I was an avid reader growing up. My hours were filled with imaginative stories about fairies and witches and dastardly children going on adventures and, as I grew older, dystopian worlds and far-flung places, imagined and real. Disney movies aside, books were my constant companion, an endless source of entertainment. (Little wonder that I ended up becoming a writer myself.) I carried a book everywhere I went, sometimes two. I read over meals and on commutes.
Lately, though, I noticed that my literary consumption had shrunk drastically: while I used to read a book a week, now I could only complete one book a month. I backtracked to the moment the change began, and the answer was apparent: social media. While before I'd sometimes miss my stop on my commute because I was lost in the pages of a book, now I missed it because I was too busy commenting on someone's Instagram post. While before I would spend the entire afternoon reading half a book, now I could barely sit through five pages before whipping out my phone to check my notifications.
With the advent of social media platforms came a swathe of content – both frivolous and enriching – that drew me away from the pages of a book, and hardly a day went by in 2018 where I wasn't on social media. Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Pinterest were my daily, if not hourly, distractions. I began to notice the insidious effects of this addiction: my inability to concentrate for long periods of time, or being present, or having a meal with my friends and family without feeling the compulsive need to regularly check my phone and scroll through my news feeds.
I was addicted. And it was time to break that routine.
Breaking the routine
I was so ready for a social media detox. I had always been an over-sharer, but sometimes I looked back on my posts and cringe: Why did I expose myself to this extent? Why did I share this thought or that conversation? I could only imagine what others thought about me based on those posts.
Quitting social media would be good for me. I could regain some privacy (and dignity). I could reclaim a piece of myself.
To begin the social media detox, I deleted all the apps I was active on (all the usual suspects). In the morning, over breakfast and on my commute to work, instead of of scrolling through Instagram or Tumblr, I turned on my Kindle instead. It was soothing to get lost in a story. I kept this up for the rest of the day.
Thinking about my inbox filled me with panic. What if I missed out on a really important email (even though my personal inbox typically saw nothing of note)?
Whatever. I would get back to it in less than two weeks.
Taking a break from social media was proving to be a good decision so far. I was not constantly distracted by notifications, and I could focus on writing my novel for an entire hour.
It was getting easier to slip into this routine of reading when I would normally check my phone. My only free time was during commutes, lunch, and after work – all those were easily filled by a good story.
Not being on social media felt liberating. I hadn't put myself out there, so there was no opportunity to be judged based on the content I put out.
By Day 4, my mind was starting to wander: I wonder if Coco Rocha posted any new pictures of her beautiful babies? I could also use a chuckle over a new Supernatural meme.
I reached for my phone, but remembered that I had deleted those apps. Reinstalling them was not worth the effort.
I relied on my Kindle for the rest of the day for entertainment.
Not gonna lie: I was already itching to reinstall Instagram or Facebook; I needed that virtual social interaction. Social media provided that screen of semi-privacy when I chatted with people I wouldn't normally chat with in real life. But now, with only text messaging and face-to-face interactions, I would have to engage people more directly if I wanted to socialise.
I was tempted to deep-dive into my Kindle like a good old introvert, but I struck up a conversation with a office-mate and it turned out to be more pleasant than I expected – especially for an awkward potato like me. Not having constant virtual contact, in fact, made me more engaged in real-life social interactions.
I heard the news that a friend of mine had gotten engaged, and that the pictures were beautiful! "Didn't you see it on Facebook?" a mutual friend asked me.
No, I hadn't, I reminded her, because I was abstaining from social media – FOMO hit me hard. I asked the mutual friend to share the photos and called up the lucky friend to congratulate her personally.
Six days down, eight more to go.
It was Saturday, and I had just hit up an exhibition that I was dying to post about. It didn't matter if no one saw my posts – I just liked sharing things that were interesting to me.
Without Instagram stories as a platform, I could only share pictures with friends and family through WhatsApp. But instead of just getting views had I posted those photos on IG stories, directly engaging my loved ones sparked longer, more meaningful conversations that I usually didn't get on the public comments sections on social media.
For the remainder of the day, I also managed to practise my musical instrument, complete two levels on Duolingo, read four chapters of a book, and clean my room. There was so much more I could get done when I wasn't lost in my phone.
I had the day entirely free, which was all at once exciting and daunting; it felt like a slip-up waiting to happen. So I headed out to a cafe with a book and my laptop, intending to get some reading and writing done.
But, I'm ashamed to report, I slipped. I had been good all week – surely I deserved a cheat day? So I opened Instagram on my Chrome browser, liked a couple of photos (okay, five!) and promptly closed the tab...the dirty feeling of guilt clinging to my fingers.
I received a text message from an ex-colleague: "Are you still alive?"
For people who hadn't heard from me in more than a week via social media, this virtual silence was highly anomalous.
I replied with a skull-and-crossbones emoji. Without social media to fill my mind, I had more time and head-space to stew in my own thoughts, and my head was sometimes an ugly place to be, especially when left idle. It felt like the whole world was at a party without me, and I had chosen to sit out that party.
I was properly missing Instagram. Facebook I could do without just fine, I realised, but I enjoyed browsing through Instagram.
My IG feed is comprised mostly of art, cute babies, Harry Potter memes, positive and uplifting messages (@rainbowsalt, anyone?), beautiful architecture and landscapes, fashion girls out and about, and authors and their books. There's no negativity, no clashing opinions, no other lives to compare mine to (because I curate) – just a few of my favourite things.
I couldn't wait to return to Instagram once this detox was over.
My attention span was starting to expand; no longer was I fidgeting with my phone after fifteen minutes of reading. I could sit through hours like I used to when I was a kid, curled up in the couch an entire afternoon.
I also wrote an entire two-thousand-word short story in one sitting without my mind drifting off. If only I could keep this up for an entire month or two, I might finally be able to finish editing my novel.
I spent the entire day with my dad, and we visited two museums and sat at the pier just talking about everything and nothing. My heart felt full. I didn't need validation from anyone in the world as long as I had the people I loved by my side.
I felt more connected and present in that one day than I did spending an entire day scrolling through my feeds.
Riding on the high of the previous day, I continued to meet up with old classmates for a tête-à-tête. We had so much to catch up on since the last time we met. They could, as always, make me laugh till my face hurt and feel like I was 17 again.
I didn't feel tempted once to reach for my phone. The peace was starting to feel comforting to me; the silence no longer frightening.
I went on a date, where I told the guy about my social media detox. He was suitably impressed, declaring that he had always wanted to do it too. "But my inbox would explode and people would start to wonder if I went missing," he added.
That was the thing: we had now come to expect that constant level of virtual presence from everyone. We deemed it strange if someone was disengaged from it all – by choice. If only we set clearer boundaries between our social and private spaces, we might finally come to see that we didn't need social media to constantly fill our time.
The social media detox had been trying to begin with, and there were moments when I felt like I was more cut off from the world than I liked. But taking this amount of time off social media had also made me connect with people around me more than I had previously. I was more productive in my free time and engaged more sincerely in face-to-face interactions. So accustomed had I become to being virtually tuned in all the time that I had grown disconnected with the things that made me more at peace.
Social media is a powerful tool, but personally, I've found that establishing some boundaries between my private and public lives keeps me grounded and ensure that my virtual persona doesn’t overshadow who I really am. Would I do it again? Definitely. Much like how some people reset their health with a juice detox, a social media detox freed my head of all that mental clutter.
You do you, of course, but now I'm content to dive into another good book.