- I don’t post or read social media in the month of December.
- I’ve been taking this online break for three years.
- It’s a good way to reset your relationship with Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, or Facebook.
- This is an instalment of Business Insider’s “Your Brain on Apps” series that investigates how addictive apps can influence behaviour.
A new slang term is spreading around my friends and peers in New York: “extremely online.”
As in, “Of course I saw his post. I’m extremely online.” Or: “I need a vacation, I’ve been too online these days.”
Basically, it refers to someone who is living their life on social media on their phones. It’s said like a joke, but there’s a dark undercurrent to it – you’re addicted to “online.”
A few years ago, I found myself being “far too online.” It started when I couldn’t focus on anything. I had an urge, whenever my attention wasn’t completely occupied, to take out my phone, and start scrolling my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds.
Like many people, I can’t completely “log off,” because of my job, but I needed to do something. The thoughts in my head weren’t mine anymore – they were viral tweets, or inflammatory arguments I’d read on Facebook.
For the past three years, I’ve taken a break from being “extremely online” during the entire month of December. I have two simple rules:
1. I don’t post to social media.
2. I don’t look at social media.
Now I look forward to December every year. Here’s what I do:
Check to see what my most used apps are
The first step is to figure out what your problem apps are. For me, it’s mainly Twitter with a little bit of Instagram. Other people might constantly check their Facebook or Snapchat.
There’s a good way to figure out which apps you spend the most time on if you use an iPhone, though it’s hidden in Settings > Battery. It tells you which apps you’ve spent the most time on to help you understand your battery, but it can also be extremely helpful for identifying which apps you spend too much time on.
For me, the top app I was spending too much time on was Twitter, followed by Instagram. A good rule of thumb is that any app you’re checking or using more than your primary messaging app is one to consider uninstalling.
No more bottomless bowls
The next step is to remove your problem apps from your phone completely. You’ll notice that these problem apps usually have one thing in common: a never ending feed.
These kind of apps even have a nickname, “bottomless bowls.” The term was coined by former Google designer Tristan Harris after a Cornell study that found that people ate way more soup if the bowl was constantly refilled.
That’s basically what’s happening with your feed content. Most of the biggest apps have designed them to deliver a neverending stream of content. Every time you tap on the icon, you get a small bit of satisfaction from seeing new stuff.
“News feeds are purposely designed to auto-refill with reasons to keep you scrolling, and purposely eliminate any reason for you to pause, reconsider or leave,” Harris wrote in the study.
Essentially, you’re putting an all-you-can-eat buffet of low-quality content on your home screen. This year, I zapped Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat.
It’s good a idea to banish all the bottomless bowls on your phone, not just the apps you use the most. The reason: when you remove your favourite apps, you may find yourself gravitating to bottomless bowls you didn’t like before. So even if you’re not a big Twitter user, uninstall that too. Uninstalling the apps will also remove their notifications on both iOS and Android.
Tell people – or don’t
The last thing that you might want to do is to send out a single post explaining what you’re doing – that you won’t be on the site for a while, and that people who normally contact you through social media might want to find other channels.
So on December 1 ever year, I put up a short message telling people about my break. On Twitter, I’ll pin the note to the top of my profile.
However, this is also risky, because your post about quitting social media might get likes or comments, and then that starts the whole cycle of checking notifications and consuming the bottomless bowl again. Plus, it plays into the dynamic that you’re breaking away from to begin with – if something wasn’t posted on social media, did it really happen?
Personally, I think you need to do it because so many of these feeds are now linked to messaging apps, and people may be trying to reach you through Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
For people you correspond with on a regular basis, it’s easy enough to switch to texting, or iMessage, or Gchat. But people who you don’t know but who want to get in touch still deserve to know why you’re not immediately replying, as you probably would have when you were “extremely online.”
In some years, I’ve also taken the time to delete posts and tweets. That’s an optional step, but it can make it easier to stay away when your page is a pristine, seemingly untouched account.
Of course, it’s always possible to just walk away without doing anything. Your page will still be there when you get back. You might find that nobody online even missed you!
Don’t stress slip-ups
I tried to be as strict as possible, but everyone slips up. For example, I retweeted something once during my hiatus in 2017. And sometimes I had to look at tweets and Instagram posts for work.
But the key is not to give up – the apps will try to drag you back in. For example, you might have uninstalled the Facebook app, but you might still get sucked onto facebook.com on your phone’s browser.
As long as you are genuinely trying to stay away from social media, I’d recommend not beating yourself over slip-ups. They will happen. What’s important is that you’re trying .
The idea behind the “social media cleanse” is to reduce stress – not raise it. So don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself in a bottomless bowl. Just click away as soon as you can.
How did it work out?
I’d like to say that taking a month off of social media fixed all of my mental and physical health issues and that I’m stronger than ever.
Unfortunately, it’s not a panacea. It won’t change your life. But I do find real value in logging off for a month.
The main thing that I personally notice is that I don’t realise how quickly I try to fill my time when I’m waiting in line, or on the subway, or even just on the couch when a commercial comes on TV.
One result is that I shift my time from low-quality stuff into slightly higher quality time on my phone. Instead of Twitter’s nattering nabobs, I listen to interesting podcasts. When waiting in line for coffee, I’ll read the New York Times.
My favourite side-effect is that my ideas are my own. The jokes I’m making with my friends aren’t the memes I saw in a feed earlier. I came up with my own opinions about the Mueller investigation without being influenced by tweets or comments that may have come from foreign governments.
Because I quit social media in December, I do end up missing a number of high-quality valuable posts. Lots of people post year-end messages with family updates, or good wishes for the upcoming year. But one of the great things about algorithmic feeds is that when you log back in, there’s a good chance those messages are floating close to the top, because the services know you missed them. And you’ll value the people who individually reach out to you more.
My break from social media is just that – a break. I started posting again on January 2. I also regrettably went back to old habits like checking Twitter at restaurants. But a month off does reset your relationship with being online. I didn’t reinstall Facebook or YouTube when I returned to social media, for example, and I don’t miss them at all.
And I’m already looking forward to December this year, when I plan to log off once again.
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