TL:DR: We do not need social media in order to live our lives happily. Social media is more of a want than a need, and in that regard it can lead to distractions, loneliness, stress, and depression. For more rewarding social interactions, try going offline for 30 days and judge how your life has changed.

Introduction: Life without social media

Within two days of a 30 day no social media challenge last August I found myself driving across the country. I’d never been there before. The challenge was a little more than just social media though – it meant no smart phones, so I had a ‘dumb’ phone for calls and that was about it.

Luckily, I grew up in a time before smartphones and tablet computers – a time before Google Maps and the like. Still, it felt odd to not be able to open an app, find out my location, and get directions. I had to get out of my car and actually ask people for directions – socially interact in a time of social distancing in the real world.

In the end, I got there and was able to tell my prospective business clients all about the journey. Only they heard about it then and later my family when I got to the hotel and gave them a ring. We had one of our best calls ever then – like the old days when we couldn’t just text or share things on Facebook or tweet about them or share photos on Instagram. It led me to wonder if we really need social media at all.

Why do we like social media?

Social media is any online application which allows ordinary users to broadcast their thoughts, videos, and images to the wider world. These views can be limited to friends or followers, or be broadcast more widely with people finding them via algorithms or hashtags. 

Humans are social animals. We spend an average of 2 hours everyday on social media. That often means communicating with people away from us – sometimes in the same room as us, and hoping for interactions.

We also like novelty. Many apps are like fruit machines delivering us random dollops of potential entertainment. For example, YouTube videos or posts from Instagrammers we like. We want the news, we want the cat videos, and many of us want the outrage – the thing to react to, the chance to get noticed. Social media appeals because it feeds into these needs. It exploits them. 

Is social media addicting?

Yes, it is, but it runs on different neuro-chemical circuits than other addictive substances such as nicotine or crack cocaine. Rather than affecting you on a chemical or hormonal level, social media is much like pornography and gambing. 

Pornography works because it’s perfectly designed to appeal to the interests of men while providing them with constant novelty. Humans love novelty. 

We also love chance. There is a reason most social media CEOs will not let their children use their own tech including social media apps. As former Napster founder and early supporter of Facebook, Sean Parker, said – the apps were designed like fruit machines. Rather than refreshing automatically when there’s an update or giving an instant notification, the apps are designed to tease you and to make you constantly hit the refresh button. They dole out rewards ad hoc in order to maximize screen time.

Thirdly, humans like to be validated and many of us enjoy competition. Despite all the talk of the damaging effects of likes, up votes, and retweets, not a single platform has removed them. This has not just gamified social media, but produced outrage and narcissistic spirals designed to gain more likes and more attention. 

In this way, you can imagine social media as a digital cheeseburger. Some of the most addictive food types are breads, sugars, cheeses, and red meats. The humble low cost cheeseburger contains all of these in one little package and so does social media – it’s perfectly designed to be addictive.

What are the downsides of social media

The downsides of social media use include:

  • Reduced focus – Most people are more effective when focused on a single task without distraction. Social media is designed to fragment attention and keep you checking your devices all day whether it’s for emails or for likes, comments, or messages. 
  • Increased stress – Social media provides people with a place to vent, but because it’s online, it’s often a venting without catharsis or solution. This turns many feeds into scrolls of negativity with complaint after complaint. The overall negative nature of a lot of interactions on social media can led to increased stress; especially if your sense of self is built on a certain level of social media cred.
  • Affects your mood – The quality of online interactions can affect your mood, sense of well-being, and even increase a sense of hopelessness. This is worse when someone does not reply to a message (especially when the app lets you know it’s been read) or if you’ve had a negative online experience; especially on Twitter. This happens because social media can produce a distorted version of reality, but also because being online makes people more likely to react negatively or to be rude to others. 
  • Increases anxiety – Due to the above problems; especially cyber-bullying and intolerance of different ideas, many people become anxious due to social media. Some studies have shown those on 7 or more social media apps are up to three times as likely to feel anxious than others. The ultimate reason has not been studied in enough depth, but I’d say anticipation anxiety exists, as does anxiety over status, over the gamification of social media, of not getting replies, and the threat of having your entire life and career ruined because an online mob somewhere dislike something you said or did.
  • Sleep disturbance – a few friends have been shocked that I turn my phone and Internet off at night. I try to be away from any kind of screen at least an hour before bed. Artificial light from screens has been shown to reduce production of the hormone melatonin and thus reduce your ability to sleep well.
  • Reduced self-esteem – Do you compare yourself to others on social media?  Jordan Peterson says we ought to compare ourselves to who we were yesterday, but too many online compare themselves to often amped up images of other people right now. We see their vacations and think their lives perfect or we see their airbrushed photos and wonder why we’re not perfect too. Social media is often a cultivated mirage which only goes to make us feel worse about ourselves.
  • Relationships – About 6 years ago I went on a date with my then girlfriend. It was a near empty Thai restaurant with gold-painted polystyrene art. Near us a couple were on their first date and they were looking at each other’s Tinder profiles rather than engaging in a real conversation. Studies have shown recall of encounters when a phone is present as less positive than when one isn’t around. Other studies are showing increased jealousy in women due to Facebook and lower levels of relationships and sex in the social media era. While it’s easier to meet people fewer and fewer are or at least in any meaningful way.
  • Loneliness – despite being more connected to other people around the world at any time in human history, we are lonelier than ever before. An American Journal of Preventive Medicine study of 7,000 young people found those who use social media are twice as likely to feel lonely. This comes from the intensity of using social media compared to the down feeling of life away from the phone, but also because social interaction online has replaced real world interactions.

How is social media a tool?

Social media is a tool because each application possesses specific features which can be utilized. We come to see these apps as a part of life, an extension of ourselves, and are used reflexively. We wake up, turn the phone on, and check our app notifications. Reflex. Reflex.

However, at their core, each app has a set of functions which when used proactively can be useful to us. LinkedIn in theory should be a place to network with people within your industry. Facebook is a place to create targeted ads for your business. Twitter and Instagram are places for brand development – even if that brand is you.

Then you have more mundane apps which might not feel like social media, but come with a smartphone or can be added to them – email, organizers, invoicing apps, and so on. Do you need them? And do you need them on your phone?

Treat each app like a tool and work out the material benefit of using it. How can the tool be exploited to further your brand, products, or business or for that matter, networking. Compare this to the downsides of using the app.

How to use social media

Using social media requires a clear mind and a focused approach. It’s easy to fall into habitual and addictive or reactive or even narcissistic approaches on social media, so before you start or re-start, consider these things:

  • Treat social media as a tool

The first thing you need to do is make a psychological shift in your mind. Turn social media from an arm of your social self into a set of tools. Your social nature can be better expressed by talking to others, being with them, sharing in real world activities, and so on. Even if you do not run a business, treat social media as a tool – have a specific aim and purpose whenever you use them. 

  • Decide which tools are the most useful

Which tools do you need for your business or social life and why? Really hammer down on this and also to their effectiveness as tools. For example, Jim Harmer of Income School runs one of the worlds top photography sites with a massive Facebook page and group with hundreds of thousands of followers, and yet only a few percent ever moved off Facebook onto the Improve Photography website. 

As a result, Jim realized Facebook was not an effective social media tool for his or most other businesses unless you were paying for advertising. Instagram can build brand awareness, but you can only have one link in the bio and none others, thus limiting its appeal too. 

Decide first what you want to achieve – brand building, connecting with certain people, influencing, marketing, or brand building, and then judge each tool by its merits. Discard any social media tool which is not beneficial to what you are trying to achieve.

  • Create a social media strategy

Now you know which social media tools you really need for your business. Now you need a strategy and you need to keep to it. Why? For the reasons mentioned above – social media can and will distract you as well as affect your mental health. We’re looking to improve focus and effectiveness here. Design your strategy around why you need the tool and what it’s needed for. Limit the tool to just those activities – no browsing, no reacting. Just stick to proactive and creative actions.

  • Don’t let your tools leave the office

Since the proliferation of smart devices and social media, how often have we seen people working beyond their normal work hours? How often have I received an email or WhatsApp message at 9pm from a boss or client demanding an answer right then and there? Too often. 

Don’t let your work follow you outside of your working hours or office. This is what I did – now anyone demanding an instant reply or update can wait until the next time you’re at work. Yes, there will be some people who just cannot accept that. I have lost the odd client that way, but most adapt and some have even come around to my way of thinking and are much better for it.

  • Take a social media break

I started off this article on the theme of a social media break, so will finish with it too. In this article we’ve examined the nature of social media and how to approach it. However, it’s not easy to adapt your current approaches and behaviours right away. 

What are the benefits of a social media break?

The benefits of not using social media are a reversal of the problems outlined above. Many, such as Daisy reporting in The Guardian, say their stress and anxiety levels were reduced by getting off Facebook. She also found herself comparing herself less to others who seemed to be living the perfect life. She then began to catch up in the real world more often with friends and to have more meaningful conversations with them.

Getting offline or at least off social media allows for a more positive outlook in the world. Yes, it requires what Tim Ferris calls “selective ignorance,” but this is not a bad thing. We cannot know and process everything that’s going on in the world, but should instead focus on what we can control. Therefore, if you want to achieve certain things you’re best off doing them offline – I can write more when away from the Internet and social media distractions as well as feeling happier and more content.

A lot of people, according to Cal Newport when talking to Lewis Howes, find it beneficial to take a 30-day break. This is what I did last August. It changed my approach to the world. I’d grown up in a pre-online and pre-social media world. Good days. So maybe it was easier, but either way, it’s worth trying.

If you take a clean break and get rid of all social media and indeed your smartphone for 30 days, you can reset your mind and your habits. You’ll discover or rediscover practical skills like map reading or you’ll meet more people or talk on the phone more, and you’ll realize you don’t really miss social media. 

When the 30 days are over maybe you’ll permanently delete some apps and with the others, take the approaches I’ve discussed above. Give it a try – you might be happier.