A couple of years ago I wrote a brief post on a running blog about the steps I had taken to get the upper hand on my social media usage habit. Here is what I wrote:
“They are listed by the order in which I followed them, but the order is not important:
- Go running. (Optional, but this will help you accomplish the other steps)
- Remove the Messenger app from your phone.
- Remove the Facebook app from your phone.
- Make a personal rule that you cannot check Facebook on your phone’s browser, only on a desktop computer.
- Turn off all email notifications from Facebook.
“It took me about 18 months to follow all of these steps, and I can’t say that I regretted doing any of them. Similar steps could be taken for any other social network.
“Reclaim your life! Go running!”
There are many strategies to limit social media use to a particular time, place, or device. My wife sets a timer for 2 minutes before checking her newsfeed. I have a friend who doesn’t know his Facebook password. Whenever he wants to log on he has to ask his wife to type it in for him. That is an effective deterrent to overuse!
During his first year as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Russell M. Nelson extended two invitations to participate in a short break, or fast, from social media (see here and here). On one of those occasions, the General Women’s Session of the October 2018 General Conference, he explained: “The effect of your 10-day fast may surprise you. What do you notice after taking a break from perspectives of the world that have been wounding your spirit? Is there a change in where you now want to spend your time and energy? Have any of your priorities shifted—even just a little? I urge you to record and follow through with each impression.”
Social media services are tools. They are our servants, not our masters. The common approach to all of these strategies is to set rules or boundaries for yourself so that you don’t have on-demand access to social media — and that social media services don’t have on-demand access to you. Then follow those rules. It sounds simple, but it can be hard to do if you don’t have a clear understanding of what the goal is and why you want to achieve it.
Empty Calories and Culinary Hypocrisy
Social media consumption can be sort of like empty calories in your diet. Potato chips, candies, and other junk foods will fill you temporarily, but they don’t provide the nutrients that your body needs long term. It is possible to ingest far more calories than you expend in a day but still not get the basic vitamins and minerals. The time you spend scrolling through a newsfeed, pressing a “like” button here and there, can feel like you are fulfilling a need for social connection, but the feeling of connection is fleeting and the connections are weak.
We could make a similar analogy with monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is used as a food seasoning. Glutamate is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein. There are specialized receptors on your tongue for glutamate in your food, which produces the taste sensation called “umami” (Japanese for “delicious” or “tasty”). Adding MSG tricks your brain into thinking you are eating something with a lot of protein in it, but really it’s just a single amino acid which is nonessential in your diet because your body can synthesize glutamate. MSG is culinary hypocrisy, making your food pretend to be more nutritious than it really is. If MSG is the only amino acid in your food, then your body will not be able to synthesize the protein it needs to do its work.
In the same way, social media interactions can seem more impactful than they really are. If all you do is click on a “like” button, did you really interact with another human being in a meaningful way? And if your friends “like” your post, did that interaction really make an impact on you? This is the social equivalent of lacing your food with MSG, making you temporarily feel like you’ve had a meaningful interaction, but without actually making a real impact in anyone’s life.
Social connections are important to our sense of belonging and well-being, just like good nutrition is vital to our physical health, and when we feed our social connections with less meaningful interactions it can leave us socially malnourished. It should not surprise us that many studies have linked social media usage to depression (see Lin et al 2016, and Shensa et al 2017, etc.)
A Social Gospel
The prophet Isaiah described spiritual malnourishment in chapter 29 of his book, but the verse is also an apt description of how it can feel to spend too much time on social media:
“It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite: so shall the multitude of all the nations be, that fight against mount Zion” (Isaiah 29:8).
Jesus taught us to “love one another” and to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Being “reconciled to thy brother” is an important part of our preparation to worship the Lord. Those who are “called his people” are “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” and “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a social gospel. Following his teachings about how to treat each other not only feeds our social connections, it feeds our spirits.
A Thought Experiment
Imagine that it is a weekend or a holiday, and that you have some free time. You are sitting comfortably in your living room, and you decide to browse through your Facebook newsfeed. On the newsfeed you see the typical things you might expect: your old college friend is on vacation to some exotic place and having a great time, your cousin shared her daily cat meme, your brother posted something about bow hunting and a picture of him standing next to the carcass of some large mammal, a guy you worked with five years ago but haven’t seen since he quit the job posted something about his politics with which you disagree, your mom reposted some Mr. T meme, a woman that you don’t like just posted a negative comment under a post by your friend on the neighborhood group, a girl that lived down the street from you when you were a kid but which you haven’t seen since you were 15 years old just announced that she is having a baby, etc. You browse for two hours, liking about every fifth post you see and maybe commenting on every tenth one.
During those two hours you have multiple distractions, both within your device and in the house around you: two text messages, an email, and someone at the front door. After these interruptions you can’t think of anything else to do, so you pull out your phone again and browse Facebook some more. At some point one of your kids keeps trying to get your attention and eventually just leans heavily on your shoulder reading your Facebook feed with you, asking multiple times to watch all of the videos that you have no interest in seeing.
How do you feel after all of these social interactions?
Now imagine that instead of browsing Facebook you did one of the following social activities for two hours:
- Walked outside and talked to one or more of your neighbors.
- Had a telephone conversation with one of your parents or siblings.
- Hand-wrote a letter to a friend or relative who lives far away.
- Ran a half marathon and made a new friend at the start line that you chatted with for the whole race.
How do you feel after this “real-world” social activity? Is this any different from the way you felt after your Facebook indulgence? Which feels better? Which medium of social interaction do you prefer?
Step 6: Delete your Account
Over the last month I have added a 6th step to the 5 I listed at the beginning of this article: I deleted my Facebook account! While I was at it I also deleted my Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram accounts. As before, I can’t say that I have regretted doing this drastic and final step. Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram were easy to leave, because I didn’t really like those platforms anyway. Facebook was harder, because I did find some things of value there. But again, I haven’t regretted it.
While I was mulling over the decision I read an interesting piece by Michael Brendan Dougherty, which included this insight:
“Because Facebook’s content is dynamically published by algorithm to every individual user based on user behavior and the population of their friend group, it is strangely immune to the normal social criticism that would greet a traditional platform or a traditional publication, let alone a kind of spy agency. To publicly despise Facebook can feel like despising your friends, or even yourself.”
Announcing to my friends that I was deleting my account felt sort of like I was deleting their friendships, and some of them seemed to interpret it that way. As I was clicking through the steps I had a few nagging hesitations, mostly concerning the likelihood that I would miss the best part of Facebook — namely, its amazing ability to reconnect long lost or far dispersed friends. But I made it clear in my farewell post that I wanted to keep in touch with them by phone, text, email, snail mail, or personal visits, and I had many people send me private messages in order to exchange contact information. And deleting my account was about despising the medium, not despising my friends.
Another hesitation was about the Latter-day Doctor blog, as Facebook has been an important distribution medium for these posts. But I have said before that web traffic is not, and cannot be, my primary goal. I assume that some people will still share my posts on their own profiles, and that’s great if they do, but I no longer have to follow stats or worry about what I can do to improve them.
Do I miss Facebook? I haven’t yet, and I suspect that the passage of time will make me even less interested in going back. There will likely be moments, here and there, where I will realize that some task I am doing would be easier to do with Facebook, sort of like how you sometimes wish you had a certain tool when you are doing a craft or building project, but once the project is over you don’t think about it any more.
A Timely Warning
While preparing this article I remembered something that I read many years ago, an address called “Things as They Really Are” which was given by David A. Bednar in 2009. This was just a few years after Elder Bednar was called to be one of the Twelve Apostles, and he was the junior member of the quorum at the time. I went back and reread the address, and was astonished at how relevant it is today, and how prophetic his warnings were for the dangers that most of us were not aware of at the time. (Please follow the link and read the whole thing!) Here is a relevant passage from the talk:
“I raise an apostolic voice of warning about the potentially stifling, suffocating, suppressing, and constraining impact of some kinds of cyberspace interactions and experiences upon our souls. The concerns I raise are not new; they apply equally to other types of media, such as television, movies, and music. But in a cyber world, these challenges are more pervasive and intense. […]
“If the adversary cannot entice us to misuse our physical bodies, then one of his most potent tactics is to beguile you and me as embodied spirits to disconnect gradually and physically from things as they really are. In essence, he encourages us to think and act as if we were in our premortal, unembodied state. And, if we let him, he can cunningly employ some aspects of modern technology to accomplish his purposes. Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, earbuds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and the Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication. Beware of digital displays and data in many forms of computer-mediated interaction that can displace the full range of physical capacity and experience. […]
“An immature or misguided spouse may devote an inordinate amount of time to playing video games, chatting online, or in other ways allowing the digital to dominate things as they really are. Initially the investment of time may seem relatively harmless, rationalized as a few minutes of needed relief from the demands of a hectic daily schedule. But important opportunities are missed for developing and improving interpersonal skills, for laughing and crying together, and for creating a rich and enduring bond of emotional intimacy.”
Elder Bednar’s warning voice a decade ago was so accurate that these words might have been written today. I don’t think I understood them at the time like I do today. In 2009 my Facebook account was brand new and I was interested in the novelty of communicating in this new way with so many distant friends. But a lot has happened since then, and I can remember times when I let the virtual computer world of social interaction fill my life and crowd out the more important relationships in my neighborhood and within the walls of my own home. I have been resisting that influence, trying to hold on to the good parts of Facebook while minimizing the bad parts. Now I am ready to just walk away from the whole thing because I see that the benefits no longer outweigh the drawbacks for me.
This article has been something of a personal journey, like a journal entry where I document my thought processes as I contemplate an important decision. The choices I have made might not be the right ones for you in your life situation, and I don’t wish to imply that they are. But I hope that the general principles I have followed will be helpful to you. As Elder Bednar said in the talk referenced above,
“You know what is right and what is wrong, and you have the individual responsibility to learn for yourself ‘by study and also by faith’ (Doctrine & Covenants 88:118) the things you should and should not do and the doctrinal reasons you should and should not do those things. I testify that as you desire to so learn, as you ‘watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives’ (Mosiah 4:30), you will be spiritually enlightened and protected.”
This article can serve as one example of one person trying to follow this advice. I feel grateful to the Lord for helping me, and I know that he is willing to help you too.