After receiving a damning screen-time report, Alice Webb-Liddall gave up on social media for two weeks and discovered more than just a few more hours in her day.
I was home sick from work two weeks ago when I encountered a shameful problem I didn’t realise I had. Swiping right on my home screen, I brought up the little counter that measures minutes I spend on my phone each day and the number was higher than I had ever seen before: seven hours. I had spent seven hours over the course of the day looking at the brain-dissolving blue light of my phone screen. For five of those hours I was scrolling the endless pit of TikTok, filling my brain with the garbled nonsense of millionaire teen influencers.
Returning to work the next day, unable to think about one thing for longer than 10 seconds at a time, I confessed to Spinoff boss Duncan Greive my screen-time sins and was told off in a friendly, mostly concerned way about the sheer volume of content I was consuming daily.
I felt genuinely guilty, for the first time in my life, about my social media use. As a member of gen-Z, it feels like part of my makeup to use social media excessively. It’s been hardwired into me since I first got Facebook at 13 years old. By 14 I had Instagram and Tumblr and a year later also had a Snapchat and a Vine account and frequently visited the horrible question-answer site Ask.fm. More recently my preferred poison has been TikTok.
During high school, a common way to gauge how an Instagram post was performing was the “minutes game”. If a post had fewer likes than the amount of minutes it had been up, after one hour it would be deleted. What was meant to be a “game” to ensure posts were getting fast engagement turned into a surefire way to feel unnecessarily bad. If a post got fewer than 100 likes overall, it was embarrassing, and my peers would flex their posts that got over 200 likes as though they had reached a whole new realm of social media popularity.
About a year ago I set myself a goal of one hour per day for each social media app. That’s one hour on Twitter, one hour on Facebook and one hour on Instagram. It was a monstrous goal that I almost always overshot, so two weeks ago I turned it all off. I logged out of everything, deleted every social media app apart from Instagram, and moved that off my home screen. I also turned my phone to black and white in an attempt to limit the endorphin rush I had become addicted to over a decade of social media abuse.
The first day was just like any New Year’s Day, with a fresh resolution under my belt: no social media unless for work. I felt positive about it. I didn’t have any hopes for the experiment. I just wanted to see what, if anything, would happen to me without social media. How much of my personality is made up of the content I mindlessly absorb? How many of my insecurities are created through social media?
It’s been 14 days since then, and this is what I’ve learnt.
There are 24 hours in a day
Maybe it’s because summer is quickly approaching, but there seems to be a two-ish-hour extension to each day that I was previously unaware of. All the things I thought I would get around to one day, when I had more time, I’ve now done. I took in a dress (badly), made pickles, made bread, planted a vege garden and tried my hand at rolling sushi for the first time, all on Labour Day Monday.
I took a photo of the sushi but because my phone is in black and white now I have no idea how that photo turned out. I also took a photo of my thriving blueberry plant that’s gonna give me at least a smoothie’s worth of berries by the height of summer, but instead of posting it to my Insta story, I sent it to my dad. He replied “wow, looks great”, and honestly that’s better than any comment I would have received from any of my online friends.
After the first week of no socials, I got my first screen-time report. “Down 78% from last week”, it buzzed at me. I was now using my phone for an average of one hour per day. That means the week before had an average of over five hours per day.
My life feels more satisfying than before
Nothing much has actually changed to make my life hugely better, but my overuse of social media took its toll on how I felt my life was tracking. After a decade of bombarding myself with images of other people’s lives, or at least the very best parts of them, I have only now realised it was making me feel worse about my own.
I’ve not seen an influencer in a bikini on a boat, or a high school friend parked up at a Waiheke winery or even a picture of someone’s breakfast in 14 days now, and I feel considerably better about my own life. No part of me is concerned that I had toast for breakfast while my friend had smashed avo, because as far as I’m concerned, everybody had toast. It’s Schrödinger’s breakfast.
Feeling bad about my own situation wasn’t something I was even aware was occurring. It’s not a conscious thought when you’re scrolling a feed, but the layers of unhappiness had built up over years, settling like silt in the part of my brain that controls self-image, self-worth and overall satisfaction.
Now a good day can be just that. I no longer find myself lying in bed after a wonderful dinner with friends, scrolling through my feed and feeling bitter that my day didn’t include walking to the top of a waterfall.
Hanging out with my friends is better now
The idea of putting everyone’s phones in a pile in the middle of the table at dinner has always irked me, and the person who suggests it always comes across a little bit smug and annoying. Now that person is me. I understand how frustrating it is to be somewhere with a group of people on their phones when you’re not on yours. Sorry to all the boomers I have sat with at family dinners and shrugged off conversation with to mindlessly scroll.
For the most part, I’ve found when nobody is on their phone, everyone is happier. When social media is deleted from a situation, people become more present. Conversations become deeper and more interesting and in turn, people don’t actually want to be on their phones. It’s cyclical, and all it takes is one person to start that cycle.
I’m getting better at reading an analog clock
Are gen-Zs killing the analog clock the same way millennials killed bar soap and weddings? I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s inconvenient to have to go through steps to know what time it is when your phone will tell you with one tap, in numerals.
Taking time off social media and becoming more mindful of the amount of time I spend on my phone meant I quickly found myself feeling guilty for picking it up every few minutes to check the time. Putting an old Christmas present to use for the first time in about five years, I decided to start wearing my watch again. The only issue is that I haven’t had to read an analog clock since I learned to tell the time on one.
Yes, it still does take me embarrassingly long to read the time, but I would say my P.B. has been cut in half since two weeks ago, which is faster progress than I’ve ever had with running.
In the beginning the process of going cold turkey can be quite painful. Stabbing your social media accounts with a bleeding basilisk’s tooth might kill the horcrux but it will probably temporarily make you weaker. There’s no cure for that, ask Voldemort. But (and this is where my metaphor dies) when you push through that period of cold sweats, recovery begins.
A negative reaction isn’t surprising, because social media floods our brains with dopamine in the same way a drug might. Every 15-year-old with a social profile is dosing up daily, and the longer that goes on, the harder it can be to break the addiction.
While hundreds of studies argue the negative effects of social media on the brain, it seems clear from this small experiment of my own that it was only making me a worse person. I was tired after scrolling TikTok for hours before bed, sad that my life didn’t look the same as a full-time influencer, annoyed that I still hadn’t got around to the list of things I wanted to do after work, like take in a dress or plant my vege garden, and insecure that I wouldn’t get as many likes as my friends.
On Sunday I tested myself. I posted a picture on Instagram and then I logged off. I didn’t check how it was going or whether it had any comments, and I still haven’t. That’s something I’ve never done before.
Now, when I use social media for work, I log in and log out every time. It’s my way of preventing myself from mindlessly opening Twitter and Facebook without stopping to think whether I actually need to be there. Putting extra steps in the way of an easy scroll gives me time to reassess, and it’s been working.
For so many years, social media had me in its net. It sold me products, and sold me as a product to companies wanting my data, and I didn’t fully realise the effect it had on my mental health. After 10 years of daily use, I came to believe I needed it in order to stay up to date with everything. Logging off for just two weeks, I realised that’s the opposite of the truth. It needed me, and I cut it off.