A friend of mine sent me a distress text recently. There was an update from her ex on social media; ex was recently engaged and my friend was feeling a mix of emotions over seeing this news. I responded with sympathy but also a firm suggestion; Some things are not meant for us to see. Maybe we aren't meant to stay connected to exes if it is painful. I reminded her of the good things happening in her life she could choose to focus on. She agreed and said she knew if she stopped looking and started paying attention to her own life she would feel better. Easier said than done. If social media is a door we need to sometimes shut in order to stay present in our own lives how can we do that?
On one of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain, the hosts discussed two recent studies on social media use and happiness. The studies suggest a correlation between decreasing social media use and increased happiness. The study authors explored how social media use increased experiences of fear of missing out or "FOMO", more specifically we fear our relationships with others will suffer if we miss out on a social event. As the interviewer, Shankar Vedantam pointed out, when we are in FOMO we are essentially ruining the present moment we are in. We step on the possibility of enjoying what we have going on in our own lives when we focus on others.
As a therapist I often support clients in looking at their painful habits. Social media use comes up often. Often we look hoping to take a mental break and catch up on our social world, maybe see something fun like a cute puppy or a funny meme. Yet, we sometimes see something that triggers the opposite emotions; a scary post about some strange, random food-born illness or someone raising money for a child who is sick and needs help with medical bills, or an update from an ex. We are thrown into an emotional world we weren't prepared for or ready for.
In the real world if we attend a friends wedding for instance, we are a little more prepared for the possibility of running into an ex. We get to choose how resilient we are feeling or weigh the pros and cons of avoiding versus attending the wedding. We have space and time which equals choice. Even in person, if someone starts telling us a sad story there are social norms and filters which create boundaries around sharing all the gory details. When someone is "sharing" face to face with us we also get to ask questions, get more info and process the experience. In the social media world we are often alone with data, images and our thoughts and we can't predict what we will get. Images can be very emotionally provocative without a human context. Roll the dice and you may come up puppies, you may come up exes.
When the experience upsets us or causes distress I find we often lurch towards extreme solutions to the emotional roller coaster; “un-friend-ing” people in a drastic friend purge, swearing off all social media and entering into a no-media self-induced retreat or at our worst, impulsively ranting back in a destructive way. These solutions are often unsustainable for many reasons and we may go back to using social media in the same exact unmindful way.
Instead, here are a few middle of the road, mindful practices that may help us avoid the emotional roller coasters, build awareness and allow for a more balanced relationship with our media world.
1. Take a small, short-term and time-specific break. Try turning off your phone at dinner every night or just one hour before bedtime. This week I tried just driving to and from work with my phone off, no radio, podcasts or music. Be specific in terms of a start and end to the break. Start with something that feels easy to try. It doesn't have to be a long time out, my 2 year old gets calmer when he takes a 2 minute time out.
2. Just notice the urge. When you feel the urge to impulsively pick up your phone maybe you still pick it up but you pay attention to the urge, note the urge. Slow down. Being able to witness your urges allows you to sit in a mindful position of choice versus feeling at the will of your phone. Then you can decide if this moment is the best time to open up the social media wormhole.
3. Make access to social media incompatible with the situation at hand. Take your phone off Wifi temporarily or while at work, wherever you most want to be present in your life or have less emotional bandwidth. Maybe you don't care enough to use up all your data. Use airplane mode when not on an airplane. If you really want to get radical, take social media apps off your phone. If you have to do extra work to get access you may find you are less likely to do it. Also you can just watch yourself picking up and looking for something that's not there. Like cutting the head off a snake, eventually the impulse will die when access is not instantly gratified.
4. Pay attention to the difference when you don't engage. Notice how you feel when you give yourself a break. Do you feel more balanced? More present? Do you notice things in your world in a different way? Feel more friendly or compassionate? Do you become more creative? These are all things I have heard clients report. I noticed this week when I left my phone in the car while getting coffee I was more pleasant with the barista and I started a rather pleasant conversation with a stranger.
5. Do it, but do it mindfully. Make an intention and choose when and where to use social media. Surf Facebook when you are with friends so you have people to discuss things with and check yourself. Sunday morning Instagram-ing can be pleasurable when there's nothing else needing your attention and having a nuclear meltdown can be managed with calls to friends or taking a walk or just deep breaths.
6. Imagine and plan a replacement activity. If we look to social media for a mental break and instead we get more stress or worry then we need a better solution. What does make you feel better? 10 minutes of a meditation app? A short walk around the block? Grabbing coffee with a friend? If social media does not make our real life happier, then what does? We might have to try and find out.
Now I can already anticipate the push back and believe me I had to consider the obstacles to change personally and professionally. As studies suggest the common argument for constantly checking our phones is the fear of being out of touch.
If I don't look at my phone I might miss an important email or call from work. If I'm not on Facebook I'll miss important events with friends or groups. I'll miss important political actions or events that I care about following.
Here is the invitation, decide for yourself how much you actually value being emotionally available and in connection all the time. Not how much other people or your work values it but how much you value it. We do not have to give up our relationships, our passions or our livelihood in order to achieve emotional balance. We can pay attention when the balance is upset and we need to shift away temporarily to come back to solid emotional ground, meaning the present moment and our present life. We all need a good time out now and then. Perhaps it will make you more effective in your relationships, in your passions and in your life.