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Microprocessing

What Do Social Media Breaks Accomplish?

Original Photo by Gunnar Sigurðarson

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today, to give you a better tomorrow.

LLike many people before her, Molly realized she had a problem when her social media use started interfering with her romantic relationship.

“It wasn’t so much that we were fighting—more like I had a harder time being present,” says Molly, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy. “Our interactions were becoming really surface level.”

That wasn’t the only issue — the endless onslaught of bad news from these platforms and the resulting effect on her mood was also a factor. Molly decided social media was having a significantly negative impact on her life. So she decided to take a break.

Her situation is hardly unusual. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are becoming so ingrained in our lives — and so absolutely exhausting — that there are now numerous terms for its negative effects: social media fatigue, information overload, social media burnout.

As a result, many people are electing to take temporary breaks from their feeds. A 2018 Pew research poll found that 74 percent of adult Facebook users have attempted to reevaluate their relationship with the network, from deleting the phone app (26 percent) to adjusting their privacy settings (54 percent) to taking a break for at least a few weeks (42 percent).

And while people announcing their social media breaks can seem performative or even a bit annoying (sorry, y’all), they might have the right idea. Taking a break from social media isn’t a silver bullet for having a perfect relationship with our online accounts, but when done thoughtfully, it can make a difference.

The perils of social media are well documented. It encourages disassociation, meaning we have difficulty remembering that behind an avatar is (usually) a real-life person with their own emotions, thoughts, and sensitivities. Social media can foster toxic conversation and compels users to say outrageous, inflammatory things to earn more engagement from their followers. And it can simply make us feel bad: One 2015 study looked at how college students emotionally respond to social media and found that the more they checked their social media accounts, the worse they felt. A 2018 Pew poll found that 54 percent of surveyed teens felt they spent too much time on their phones.

“If you stop logging into Facebook, you’re not going to get the shakes and start vomiting and going into physical withdrawals.”

“What I’ve seen in my work, which is more qualitative in nature, is that people don’t like the fact that they’ve become sort of fixated on [social media],” says Jeremy Birnholtz, an associate professor of communication studies and director of the Social Media Lab at Northwestern University. Users decide they want to leave social media when “they don’t feel like they’re getting benefits from social media anymore… or they’re spending too much time looking at their feeds, seeking engagement, figuring out things to post.”

And a lot of them, apparently, are having a hard time breaking away, even temporarily. A 2014 study, one of only a handful that directly address intentionally temporary social media hiatuses, looked at people who give up Twitter for Lent and found that just 64 percent of them were able to do so successfully. One school-aged participant in the study told the authors that she typically checked Facebook immediately upon waking, posted a picture on Instagram while getting ready for school, checked Facebook about five times during each class, as well as during all breaks and after school, and stayed on her phone periodically until she went to sleep.

“Giving up social media for a week and not knowing if she was being messaged or not was nerve-wracking,” the study reports. “A month would be ‘torture’ at first, but she would learn to break her habit.”

Another paper, from 2018, analyzed the experiences of 152 participants who were instructed to stay off social media for a week. It found that 90 participants were unable to stay offline the entire time without “relapsing”; a significant number also experienced mild “withdrawal” syndromes, such as heightened cravings and boredom.

It’s worth noting, however, that the use of the word “addiction” is somewhat controversial among researchers who study social media. Eric Baumer, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Lehigh University who has studied social media “nonuse,” as he puts it, tells OneZero that so-called social media addiction can be better compared to problematic gambling or gaming.

“If you stop logging into Facebook, you’re not going to get the shakes and start vomiting and going into physical withdrawals,” Baumer says. It’s more like a gambling problem, he says, because “it’s less a question of addiction and more a question of impulse control.”

A 2016 study of more than 1,000 participants found that people who took a one-week break from Facebook had greater life satisfaction.

Baumer says he has found in his research that after a hiatus, the people who elect not to return to social media might not be who you’d expect. “You see things like people talking about missing out on photos and birthdays from friends and family and various events. Interestingly, the people who talk about those kinds of experiences were less likely to go back to the site.”

Instead, the people who struggled to stay away were those whose interactions with social media were compulsive, not intentional. “The thing that really draws us back to Facebook when we try to leave, it’s not necessarily about the strength of our connections with our friends and family members,” Baumer says. “It’s about that habitual usage.”

This is precisely what a social media break can help people kick. While quitting, even temporarily, can be difficult for many of us, it might actually pay off. A 2016 study of more than 1,000 participants found that people who took a one-week break from Facebook said they had greater life satisfaction and positive emotionality. These results were particularly pronounced among heavy Facebook users and those who experienced FOMO, or fear of missing out. Another study, from 2018, randomly assigned 143 college students to limit either Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat to no more than 10 minutes a day. It concluded that limiting social media use “may lead to significant improvement in well-being.”

Laura Bright, an associate professor of strategic communication at Texas Christian University, has found in her forthcoming research that taking social media hiatuses can be beneficial to users’ mental health.

“Many times, [participants] will report feeling more connected with friends during breaks and feeling better about themselves and their station in life, because they’re not doing constant social comparison,” Bright tells OneZero.

Baumer says that one of the greatest things social media users may gain from a hiatus is a greater sense of control. He conducted a study in which Facebook users who had previously considered leaving the platform deactivated their account. “Regardless of whether people went back to the site or stayed off, they described their actions as giving them a greater sense of agency,” he says. “Being off Facebook, they felt like they were more in control [of] themselves.”

However, taking social media breaks, or quitting altogether, isn’t a great option for everyone. Birnholtz, who has studied how young LGBTQ men use the internet, says that for young gay men in rural or conservative areas, taking a break from social media means taking a break from much of their community and closest friends. And Baumer tells OneZero that in his study, users who relied on Facebook for professional reasons actually felt less agency when off the platform.

Still, for those of us who feel compelled to tap those little Facebook or Instagram icons or who automatically start typing “twitter.com” when opening a new window, a hiatus may prove beneficial. It’s possible that making a concerted effort to cut down on daily use, rather than going cold turkey, could help realign your relationship with social media, quell that desire to frequently check for updates, and tamp down the need for constant engagement and validation.

Taking social media breaks, or quitting altogether, isn’t a great option for everyone.

Social media is designed to hook users. It’s meant to “addict” us, to keep us checking it constantly and stay on longer once we do. But strategies like temporary breaks or limiting use to a certain amount of time per day can make it a lot easier to approach our online time in a way that feels more rewarding and meaningful.

As for Molly? Her break wasn’t perfect — she says she shopped more and missed her cadre of online friends, who are “mostly refugees from the comment sections of now-defunct sites.” But all in all, her hiatus went well: She says she exercised more and went out more often, and now that she’s back, Molly is much more aware of when her use starts getting excessive. Even better, she tells OneZero that she and her partner “had several difficult and ultimately really rewarding conversations, and we actually got engaged.”

If that’s not a wonderful sign of success, what is?

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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