Three days in and I was already starting to notice the effects that the withdrawal was having on my life. Socially excluded, an outsider, like I had no part in the world of happenings all around me. I was only a tenth of the way in and already suffering from the effects.
I didn’t give up anything life-altering, just every teenager's life line: social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram and absolutely no Pinterest for an entire month. From Oct. 1 to Nov. 1, nothing.
These sites aren't just time-suckers for me; they are my passages into the social world. Twitter grants me a 140-character glimpse into the intricacies of the lives of my peers. Facebook keeps me connected to anyone, anywhere. Instagram allows me to pour over photos and selfies, and Pinterest, well, it helps me plan my future wedding and gives me a place to go to lust over clothing I know I could never even dream of being able to afford.
I didn’t think it was that big of a deal at first, it was just a month. However, every time I mentioned this personal challenge to one of my peers they cringed with disgust. "How are you going to pull that off? What are you going to do with your life? I could never do that!" But I guess this was the response I expected from my peers. After all, we are a part of the iGeneration, surrounded on a daily basis by "i-devices," tablets, MacBooks and "digital" everything. I wonder, has social media really become so vital that the thought of excluding oneself from it for a short period of time is really that nerve-racking?
People nowadays seem to thrive off their social sites and are left feeling empty when they don’t have their hourly fill. My Twitter and Facebook feeds are continually replenished every few minutes so I never have to look far for new posts to read up on. According to mediabistro.com, Twitter saw 400 million tweets per day as of June 2012, and this number is bound to have increased since then. The Facebook newsroom reports that they have 699 million daily active users and 1.15 billion posts per month. All this posting must mean that we either have a lot of free time or are being distracted by the social world that is slowly creeping into every aspect of life.
"Texting is definitely the worst one for me because most of the time it won’t be anything important but sometimes someone is like 'oh my gosh, I need your help, I need your help,'" senior Raven Birk said. "Then they're freaking out they’re like, 'Why aren’t you texting me back?' kind of thing and then I look at my phone and I have 20 text messages and I'm like 'I just stopped looking at my phone for an hour.'"
Past chairman and professor of psychology at California State University, Dr. Larry Rosen studies reactions to technology, which includes his documentation of more than 30,000 people over the past 25 years. In an email interview, Rosen explained that the fascination with social media is directly related to worrying about being left behind.
"There appears to be a 'need' to be always on top of all social communications whether they are directed at you as an individual (e.g. text message) or you as a member of a larger social group (Facebook, Instagram, etc.)," Rosen said in an email interview. "Young people (and many older ones, too) are constantly worrying that they are missing out on some important communication thread online and find themselves mindlessly checking in on those sites all the time and then being reinforced for having early (or first) comments or likes. This then promotes more vigilant checking and more reinforcement and so on."
Rosen has a point. I update myself on my social sites without even realizing it. During my month of avoiding it completely, studying became a million times easier. No longer was I distracted by the idea that I was getting behind in my social circle because there was no social site for me to be afflicted with.
"Distractibility is a major concern and external distractors and internal distractors are both at play here," Rosen said. "The more media you use, the more you prefer to task switch, the more likely you are the either be distracted by noting a site of interest (like Facebook) or the more likely you are to internally generate thoughts that lead to a perceived need to switch to something technologically communication-based such as social media."
No joke. As we all do, I find myself sitting down to do homework and then ten minutes later lurching into my Twitter or Facebook feed to get away from homework. Migrating from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to Pinterest in the matter of minutes is not uncommon, since it only takes a click of a button. So it makes sense that being affiliated with so many social sites would make one more likely to multitask or switch tasks frequently.
But what’s the allure? What is it that seduces us into these time-sucking social sites? They’re like a drug; we cannot get our fill, so we keep coming back. But my own experience during this fasting period shocked me. Whether it was more of a personal challenge to test my willpower or a research experiment to observe the effects of the exclusion, it didn’t matter. Either way, the results shocked me.
My stress levels decreased and I no longer had anxiety over the fact that I wasn't keeping up to date on the latest buzz. Sitting down to do homework no longer took hours, I could sit down, get it done and be on my way. Though my phone remained right next to me during my studying periods, I wasn't distracted by the constant idea that I was being left behind in the social world. I didn’t have to worry about notifications popping up and grabbing my attention because I was no longer connected.
This made me realize, it's not the distractions that are causing me to lose focus. It's the overarching feeling of anxiety that is increased by not checking social networks consistently. As ridiculous as that sounds, it's true.
"It's probably true, and I don't even think you need social media to do that," Birk said. "I can be sitting in a classroom, and it can be a totally blank classroom and the teacher could be talking about something I'd normally be totally interested in … I'll like schedule parts of my day and then I'll be like, 'Oh wait, I'm supposed to be listening.' I don't think it's just a social media thing."
During my month free of social media distraction, I was struck with the harsh reality that my life was better off without the constant nagging of my social world. Three weeks in I received an email notification from Facebook, informing me that I had 86 notifications pending. Since I decided to delete the alerts from my phone during my fast, I didn’t receive any of them on my phone. But I wonder how much of a distraction these would have been if I hadn't blocked them.
We all do it. We are sitting in class and all of a sudden our phone flashes. It's a natural reaction to immediately check it, seeing what we are being alerted for because we don’t want to miss out on anything.
“A lot of the times whenever one of my friends starts dating someone, you know there’s no status change on Twitter about relationships so they'll actually have to come tell me,” Birk said. “But I think it’s kind of nice when people actually care to tell me that stuff that I miss because I don’t have a Facebook.”
However, after my month away from all forms of social media was over, I realized that my life didn’t really need that extra stress, but I would gladly accept it. Though my usage of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has died down since this experiment, I’m still actively involved in it.
I think what brought me back in the end more than anything was the immediate access to information that comes along with being involved in social media.
"We definitely have a lot more access to information than our parents did and for the most part I think that's generally pretty beneficial, but I mean it does have its negatives," Birk said. "I think social media was created for a better purpose than just distracting people."
This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.