For Your Consideration: Unplug from Social Media

My week without Twitter.

Posted Feb 24, 2020

I have written extensively about both the perils of social media as well as more generally about what recent empirical research is uncovering regarding how our psychology is being shaped in an increasingly technology-saturated culture. Every other semester I teach graduate students on this topic, and I find myself reflecting during those semesters more explicitly about my own relationship with social media.

The time spent on our digital gadgets isn’t just about quantity, it is also about quality regarding our lifestyles. For instance, time spent scrolling through our phones in and of itself may not be a problem until we consider what we are not doing because we are scrolling through our phones. Over the weekend, I was compelled to confront my own incessant checking of Twitter when my puppy became increasingly agitated every time my smartphone posed as a barrier between us. It got me thinking, maybe it is that time of year for me to take a break from social media—which for me is specifically Twitter, as this is the platform I am currently on and use most frequently.

And so, I decided as the weekend was coming to a close to delete the Twitter app from my smartphone, and to stay off of the platform for at least a week. This decision was followed by promptly informing a close loved one in my life so that I would be held accountable all week for the decision. I wondered as the start of the work week approached whether I would be more productive, whether I would feel the pangs of not having the most up to date information (especially while commuting on NYC transit), or whether the impact would be negligible (although I suspect that won’t be the case). I can report that thus far, at least one companion in my life appears to be better off with my decision: My dog.

How apt that when I was able to allocate the time to reading the print copy of The New York Times today—a practice that I don’t always find “time” for every day, despite being a subscriber—that I was exposed to a compelling article by Renkl (2020) reflecting on the importance of taking the time and inviting enough stillness during our day-to-day lives to observe what she referred to as “ordinary miracles.” One particularly compelling aspect of this Opinion piece reflects:

Paying attention to what is happening in Washington is so reality altering that it should be regulated as a Schedule IV drug. I sometimes wonder how much longer I can continue to follow the national news and not descend into a kind of despair that might as well be called madness. (Para. 5-6)

This excerpt in particular resonated with me as I primarily use the platform to stay up to date on political news and what is happening in the world. The constant tethering to the platform, however, can provoke anxiety, particularly given the state of the political discourse in our culture right now. Renkl (2020) goes on to reflect on how it is important to not only “give up” those things we are exposed to that aren’t serving us, but to also invite things into our lives that are positive. She writes eloquently about connecting with nature and seeking out what she refers to as everyday miracles by looking closer at the world around us.

Warzel (2020) reflected in a different Opinion piece in today’s paper that despite a popular lament that Twitter “isn’t real life” such a notion obscures the very real effects engaging with the platform can have for users. In fact, one could argue that social media platforms are so ubiquitous in our day to day lives that the distinction between "virtual" and "face-to-face" is not only blurred, but potentially even obsolete. He also shares a startling statistic that “most users rarely tweet, but the most prolific 10% create 80% of tweets from adult U.S. users” (Warzel, 2020, Para. 4). Such a finding demonstrates that despite the idea of social media platforms promoting norms of egalitarianism, there are specific users that garner greater attention and develop disproportionate influence regarding what narratives become prominent in online spaces.

While there are benefits that come from having access to such a plethora of information in real time, there is also a risk of developing information overload and mental fatigue, particularly when the political discourse has become so divisive. Moderation is important, but, unfortunately, these platforms are oftentimes designed specifically to promote more extreme reactions. Thus, while short-term, it isn’t a bad idea to counter the often invasive digital landscape by occasionally opting out of participating in it every day.

While this decision reflects a particular type of privilege, most of us do not depend on Twitter for our day-to-day survival or even to be effective as professionals—in fact, disconnecting occasionally could boost our ability to focus and be productive at work.

How my week without Twitter will play out remains to be seen, as it has only just begun. There are still ways to access the news, as I have done this evening by reading my print edition of the Times. I am curious to observe how it will feel when the habitual scrolling through Twitter on my phone is confronted by the decision to not access it this week. For instance, a friend sent me a headline via text regarding the verdict of the Weinstein case this morning, and my first thought was to check Twitter to see reactions to the verdict and learn more about what happened.

Alas, I will have to wait to read more details about it in tomorrow’s print edition of the Times. This seems like a small price to pay for being more tethered to the moment, rather than to my phone. I invite you to share your experiences with social media and whether it resonates with users to consider an opt out, if only temporarily. 

Consider how you would spend your time if you weren't scrolling through the newsfeed on your favored social media platform. Whether such a hypothetical provokes anxiety or relief in you, perhaps it is worth investigating such a response on a deeper level.

Copyright 2020 Azadeh Aalai

References

Renki, M. (2020, February 24). One Tiny Beautiful Thing. The New York Times: OP-ED. [Print]

Warzel, C. (2020, February 24). Twitter is Real Life. The New York Times: Opinion. [Print]