A picture with 452 likes. Smiling, leaning against a podium, with my chin tilted up, I looked accomplished and content in the photo from my medical school white coat ceremony. Later, I felt accomplished and content with the amount of attention it garnered. The likes seemed to indicate that people supported my choice of profession, I looked good, or both.
While I often gave likes with no emotion or thought, receiving them meant something completely different. Fewer likes on a photo meant I didn't look as nice, fewer likes on a comment meant I wasn't as witty. Social media had become inextricably linked with my self-esteem in a way that made me uncomfortable and, quite frankly, a little ashamed. Even though I could recognize the ways social media is designed to hook us and keep us coming back for more, I was not spared from its addictive grips.
When I first opened my Internet browser, it became muscle memory to type "F-A" and then hit enter. When I opened my phone, I would be scrolling through Instagram before I was even aware of it. Instantly, I saw lives that looked more exciting than mine, people who looked more beautiful than me, and accomplishments that seemed more impressive than mine. I was constantly comparing myself to others.
Social comparison, an innate human desire to evaluate ourselves by comparison to others, has become available in seconds through social media. With the tap of a finger, we see the lives of our peers, often presented as perfectly as possible to attain "social perfection," and we see the glamorous lives of the rich and famous. Looking around, it all just seemed better than what I had going on.
The more I used social media, the less satisfied with my own life I felt. I wasn't alone in this. A University of Michigan study of 82 participants showed that more Facebook use was correlated with a decline in life satisfaction levels. Instead of relying completely on another study's results, I decided to conduct a personal study of my own. An "unsocial experiment" with the goal of achieving a sort of blissful ignorance.
A month without social media. No Facebook, no Instagram, no Snapchat. If this sounds easy to you and like a ridiculous experiment to blog about, you're probably a more deliberate social media user with less addictive tendencies. If it sounds pretty challenging and you're not sure if you could do it, you're probably more like me.
Don't get me wrong, the utility of social media is tremendous. Facebook allows me to keep up with friends after graduating college and watch my baby cousins grow up across the pond in England. Instagram humor brings me joy and often makes me laugh out loud. Snapchat filters are astoundingly amusing. Getting rid of these outlets would be challenging and I was genuinely going to miss seeing my friend Sebastian's postgraduate journey through Nepal, and TheFatJewish's daily pick-me-ups, and my face distorted to resemble an alien.
What made me most nervous about deactivating was feeling like I was going to be disconnected. It was inevitable to some degree. I would probably miss Facebook events, Instagram moments, and DJ Khaled consistently repeating the same phrases. To me, this solidified the very reason I needed to do it. I didn't want to rely on websites and apps for connections. Rather, I wanted to create and foster them in real life, directly with the people I cared about. I figured I might even find a couple new people to care about along the way.
The month brought with it some unexpected emotions. In a lot of ways, it was like a breakup. After breaking up with a significant other, the instinct to text them takes time to fade away. Similarly, when social media and I took a break, I wasn't able to let go overnight. I would take pictures and think about what to caption them, only to realize that I wouldn't be able to. Just as we sometimes cave and text our exes, I would find myself peeking over people's shoulder in class to get a quick look at their News Feed.
Soon, that instinct dissolved. My fingers no longer instinctively dove for the F and A on my keyboard. I no longer yearned to know what was happening in everyone else's life and got a chance to spend more time working on my own. Without being able to use external likes to build my self-esteem, I identified more internal qualities. Instead of using a comment as a proxy for connecting with friends, I had face-to-face time (and sometimes FaceTimed) with the people important to me.
I can't say for sure if I was definitively happier during the experiment, but my priorities certainly shifted. Having the time to reflect and consider my own life and satisfaction, independent of comparison to others' lives, was immensely valuable. After restructuring my life without distraction, I have since returned to social media with a better relationship with the websites that I once felt had a grip on me.
Growing up, "everything in moderation" in my mind was a quick one-liner my mom would use when I would try to eat a few too many cookies. Now that I've got my cookie situation under control, social media in moderation is my new iteration of the saying. Cutting back is no easy feat, but if I can do it, so can you.
If you're feeling like I did about social media- hooked, glued, fixated, and ultimately disappointed- an unsocial experiment might be worth a shot. Just one month can give time to refocus, recenter, and reconnect- all by disconnecting.