A millennial who deliberately keeps a distance from social media, the most happening place in today’s world, is seen as an outcast. I changed my allegiance from the mainstream crowd to this group of very few, who often get accused of acting too old for their age, almost three years ago.
My decision to temporarily step out of the social media scene came out in response to the looming GRE exam during my junior year of college. As I became mindful of the changes in my lifestyle as a result of this decision, I noticed that I wasn’t any less social than before. Sure, I was not relentlessly devouring infinite information about what’s going on in the lives of people who I’m probably never going to meet in my entire life, but this was not so bad. I was still talking to people who are the most important to me, via other platforms. I was texting and calling people and having more mindful and meaningful conversations with them instead of shooting some random comment at their pictures that probably took me two seconds to cook up. Although the latter gave me the impression that I was in touch with my folks, it didn’t offer me as much satisfaction as I get when I have long conversations with them over phone or text. I became more aware of my social circle and the steps I need to take to foster these relationships. The time to do so was freed up simply by cutting out the time I spent mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook wall.
Before you dismiss me as a Thoreau on steroids, I think I need to make my stance clear. I still believe that social media has great power. By using this platform in one’s favor, tremendous growth can be achieved and a lot of people can be helped. My friend Sanjay has been able to gather help for the needy by sharing their stories on his Facebook page with a huge following. He’s a photographer, entrepreneur, and an influencer, so he can reach out to a large audience using his page. For someone like him, I can’t think of a better tool than social media.
However, most normal people like me struggle to balance the pros with the cons of social media. We use social media mostly to check how our close ones are doing and what’s going on in the world. We can weed out unnecessary information by unfollowing unnecessary people and pages. Once we do this, we might be tempted to think that our Facebook wall is working entirely in our favor, but this is not the complete story. Social media companies like Facebook hire people to come up with ways to grab our attention for as long as possible. Everything from the appearance, features, the way contents are sorted and suggested has been engineered to decoy us into spending more time using their products. Our valuable time is their source of income, so they don’t hesitate to pour millions of dollars into research. So, the fight to outweigh the cons with the pros is pretty unfair because it’s helpless and nosey by nature human versus a tech giant with billions of dollars in its pocket aspiring to get richer by tempting him to see pictures and videos of his family, friends, and favorite celebrities.
The combination of our curious/nosey nature and state of the art attention engineering to pander to this nature can be pretty destructive to our ability to focus. I found myself constantly switching tabs between my course websites and Facebook even while doing my physics homework which was impossible to finish without consistently focused attempts. When I used to deliberately make it a point to abstain from using non-academic websites during the period of my intense work, it brought me uneasiness. I had to remain very deliberate from the entire period of my work because if I let my mind wander away, the next second I’d find myself on the Facebook site. On top of that, I’d be working on things that are objectively very difficult for most of us i.e. physics problems. Getting work done was like fighting an uphill battle.
We need to stay focused not just for carrying out mentally demanding tasks but also for as simple of a task like having an informal conversation. To my great despair, I find a lot of people stuck to their phones even while talking to someone else. One of the reasons we’ve succeeded as a species is our ability to have conversations with others, empathize with what they are going through, and show that we do care about their problems. Such nature of ours has helped us in the course of our evolution to form groups with a large number of individuals and consequently have better chances of surviving the brutal natural conditions. With our intelligence, we are no longer subject to the same rules of evolution like that from our time in the caves of Africa. However, we still carry the same instincts. We feel stronger when we have people by our side. We still derive a lot of happiness when we can have a meaningful conversation and influence a lot of people. With the rise of social media in recent decades, the illusion of social association has clouded how much we lagging on the things that are of real importance to us.
Another main issue with social media that I recall from my days as an active user is the loss of touch with reality. The pictures one posts in social media are curated to look perfect, and show how successful and intelligent one is. People do not post a hundred mistakes they made rather they only post the one success they’ve had after desperate measures. This is not too hard to understand, but the continuous use of social media makes one lose touch with reality and expect this to be the way how life works. One starts to expect one’s life to be the same as portrayed in social media by others, which is impossible. In my experience, such impossible to meet standard invites nothing but despair, and such a lifestyle can have greater consequences to our well being. I am not sure if there is any study that confirms social media overuse as the cause of anxiety and depression but I’m aware of a study that shows a correlation between them, which is not to be confused with causation.
Having noticed a few positive changes after quitting social media for my GRE exam, I decided to permanently step out and use that time to form relationships and engage in interactions which I value more. Unless my work requires me to rapidly reach out to a large group of people, or some extraordinary circumstances arise, I’ve decided to not go back and live a lifestyle that allows me to be more focused, mindful and satisfied.
I was intrigued by Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, which had caught my attention while I was visiting my friend Ashim, to think about the changes in my life after quitting social media. I highly recommend his book and blog for those interested in living a more focused and productive life.