While wandering through the woods on a gloomy, rainy afternoon, I was taken aback by how the grey sky and foggy air made all of the trees appear to be even brighter. The green of the flora was absolutely stunning, almost glowing. It seemed shocking that the forest could appear so lush and full of life in January. But despite all of that, the first thing that crossed my mind, long before “holy cow, Nature is incredible”, was:
“This would make a great Instagram post”.
I’m absolutely certain I’ve approached other experiences, gatherings, meals, and beautiful scenery that way countless times before. After all, social media/blogging is a significant portion of my income, it is my job to “create content”. But for whatever reason, this time the realization that I had prioritized Instagram over living in the moment hit me like a slap in the face. When did I stop creating content based around the amazing things in my life, and instead started living my life around creating content?
I started to wonder if I even found myself on that trail in the first place because I truly wanted to get outside…or was it because out there, I knew I’d find something to post about. In that moment, I started to question everything I did, and the things I thought I loved.
It was time to unplug.
How did we get here ?
I believe I signed up for my first true social media account – MySpace – back in 2005. It was an immediate love. I could connect with friends and family thousands of miles away, and at the same time, disconnect from the stresses of my own world. I could ignore my own problems, while sinking deep into the fantasy of other people’s experiences. I could be equal parts introverted and extroverted at the same time – sharing my thoughts, feelings, and banter with countless other people, from the comfort of my pajamas in my living room, never having to actually make face to face connections.
Shortly after discovering MySpace, I became pregnant with my first son. Having no family nearby, nor any friends who were parents, I took to the internet to find camaraderie. It was invaluable for my mental health at the time, assuring me that I was not truly alone.
But it quickly became addicting.
A Facebook account came around maybe 2007, when there was a mass exodus from Myspace ,and those of us without current university email addresses were allowed to have a profile. The Blackberry, with handheld access to social media whenever I wanted it (which was usually between customers at the restaurant I worked in) was 2008. Social media was suddenly a part of my daily life, every day, without fail.
Doing the math, that’s about 46% of my entire life I’ve spent connected to social media. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’d actually argue that it’s an incredible feat of technology, helping us stay connected with each other more now than ever.
We have the ability to read, hear, or see practically whatever we want, instantly, with the simple touch of a screen. Now, more than ever, we literally have endless knowledge at the tip of our fingers. It’s an incredible time to be alive.
And yet, so many of us feel more disconnected than ever.
Early February, I had quite the temper-tantrum that stemmed from so many things that were bothering me, both superficially and deep within my soul. I knew that unplugging would free me from mind numbing distractions, and help me do some soul searching. While this experiment hasn’t been perfect, and is still in the works to an extent, I’ve learned a lot already. Some eye opening facts about my social media habits, and how they affect me. And some things that are probably obvious to all of us…if we choose to acknowledge them.
We need constant distraction.
The first thing you’ll notice when you give up social media, is that you don’t know how to handle down time. And I don’t mean a half an hour after work before you start cooking dinner, or that brief window after your kids go to bed and the chores are done for the day kind of downtime. I mean the minutes, hell, the mere seconds between tasks.
There will be a pause in your thought process as you’re writing an email or attending to a task. You’ll instinctively reach for your phone dozens of times, your fingers instinctively wanting to mindlessly scroll. Through what? It doesn’t necessarily matter. Photos. Conversations. Upcoming events. It’s all a mindless distraction anyway. You’ll automatically check to see if anyone has commented in your regular group message threads, or if your favorite Instagram accounts have updated their stories.
I imagine this is how smokers feel once giving up cigarettes – there’s a noticeable void in their hands. And no matter how many times you consciously remember the thing you gave up, it’s only a matter of minutes before you reach again.
That’s when it hit me. It’s not the social media that is the enemy here.
I simply no longer know how to just be.
How to just exist. Quietly, calmly, with my thoughts, without entertainment, without movement.
Over the years I developed this perpetual need to multi task. I don’t know if self-employment life is to blame, the fact that I’ve chronically over-filled my proverbial “plate”, or simply this is what is becoming of our society. Whatever the reason, I’m beginning to recognize that this constant need for focusing my attention on something – anything – is making me sick. My anxiety has been creeping over the years. Slowly, as to not necessarily notice massive changes day by day. But enough that every now and then I’ll stop and think to myself “is this normal? Am I supposed to constantly feel like this?”
I’m pretty certain the answer is no.
Not everything has to be documented.
The next thing you’ll notice when you give up social media is that you feel the need to share everything you see with someone else. You realize you instinctively reach for your camera to document, well, anything and everything. It’s almost as if we simply can’t appreciate something beautiful, funny, or amazing without the validation from other that this “thing” is beautiful, funny, or amazing.
In time though, you’ll realize that a beautiful day, a gorgeous sunrise, and a breathtaking sunset can all exist, and be enjoyed, without having to capture that moment in a picture or video. In fact, realizing this somehow makes the experience even better. Perhaps it’s because you are more focused on being in that moment, rather than wondering how you’re going to capture the best angle for the optimum Instagram post.
The same goes for a workout. Contrary to popular belief, it DID happen, even if you didn’t put it on Strava. Sure, sharing can be helpful from an accountability point of view, but I assure you – simply doing the workout is enough. Sharing it with the world isn’t going to make it any more or less valuable.
We are not truly present.
We are often physically present for each other, but are we mentally and emotionally present?
After I stopped reaching for my phone at every spare second, I began to notice how doing so is a rarity in our society. The first place I truly noticed this was at my son’s basketball game. The bleachers were full of parents and other adults, and I’d wager at least 80% of them had phones in their hands. Were they watching their kids play? Yes…to a point. But in every spare second they’d be glancing downward, scrolling through emails, or Facebook, or responding to text messages.
I saw one player glance over at the bleachers at his father, who was sitting in the front row. Yet his dad was looking down at his phone, so the kid quickly returned his eyes to the game. It was a small blip on the radar of that kids life, I’m sure. But it hit me: how many times have my kids looked to me for a simple acknowledging look, and I’ve been looking at my phone?
The answer, I shamefully know, is more times than they, or I, could ever count.
I deeply regret all of the times I told them to “hold on, mommy’s working” when really, I was just playing the social media “game” necessary in this business. Technically it was work, to an extent, but there were zero work/life boundaries drawn. I regret all of the times I mindlessly scrolled while sitting on the floor next to them as they played, instead of actually playing myself.
I am incredibly grateful that I made this realization now, while I still have a few precious years left in their most influential time of life.
Everyone is distracted
…and you won’t realize it, until you, yourself, unplug.
Try this: next time you are stopped at a major stoplight, look around at the drivers and passengers in the cars next to you. I guarantee almost all of them will have their necks bent forward, heads looking at their phones.
Go watch a beautiful sunset in busy park. Look around, and count how many people DON’T have their phones out, trying to document the moment, and then are subsequently distracted by trying to type a caption and hit “share” on their social media platform.
Or, head to a doctors office, or any other sort of public place where people have to wait. Almost every single person will have their phones out, mindlessly scrolling without much awareness to what is going on around them.
It’s actually terrifying how many people are missing the world around them, while scrolling mindlessly through pictures of the world around other people. Our society is quick to blame kids or “millennials” of having their heads buried in their phones, but if you truly look around, you’ll notice no age group is exempt, from toddlers to grandmas.
Whether you want to be influenced or not, it’s happening every time you scroll through social media. This became most apparent to me when I would hop back on the Instagram after an extended time away and realize how uniform and sterile everything looked.
Everyone is wearing the same brands. Everyone is editing their photos with the same filters. Everyone is making the same, uniform looking bowls of oatmeal and fruit. You get the idea.
The concept of influencing others is not inherently bad. The ability to recommend things you love, or you have found helpful, to countless others is one of the amazing things about the internet.
But, at what point did we lose our uniqueness? At what point did we silence our inner voice that wants to do or say something a certain way, and instead listen to the voice that says “no, people will like it better if you do it like everyone else?”
Comparison is STILL the thief of joy.
I used to pride myself on thinking that I didn’t compare myself to others. But I found out, that was bullshit. Upon unplugging, I realized I worried and stressed less about things like:
- My blog / social platform stats compared to others in the same field
- Body image (yeah…)
- What races I’m registered for (the answer is: none)
- The latest trending brands in our field, races on ultrasignup, and whether or not I should get some/go there/ sign up for that/etc.
- Why I hadn’t accomplished/achieved/etc. the things that other people in my field have
Listen: I don’t believe that everyone you come across on social media is putting up a front. I do believe that people are truthful and transparent. But it’s important to understand that they are also selective in what they share, whether they realize it or not. We instinctively take pictures of happy times, and retreat when we are struggling. But it can be hard to remember that, when it seems like everyone around you is having a great time, while you silently struggle. Why aren’t you smiling? Why aren’t you thriving? What’s wrong with you?
And thus, the comparison cycle continues.
Trust me when I tell you that YOUR hightlight real is something to be proud of. Don’t ever doubt that.
There’s a lot less gloom and doom out here.
One of the main reasons I initially unplugged is because I couldn’t handle all of the ignorance and intolerance I was seeing on my social media platforms. Now, I’m not so ignorant to truly believe that these things don’t still exist all around me. But I have found that people are seemingly more tolerant of each other in person. The computer screen and a keyboard bring out serious vitriol form people. Face to face interactions seem to be neutralizing, as if actually looking into another humans eyes reminds us that we do have common ground.
Plus, while I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I will tell you this: once you step away for awhile, you realize how much modern media does really like to stir up shit. They vie for our views, whether it be on page or video, and understand that drama is a never ending source of eyeballs…
There are a lot of bad people on this planet. But there are also a lot of good, amazing souls. Be careful about what lens you choose to see the world through.
I missed reading.
I “never had time” to sit down with a book, or so it seemed. But in the last two months I’ve read 7.5 books. That’s more than I’ve read in the last two years combined. All of that time I saved from not mindlessly scrolling was spent reading. And like a body that has finally fallen back into an exercise routine after an extended, sedentary absence…my brain feels good.
Like it or not, communication has changed.
I know that I have friends and family that love me. I do not doubt that for one second. However, when I willingly chose to step away from social media, I immediately felt disconnected with the people in my life. Because communicating through social media has become the norm. Checking in on people, hell, even sending invitations to parties or even lunch, is so often coordinated through social media.
When you step back from social media, a few people will respect that and reach out to you through “old fashioned” methods, like an email or a phone call. But most won’t – and it’s nothing personal.
It’s just no longer “normal” to not be constantly plugged in.
Which brings me to my next point:
I don’t believe it is possible for most to truly disconnect from social media. Like so many things, it’s become an incredibly powerful, and dare I say, necessary tool. However, it can also be a dangerous, life consuming, soul destroying tool if you aren’t careful. It’s up to each and every one of us to determine how much we let it affect our lives.
Personally I’m glad I took this break. I hope to continue to spend less time with my head down, disconnected and absorbed in the world behind a screen, and more time with my head up, truly participating and LIVING in the world around me.