began twisting his hair, he said. He realized he could be spending the time reading or writing, both of which he loved to do, but it was only the first day of the experiment, and he still felt “too wired to focus on anything.”
“That sounds rough, Ross,” Maya emailed him. “I’m in the same boat.”
At midnight, Maya had deleted Facebook off her phone, and she described waking up the next morning with an unnerving feeling of absence:
“Lying in bed, I tap the empty square on my phone where the app used to be. In the dull pecking of my fingers at the glass, I can feel the extent to which scrolling has become as woven into my daily routine as waking up, eating and sleeping. The apps have become extensions of my very own fingertips. They crave to be checked. Not checking them feels like cutting off a limb, like walking around with a phantom limb."
“Wow,” Ross emailed back. “That’s heavy.”
“Don’t worry, Maya,” Pascale added. “It’ll get better.”
Reading the term “phantom limb,” I wondered whether Maya was literally experiencing the sensation of a phantom limb or whether she was using the expression more as a poetic flourish, a metaphor to capture what it felt like to be “cut off” from social media. Then, months later a student I had never met walked up to me in the Warren. G. Flowers Gallery at Dawson College, where excerpts from Pascale’s and Maya’s and Ross’ emails were displayed on the walls alongside other experiments, as part of the annual S.P.A.C.E. exhibition. This student said he had read about their social media experiment on the S.P.A.C.E website and tried a two-week break of his own. He had wanted to see if he could do it, and also to feel what it would be like.
So what was it like, I asked?
“It was so weird," he said. "It was like I had a phantom limb.”
To help herself cope with the withdrawal, Pascale turned to meditation. "The first day or two off social media I felt very jittery and disconnected from myself––my thoughts running all over the place yet my body lethargic. But in the past few days I've been paying attention to my breathing, and afterwards I've been feeling calm, awake and in harmony with my body."
I had discovered meditation around the same age as Pascale, the summer I turned 21, on a solo bike trip to Ireland. That was 1996. The first personal computers, with their monochrome green graphics, had appeared only about a decade earlier. I was still several years away from using email. And Facebook would not be launched for another eight years, when I would be almost 30. On that trip, I travelled without a cell phone or laptop, because I didn’t own either one and neither did my friends. Other than calling my parents once from a payphone to let them know I was alive and dropping a few postcards in the mail, I wasn’t in contact with anyone back home. I wrote down my observations and reflections in my diary without anyone’s thumbs up in mind. I took photos on a small film camera, though there was no way to see how any of them looked until I got them developed back in Montreal. And the only wall I posted a few pics on was the one in my living room.
Like many people in their early 20s, and at all ages, I was struggling, not only to make it up those hills but also to come to terms with the things that were stressing me out in my real life, as Pascale had said. Family. Relationships. Career. Life. When I stumbled across the only Buddhist monastery in Ireland, there were many other people there struggling in the same way.
Recalling all this reminded me that being present in mind and body has been a challenge for people since long before the advent of social media. Still, I wondered if I would have been able to struggle in as sustained and searching a way if I had had a myriad of escape hatches in the form of colorful square apps constantly available at my fingertips. Nowadays, even though I grew up without social media, ignoring distractions takes me more discipline than it used to if I have my phone in my back pocket.
As my students’ social media experiment progressed, it was this basic challenge of being present, more than withdrawal, that they seemed to be reckoning with. In part, that meant being present with themselves. “What I find hardest,” Pascale wrote, “is my inability to just sit with myself. To feel insecure, bored, anxious, lonely. To let myself have an existential crisis. I’m realizing that social media is often, for me, a means of instant (and very temporary) gratification. I log into it almost automatically without addressing what is really bothering me or finding long-lasting solutions. But I don’t want to remain oblivious to my own moods and emotions. As overwhelming as it can be, it’s been a relief to be more aware of myself.”
“I can really relate to that, Pascale,” Maya replied to her.
In part, that also meant being present with others. Ross found himself lingering longer at parties and other social gatherings, now that he couldn’t escape into what he called “overlong periods of technological isolationism.” “I’m also happy to report that I finally read A Murder of Quality––it was great!––and this week I even wrote the screenplay for a short film.”
“Yay about the book!” Pascale said. “And I would love to read the screenplay.”
For Maya, hanging out with her friends without social media took getting used to, and even towards the end of the two weeks it still did. “I’m gaining control over the urge to check my phone, bit by bit, but it’s still there. That’s one of the worst sides of social media, I guess, the way it tugs at you whether you like it or not, so you always feel half plugged into it.”
When the conversation among her friends would die down or if she suddenly felt bored or awkward, her fingers would twitch, even just to click on the Instagram app on her phone and exit it right away without logging in, just to feel the reassurance that if she really wanted to she could.
It didn’t make it easier to leave her phone in her bag when her friends were sitting there tapping on theirs, either. “I’ve noticed how much my friends check their phones when we’re together, too. Which, in a way, connects us. We all use social media, we all escape with it.”
A few weeks after the end of their break, the students and I met in my office to debrief. We returned to the reasons why they had participated, and whether the experiment had in any way, large or small, changed the way they looked at and related to social media.
Ross talked about having wanted to see if he would be more productive and social without his technologies of choice, and also simply if he could keep himself away from them. What he took from the experiment, he said, was a re-affirmation that reading and writing were passions he didn’t want to lose. (A couple of months later, he was accepted into Concordia’s undergraduate program in English and Creative Writing.) There was a point, he had realized, where “technological isolationism” could turn from a soothing cocoon into a straitjacket, and he was more aware now of when he was tipping past that point. He was also more keen to go out to parties.
Maya said she had participated to prove to herself that she could, and because she had liked the idea that nobody expected her to do it. She had also gone to elementary school with Pascale, and wanted to support her friend, she talked about the “connectedness and security” social media offered. Whenever she felt uncomfortable, it was there. It gave her and her friends a world to share in together, even if that world “entwined” them in it. Instagram could “immortalize” experiences, such as a trip she had taken to Honduras, allowing her to re-live and reflect on them years later.
“But there is a sour side. My insecurities about my life, as Pascale said, are made worse by people’s idealized, perfect profiles. Also I realized I’ve completely lost my ability to keep myself busy on my own. I have a harder time than I thought just being in a moment. I think in the past I convinced myself that the negative aspects of social media were dwarfed by what I enjoyed about it. But I realize I’m more ‘dependent’ on it than I want to be.”
Pascale was a little sad the two weeks were over, as if she had just come home from a meditation retreat to a world of distraction. Not checking her phone was more difficult, she said, without the challenge of the experiment. But that rewarding feeling she had felt––of sitting with her emotions until they passed, which she had learned they would––was motivating her. “I’m able to resist the impulse more often, and I’m still meditating, which feels like building a muscle. I’m hoping that with practice, letting myself just feel what I feel will become easier.”
“It’s also really rewarding,” she said, “that an idea I had resonated with other people, and that they were willing to try to experiment with me.”
The most rewarding moments of the entire process for me came recently, this past summer, many months after their experiment was over. First, Pascale emailed everyone who had participated. “I’m going to BC!” she said. “And I won’t be using social media while I’m there. I’m putting that out there in case anyone wants to take a social media break again. You can join me for the full three weeks, or a fraction of that if you’d like. Let me know. ”
Later in the summer, Maya emailed as well. “Hola de Costa Rica! I just wanted to let you know that I was thinking about our experiment, about the inability to live in a moment because of the looming appeal of the "connected world.” It took me being in a distant country to realize that comparing my life to people’s profiles on social media is so damn pointless. I am so happy where I am that I couldn't care less about what anyone else is doing. It's nice, finally.”
I was impressed. These students had harnessed our social nature as human beings, banding together to resist the seemingly irresistible pull of social media, which, they realized, is designed not only to cater to our social nature but also to exploit it, in order to attract our eyeballs to the advertisements that flash among our posts. By bonding with each other, they had helped each other to disconnect from what they themselves saw as a kind of addiction, one they could feel had gotten in the way of their living and learning.
And now here they were talking like taking breaks from social media was their thing. No big deal, just something they liked to do once in a while. Something they had come up with on their own and experimented with together. Something they could be proud of and continue to share with each other.
I wanted to give them a thumbs up.
View Pascale's challenge to others to join her in an experiment in giving up social media for two weeks here.