Monday, 15 May 2017

Social Media Detox

Social media.  Love it or loathe it, it's become a huge part of our lives, some would say too big a part.  So how does it feel to wind back the clock and be without it for a while?  Believe it or not, Facebook is only 13 years old and Twitter only 11.  How quickly these things have become something which seemed essential yet, to my 21 year old self would never have occurred to me as necessary.

For me, what had started as a medium to keep in touch with friends and promote my blog had become more than that and was taking up a significant part of my time and starting to feel like a massive waste of my time.

I realise the irony of going on any kind of digital detox when your medium of expression is a blog but I decided to pare it back for a week.  One week without commenting, liking etc.  One week where all I would do on social media is share blog posts and that is that.  This is what I found out about my mood and how my life changed.

In the meantime, I used my new found time to look at the dangers and benefits of social media using a mix of media and scholarly articles, this was what I found.

Social media is bad for your health?

It's been widely reported in the media that social media is bad for your health.  Huffington Post published an article saying it had dangers including jealousy and compulsive behaviour.  The BBC has written a more measured article talking about the dangers of trolling and the permanance of the internet.  Certainly as a child there are times in my life it would not have been a great thing.  At school kids can be pretty horrible to each other at times.  I feel lucky to know I was an age when that stopped as soon as I got home.  I am horrified of cases where kids sadly take their own lives due to cyberbullying.  I also feel thankful that photographs from nightclubs when I was 18 can only be shared via someone taking the negatives and reprinting them.  How old fashioned and quaint that now seems?  But as many celebrities have found to their detriment, once something appears on the internet, it may never be possible to take it back.  A deleted tweet could have already be shared, screen grabbed, emailed and disseminated.

My worry though for some time has been the confirmation bias that social media automatically creates.  We naturally select like minded people to be friends with and connect with on social media, the ads which are then posted are selected by what we type and search for on the internet.  This creates a bubble of self reinforcing beliefs.  Even if we then seek out those with other beliefs it's not often to understand (especially on twitter) but to provoke argument.  Social media polarises our beliefs by a constant set of self reinforcement and gives voice to people whose views would have been considered marginal.  Often the people whose views are furthest away from the norm shout the loudest but this can start to move public opinion.

Now this is where it gets scary.  Anyone can share anything and say anything on a social media platform.  What's more is what you like, what you post and what information you put in gives a lot of information to potential advertisers in a medium where your guard is more likely to be down than in a traditional advert or party political broadcast on TV or radio.  You are their captive audience and they know just how to talk to you.  That's pretty frightening as you probably don't realise it's happening.

Links between social media and depression?

While the dangers of social media have been widely reported in the newspapers, scholarly articles supporting this were quite hard to find.  The first I came across said no link was found between social networking sites and depression.  There is even a paper which has suggested social media could be used to predict depression.  Another paper I found listed a potential range of risks but also benefits of social media.  Genuinely when it comes to mood, social media may be a force for good after all especially as those who may not feel able to open up in their day to day lives may feel able to behind the protective layer the internet affords.

While social media has given a voice to the few including the few who have abhorrant views in life, it also gives voice to the few who need to be heard and is a way of charities getting their message across.  The recent work by Heads Together has been a brilliant example of this.  I also did a recent run for charity and wouldn't have raised nearly as much sponsorship had I not used social media platforms to do so.

Replace the "contact" I'd had

Several times I found it very hard to resist the habit of picking up my laptop and going straight to Facebook or Twitter and it took me a week to get out of that habit.  Somewhere inside I was equating social media with relaxation and I needed to break that.  I found myself keen to exercise more and started looking for groups I could meet in real life to replace the "contact" I'd had through social media.

I slipped up from time to time.  Although I didn't have the urge to comment as much, I did have the urge to look and it was difficult to resist that, occasionally I failed.  I did notice though that the longer I spent away from social media, the more of a waste of time it seemed, so much so that I accidentally took longer than 7 days off and returning today felt very boring.

A couple of weeks ago, this was me, trying to correct every bit of misinformation on twitter.  Taking a step back has made me realise what a stupid waste of time this is.  No-one on twitter is seeking to change their views only to impose theirs on you.

No moral compass

I got my news from conventional sources.  It would be a mistake to assume any newspaper or online news source does not have natural bias but they are bound by making sure a story isn't true and to a large degree don't jump to conclusions for fear of them being incorrect.  Social media has no moral compass nor ethical concerns of jumping to the worst conclusions.  Social media just is.  It is the "coffee break chat" writ large, permanent, visible to all and searchable but is comprised of throwaway comments we would often be horrified to read back out of context.

Did I miss it?  Yes.  When a news story breaks like the sacking Comey by Trump, it would have been interesting to see the Twitter feed.  I can imagine the Apprentice "You're Fired" memes.  But did I miss it when the big stories broke?  In another way, no.  People jump to conclusions on social media fuelled by their life view and prejudices.  This can lead to misinformation and even abuse.  When a big story hit, I found it was much better just to sit back and wait for the conventional media's fact checked reporting.

Reflection of society unmasked

It also had some impact on the rest of my life.  My sleep improved as I found I got to bed earlier and when I did get to bed I wasn't then lying there looking at social media again.  I did more exercise.  Although it was my intention to get out running more this week and some of those runs were tough, I didn't once back off and think "nah, not today".

All in all I came to the conclusion that social media isn't bad per se but it's not great either and my main realisation is it's a massive, antisocial drain on my time.  Social media is a reflection of society but that can feel skewed either by your choice of contacts or by minorities who shout the loudest.  It can also be a reflection of society unmasked, without the social niceties where people are unafraid of threatening you or saying things in ways they never would to your face.  I remain unconvinced that on balance this good for society.

Like a chocolate bar or a glass of wine, it's something which is probably fine in moderation but a problem when taken to extremes.  It is the sheer time that many of us spend on social media which gives it the power over us and changes our approach to others.  I'm not going cold turkey and giving up completely but I am going to continue my pared back approach.  My week without it made me realise how much real life I'm missing out on and has given me the zest to grab that with both hands.

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