There was a time not too long ago when I would cumulatively spend several hours a day on social media platforms like facebook and twitter. Mind you, this was my personal time, not time spent running client accounts, which would sometimes add another hour or more per day to my usage.
Even when I wasn’t “on” social media, social media was on me: tweetdeck would beep away in the background on my computer even when I was working on offline projects, my iPhone was constantly alerting me to incoming updates from my various social accounts. I was fully connected, some would say more connected, to the people I know, my “social network.”
After a year or so, I started to notice something different about the way my brain was working: I was having difficulty spending hours working in uninterrupted silence on a project or even reading a book. My focus would be broken due to the nagging concern that I might be missing something online or not responding to a comment as quickly as I should be. Also, rather than simply enjoying a beautiful sunset over the mountains with Susan, my focus would shift to wanting to make sure I photographed and shared that sunset with my connections on social media, even if it disrupted our real experience. I was less concerned about truly being “in the moment” with the people I cared the most about than I was with immediately sharing that moment with people (many of whom I barely knew) on social media.
Social media was my addiction and I constantly wanted another hit.
I can wax self-reflective from time to time, so I began to get concerned about myself. I started doing some research to see if my own experiences were peculiar to me or whether I was part of a broader societal trend. As it turned out, I was not alone. Far from it. In fact, many psychologists & psychiatrists, especially child specialists (like Susan’s sister), are expressing extreme concern with how people are using social media. Those usage patterns are, in turn, changing the way humans relate with one another in a modern, hyper-connected world and quite literally rewiring the physical circuitry of our brains.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Luddite and I’m not anti-social media, any more than I am “anti-ax.” You can use an ax to chop wood and warm your family on a cold night or you can use that same ax to kill your neighbor and steal their wood. Social media is simply a tool, and the operator should learn to use it wisely, ideally to the benefit of themselves and to society as a whole. Therein lies the problem: social media is a brand new tool (some psychologists would argue it’s also inherently a highly addictive tool) that has just been introduced within the past decade or so. While older generations are just starting to use social media (often with apprehension, suspicion, and a great deal of confusion) to try to enhance their real world relationships, entire generations of younger folks think social media IS the relationship. After all, they were born into a world where social media was as ubiquitous as telephones were for previous generations.
As psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle says, “We expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship.” Nailed it.
While I don’t assume anyone cares what I think or do, I will nevertheless share how I decided to change my social media usage patterns after becoming more aware of some of these realities:
- Go On Regular Social Media “Vacations” – Whenever I feel like my social media usage patterns are starting to get control of me or deleteriously affect the most important relationships in my life, I’ll go on a social media vacation until I feel re-centered and have my priorities properly balanced. I’m not sure how to quantify this, other than to say “I know it when I feel it.” *If you’re a current or prospective client: yes, I still work when I’m on social media vacation, and our clients continue to kick arse on social media even when I’m not using my personal accounts.
- Day Compartmentalization – Even when I’m not on social media vacation, I’ve found it very helpful to break my day into chunks. For instance, on a given day, I might actively use my personal social accounts from 10am-11am and then again from 8pm-9pm. The rest of the time, these accounts are completely turned off and no notifications are pinging me to draw me back in. If someone doesn’t get an immediate response to me on twitter, I know they’ll ultimately be ok and live to tweet about it. After all, I’m really not that important. I’m not staging the Arab spring over here.
- Be Fully In the Moment; Share the Moment Later – There are so many incredible, beautiful experiences in life. These moments are fleeting, precious, and non-replicable. When you experience these in person with someone you love or care deeply about, it makes those moments even more magical. Snap a picture to share with those people or your online social network later on, but do NOT disrupt the flow of those experiences or shatter the real connection you’re having with the people you’re physically sharing those experiences with by tweeting, texting, facebooking, etc. Be still and be there with the people you care about. Fully.
Sure, the Singularity is coming and we can’t fight “progress.” We can, however, help shape how people define progress. If we lose the ability (like many youth have) to carry on face to face conversations, be comfortable in silence or hours of intense focus, or experience nature and get our hands dirty in a garden, we should not define these social changes as “progress.” Ideally, our technologies should enhance the best parts of the human experience (such as our real relationships) while overcoming previous obstacles that detracted from our sense of common purpose (geographical isolation, tribalism, etc.).
I think social media is uniquely positioned to be the tool that can accomplish these objectives, but only if we, the users, choose to use this ax wisely.
So, if you’re a social media addict, please consider going on a social media vacation. Take someone you love with you and unplug from your technology. You’ll be glad you did.