How to Take A Break from Social Media — A Complete GuideBy Yvonne Ator, MD MPH
Published: August 26, 2021
“We spend so much time looking into our palms, we have forgotten what it means to look into one another’s eyes.” — Jonathan Fields
The mom sobbed softly as she talked to the preschool director. The office door was closed, but I could see them through the glass wall, seated across from each other. The director was listening patiently. Though the mom’s words were undecipherable, I could tell from the director’s face that this was a heartbreaking conversation.
I finished signing my daughter in to the school’s computer system and headed out of the preschool. As I opened my car door, I saw the new mom quickly walk out and get in her car.
I was just about to start my car when I heard it.
Go ask her if she wants a hug.
I was immediately incredulous.
“Uh, are you serious? Right now? She’s a stranger. I have never seen her before and she is probably going to think I am crazy. I haven’t showered from working out and I smell kinda funky. I should not be giving out hugs right now. And see, she’s about to drive off. She’s wearing scrubs, too. She’s probably late for work at some hospital!”
But I knew the voice of my intuition very well and knew better than to ignore it. Sighing, I got out of the car and walked across the parking lot, half wishing she would drive away and prove my excuses right.
No, the car did not move. I could see her wiping her tears, trying unsuccessfully to calm down.
I knocked on her car window. She rolled it down.
“Hi, would you like a hug?”
“Yes, please! Thank you so much!”
Her tears were flowing freely now. I stood there holding her in the parking lot. An improbable sight — a tall blonde woman crying on the shoulders of a shorter me, chocolate-skinned with locs.
I continued to hold her, speaking soft, soothing words, assuring her she would be okay. She began to calm down and her sobs becoming less frequent.
“I am Yvonne, by the way. What’s your name?” I asked, smiling and extending my hand.
She told me her name and wiped her face, smiling now. “Oh, this is so hard… Why is this so hard?” She looked at me, her eyes bloodshot and questioning.
“I know… I have felt the same way. It is hard. I am sorry.” She had a four-year-old who was starting at the preschool. I told her I also had a four-year-old daughter at the school. She felt encouraged and said she hoped our kids would be in the same class. We laughed and said our goodbyes. She thanked me again. I went back to my car, waved at her, and then drove off.
The encounter had taken no longer than about eight minutes.
As I drove to my office, I reflected on the experience. It struck me deeply how many moments and opportunities for connection I would have missed if I hadn’t been fully present that morning. If I had been on my phone checking my email or social media, I would have missed the crying stranger in the office, and I would have missed my intuition’s whisper to offer a hug. I definitely would not have crossed the parking lot to offer that hug, nor lingered a little longer to make sure she was okay.
Driven to distraction
A few years ago, I decided to be more intentional about being present and doing one thing at a time. I realized how often I was filling the in-between moments of my life with something. It is becoming increasingly difficult for many of us to be alone with our thoughts. Waiting seems especially hard, and we numb the seemingly mundane activities of life such as waiting in line, riding the subway, or even crossing the street with distractions like reading the news on the phone, checking Facebook, and listening to audiobooks.
Now, I am not a saint by any stretch of the imagination. But I think we miss these sliding door moments, these opportunities for empathy and connection, whenever we choose to escape our lives by not paying attention or being fully present. I have often struggled with this, even as someone who has built a life on cultivating practices that help me show up more fully and authentically.
As an empath — one who deeply experiences the energy around me, including emotions and physical sensations — I often find myself overstimulated by the constant stream of input and distractions, especially from social media. Why am I spending hours I don’t have learning the intimate details of someone I vaguely know while ignoring those I love who are right in front of me?
Even my kids have lost their tempers at me a few times, yelling, “Mummy, you are always on the phone!” as they try to insert their cute little faces between me and the culprit screen. I find myself craving space, seeking relief from all the noise, and yearning to declutter from all the agendas others are dumping into my life.
This is why I take regular social media and digital fasts. Taking these breaks creates space for my thoughts, my intuition, the sliding door moments, the God winks and whispers.
Paying attention to the world within and around me became a lifesaver. In fact, my first social media fast was so powerful, I decided to build more into my life. I had felt so tested in this, I knew I had to step it up. Now I have a regular practice of social media fasts and digital unplugs. Breaks can last anywhere from a few hours to a day, a weekend, 40 days (like my last one), or months.
Feel like an addict? Why breaking up is so hard to do…
Putting down the phone should be as easy as ABC, right? If so, then why do so many of us struggle with separation anxiety when it comes to digital and social media breaks?
If you feel like an addict when it comes to your phone and social media, you are normal. You are feeling exactly what you have been programmed to feel. It is called gamification. The social media apps, notifications, and even emails are designed to use the principles of video games to accomplish one thing only: to get you hooked.
Remember Pavlov’s dog? Remember how the dog salivated (the response) every time he heard the bell (the stimulus) because he had come to associate the bell with a treat (the reward)?
We have all become like Pavlov’s dog. The designers of the apps want us to respond, to check our apps incessantly and uncontrollably. They have trained us with great precision and deliberation.
Here is how it happens. Whenever you get a notification (stimulus), check your Facebook (response), and see a like for your post (reward), your body gets a shot of dopamine. And when you hear an email beep (stimulus), check your email (response), and see a message waiting (reward), your body gets a shot of dopamine.
Dopamine is the hormone that makes you feel rewarded. We feel good whenever we get those likes or messages, and we get addicted to that feeling. When the rewards are planned and expected, your body anticipates the reward. We check our email or Facebook and there is a like or a message waiting for us.
When the reward doesn’t come as expected, you find yourself in withdrawal. Withdrawal from dopamine causes us to feel sad and blue or frustrated, which is why you feel a bit depressed when you don’t get those expected likes or emails. You keep checking and checking until you finally get a random, intermittent like or email message.
Intermittent rewards create addiction. These rewards are unplanned and unexpected, so they give you a surprise dopamine hit. You start checking your email or Facebook or Twitter over and over so you can get that same feeling.
This is the cycle of addiction. You depend more and more on your device, and need more and more use to get the same feeling. And many of us find that we can’t function without it.
Treat yourself like an addict
The three Cs of addiction are loss of control over the amount and frequency of use, craving and compulsive using, and continued use in the face of adverse consequences.
One of the key symptoms of addiction is an eye opener — the need to use the substance first thing in the morning. For example, needing a cigarette or an alcoholic drink as soon as one wakes up. A Verizon Wireless report aptly titled “True Wireless Confessions: How People Really Use Their Mobile Devices” found that 77 percent of us check our phones first thing before anything else in the morning.
In terms of craving and compulsive using, the report found that 90 percent of people use their phones in the bathroom. On that same note, a 2015 Survey Monkey study found that 44 percent of respondents have heard a toilet flush at the end of a phone call. Say it with me: Ewwww!
And even in the face of adverse consequences, whether in relationships or at work, many find that they are unable to stop using or checking their phones compulsively. This despite the fact that 80 percent of us get offended when someone we are talking to stops to use their phone and 82 percent of us still check our phones when talking to someone else, even when we know it is offensive. Our fear of missing out is making us digital junkies, hyperconnected yet lonely.
I know this information is sobering and even overwhelming to think about. It is hard because this technology has become an integral part of our lives. We use it to improve our productivity, but we are also addicted to it, and this addiction comes at a high cost. Research on social media has found that merely having a smartphone in a room lowers both empathy and IQ levels. We actually become dumber and our conversations become shallower in the presence of our mobile devices.
“Reclaiming my time!”
I am a little obsessed with Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who has become somewhat of an internet meme queen. Her latest, a repeated pronouncement of “Reclaiming my time” during a hearing, went viral in the summer of 2017 and became a rallying cry for overworked and overlooked women everywhere. It has become mine too. Every day, when I find myself distracted I want to shout, “Reclaiming my time! Reclaiming my time!”
So how do I find my way back to being present? Often by facing the truth and exploring what it is that I am avoiding, which is usually the emotional messiness of life. I recommit daily to presence; in addition to daily meditation, I have alarms which remind me to be present. I also practice new behaviors, such as keeping my phone in another room or calling instead of texting. I focus on being mindful, address conflicts head-on, and take care of my needs for sleep, rest, and connection.
I also use my favorite app, Forest, to keep me focused and present. With the Forest app, you plant a virtual tree to grow for a set amount of time in order to keep you from using your phone. If you check your phone before the time is up, your tree withers. The more trees you plant, the more points you get, as well as a wider variety of trees to choose from.
My kids love this app because I will often ask them to help me pick the type of tree they want me to plant. But even better, Mummy is free to play a game of chess or Enchanted Cupcake Party!
Besides having more free time to be with your children and loved ones, here are some other benefits you can expect from taking social media breaks.
Emotional Lightness — Studies have shown that social media consumption makes us more depressed as we compare ourselves to others. According to a recent study by the UK disability charity Scope, 62 percent of the 1,500 Facebook and Twitter users surveyed reported feeling inadequate and 60 percent reported feelings of jealousy as a result of comparing themselves to other users.
I love celebrating others, especially when they succeed, and I am an enthusiastic encourager, the kind of person who loves to cheer on others and inspire them to reach their goals. I genuinely feel happy for other people. But I notice that even I, especially when having a bad day, can feel like a loser after getting on Facebook and seeing so many highlight reels of weddings, vacations in exotic places, and amazing accomplishments.
Usually I am inspired by what others are doing, but on an off day I can find myself wondering why the heck I can’t get my act together when it seems everyone else is having the time of their lives with their perfectly manicured lawns and their beautiful, Photoshopped families. Taking a social media break helps me remember what is important and relieves the burden of comparison.
Mental Clarity — Taking a break stops the steady influx of mental clutter that destroys our attention. With all that compulsive checking and scrolling out of the picture, we have the benefit of more time to do what we want and focus on what is really important to us.
This means we are also able to tap into presence. Being off the phone means being more present in your life and cultivating a richer life. Looking into the eyes of your loved ones creates closer relationships, as you are able to notice more of everything and everyone around you. I notice that when I am unplugged, people reach out and engage with me more, since I am more approachable and accessible.
And finally, creating all that space and time leads to increased calm. Less stimulation means calmer nerves. We are not as frazzled and overwhelmed. This leads to less reactivity and more responsiveness in ways that are aligned with our values.
Detox 101: How to take a social media fast
- Clarify your intention for the fast. Why are you doing a social media fast? When we know our reason for doing anything, we are more likely to stick to the plan. What is your intention? What do you hope to accomplish with this fast? Your vision and mission for the fast will help you stick to it when the going gets tough.
- Set the times and duration of the fast. When are you going to take a social media break? For how long? Pick a date and determine how long your fast will be. Don’t choose a time that will be hard to stick to. For example, I love holidays and birthdays on Facebook. Because words of affirmation are my second most important love language, receiving well wishes on my birthday fills my love tank to overflowing. So if you really want to stay connected during an important celebration, pick another time.
- Decide what type of social media break you are taking. Are you off Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter completely? Or are you only off the personal pages and will still participate in FB groups for work? Are you going on a complete digital fast? Are you unplugging all of your devices or just certain ones?
- Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally. Do a countdown and let your friends and family know you are going on a social media break a few days before you actually take it. Announcing your break primes you for the separation and eases the anxiety. In positive psychology, mentally rehearsing and envisioning an event increases one’s chances of success.
Announcing your break ahead of time also offers you accountability; if your integrity is important to you, following through with your announcement will be critical for your sense of well-being. But if announcing your break feels like too much pressure or is just not your style, you can also just quietly exit without the fanfare. This is your break. You can pick what resonates most deeply for you.
- Log out, block, and/or unplug. If you are taking a social media break, log out and commit to not logging back in until the designated end of the break. If this proves to be too much of a pain, there are apps that will block a specified list of social media sites for a selected amount of time.
- Turn off notifications. Get some relief from the hypervigilance and overstimulation that comes from responding to the beeps of our devices.
- Deactivate your accounts. For those who have reached the last straw, deactivation is the only solution that will satisfy. Thankfully, deactivation does not have to be a permanent solution. If you decide to return at a later time, as long as it is within the site’s specified timeframe, you can reverse the deactivation. Find out the details before your break.
Mindful re-entry after a social media fast
- Plan. Decide what your boundaries are before you return. Decide how much time you will spend on social media going forward and commit to it. Use alarms and timers if necessary.
- Prioritize. Focus on the important things in your life. There is rarely anything urgent on social media, so get on with the positive impact you are here to make in the real world.
- Practice Abundance. Ditch the FOMO (“fear of missing out,” for those who are wondering). Have an abundant mindset. You have enough time and you are enough, right where you are. The distractions and stimulation will always be there. You can get to them later.
- Practice Self-Compassion. Be gentle and kind to yourself. Returning after a break can feel overwhelming, and you can find yourself swept back into the tsunami of your Facebook feed and email updates. Be gentle and kind to yourself, and if you get sucked in, don’t beat yourself up. If you make a mistake, treat yourself like someone you love. Take your time. Get back up and try again.
- Power Up with Your People. Let people know that you are back from your fast, that you need their support as you return, and that you will not be able to answer every message or update. And ease your way slowly back into things.
- Propel Forward with Purpose. Choose not to go back to your previous intensity and frequency of use. Keep your notifications off. Focus on your life’s mission and on cultivating purposeful, nurturing relationships in real life.
7 Guidelines for Cultivating More Space in Your Life
- Create a mantra. What is important to you and why do you need to create space in your life? Write a short statement that you can say to remind yourself to stay on track. For example, I say, “I am here to serve. I intend to be fully present so I can be my best self and make a positive impact in the world.”
- Set your guidelines and boundaries. Get some tools to help you stay offline or keep track of your time online. You can use your regular alarm clock or apps such as Forest, RescueTime, Focus Keeper, or one of the Pomodoro timer apps.
- Cultivate a mindfulness practice. Now is the time to begin meditation. No need to complicate it — it can be as simple as choosing to sit alone in silence for 5 to 10 minutes before starting your day. You are even invited to join our Radiant Health Magazine group on the Insight Timer app, where we recommend a few select meditation guides to get you started and also help you to cultivate consistency through accountability. (We do not intend this to be a social interaction app; it is solely for accountability and guidance.)
- Create permanent white space in your life. Schedule one hour of time a week on your calendar and protect it just as you would an important meeting or doctor’s appointment. Do not clean or work on your to-do list. Get quiet. If this makes you feel like jumping out of your skin, welcome to the club. You are not alone. It just means you need more practice.
- Connect in real life. Instead of using social media, choose to connect with someone in real time. Call a friend or actually meet up with them for lunch! Hugs and personal time together releases the bonding hormone oxytocin and makes us feel more connected to each other.
- Do one thing at a time. Don’t check your phone while walking (especially not while crossing the street!), eating, pooping, or making love. Yes, studies have reported that people actually check their phones while making love. Imagine!
- Question Yourself. Question your intentions for being on the phone. Ask yourself, “What am I avoiding?” “Why am I distracting myself?” “What do I really need?” Take care of the real need you are distracting yourself from, be it rest, sleep, food, exercise, creativity, love, or conflict resolution.
Whew! I know this seems like a lot of information, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed. But my intention here is to share the resources and options you have available to you. Don’t worry about doing everything. Be gentle and kind to yourself, and go slowly and intentionally. Pick one or two key takeaways that deeply resonate with you and go from there.
Yes, it is ironic that we are recommending apps to help with your social media detox, but again, we are not pushing for perfection here; we’re just sharing tools that may be useful and supportive to your detox.
Social media and digital devices are also simply tools. They are not inherently bad or good; they are only what you make of them. You have the power to choose how you will make them work for you in a way that aligns with the life you want.
We live in exciting times. There is always the temptation to get swept up in the distractions and stimulations of life, and now more than ever we need to create space so we can be fully present in our lives. I deeply believe that in order to “hear” the guidance we seek in uncertain times, we need to be able to trust our intuition and have faith to carry on with the mission we are here to accomplish.
As women, we know the power of intuition, and while many of us have squelched that voice, it is never too late to rediscover it. That deep knowing and willingness to trust in ways that we can’t explain is a gift. If this is hard to grasp, consider the idea of being open to possibility and serendipity and having the courage to lean into this space so you can hear yourself.
And hearing yourself begins with daring to put down the phone! You are brave and worthy of the life you want.
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- How to Take A Break from Social Media — A Complete Guide - August 26, 2021
- The Healing Power of Laughter and Radiant Health’s Ten Commandments of Laughter - September 9, 2021