3 social media illusions I discovered while taking a break from it

As some of you know, I decided to take a month long social media break in January. While I missed some things about this place and mostly the people within it, this time away was enlightening, timely, reorienting, and refreshing.

Stepping away gave me room to more clearly see some things, both inside of my screen and inside of me, that had become blurry from being up close. On a much more surface (but still important) level, this break pushed me to rediscover some of my simple joys and gave me more time for hobbies. It allowed me to be more creative in how I stayed up to date on all sorts of news. It also helped me to be generally more focused and engaged with who or what was in front of me. On a bit of a deeper level, it exposed some of my heart and health. It revealed some surprising parts that live inside of me that somehow circle back to social media. It also caused a sense of retaliation to rise up in me against those “nerd gods” who calculatedly play on our insecurities and desires, to make a profit off of our handheld devices. It made me more convinced of what Bill Maher said about Phillip Morris just wanting our lungs and the App Store wanting our soul. It enabled me to reevaluate and revise my own relationship with my phone, and more specifically, the world of social media that lives inside it.

Yet I’m back. Cautiously but not reluctantly. Just like that, I’m back in the middle of this social media tension of “it’s obtrusive and draining and can be a time suck” and “it’s useful and beneficial and good can come from it.” But I’m hoping to tread this tension a little more diligently with the starting point that Cal Newport suggests: my values. This stepping away has also allowed me to better pinpoint my values and then ask, not the question of, “does this or that forum/app/platform have the potential to support my values?” But rather “is this thing, or the way I am using it, the very best way to enhance and promote my values?” And then striving to make digital and life choices that are answers to that fundamental question. Values can be anything from humor and beauty to faith and friendship. They don’t always have to be deep; they just have to be worthy of our time. They are the very things that we want our lives to be marked by.

If in the end you have decided to still be here too, in at least some capacity, I’m glad that you are. I hope that sharing some of these illusions that have become more evident to me after this past month will help inform, expose, diagnose, and encourage you as you seek to tread in this tension, too:

1. The illusion of urgency

I have found that for myself there is a strange phenomenon behind the very concept of “being on” social media. It brings about this sense of urgency in me. It’s like we, or at least I know I, feel this automatic pressure and draw to be constantly checking and responding and getting back. I hear the nagging voice on repeat “everyone is waiting on you!”

As soon as I made the declaration to myself and to others that I would be off social media, it was as if the nagging voice was silenced. As if I could take a deep breath. As if suddenly no one was waiting on me because they just knew I was away. And there was something instantaneously freeing in that.

Yet the most surprising part that I have begun to see is that this “urgency illusion” mostly comes from my own addicted brain and not actual people. The voice doesn’t come from friends saying, or indicating, or even feeling a sense of “where were you on social media today? Did you see what I posted?” It more comes from the voice inside my head looping through the vague yet enticing words “you’re missing out.” The idea of FOMO doesn’t just apply to real life experiences we know we’re not a part of. It’s more sneaky and deceptive than just that. It can also apply to this mystical idea that if we’re not refreshing our social media feeds every hour (or 20 minutes) then we might miss something. Something that is, in fact, not even there.

Here’s the reality whether social media is actively a part of my life or not: it will wait. It doesn’t need me. Every little red circle with a white number inside of it does not actually require an instant click. It will still be there. Even an hour or day or week later.

So in order to defraud this perception of urgency, can we not apply the same sort of space and freedom and patience to ourselves that we would if we were taking an announced social media break? Can we find ways to bridge the gap between social media addiction and quitting social media cold turkey?

Possibly for you this gap will be bridged simply by your mental consent that the urgency is actually just an illusion. You will not give in as quickly knowing that the pressure is not actually there, regardless of if you tell people you’re away from your phone or just decide to be. Yet I have become convinced, in large part due to the money making psychological schemes that are intentionally used to keep us coming back for more, it is going to require doing something more drastic than conjuring up the will power. It could look like app limits or app deletions. Or silencing or disabling notifications. Or carving out regular and routine times away from our phones. Or even something more extreme. For me personally, this will mean some pretty significant changes including things like designated scroll days/times and a husband with my pass code. My “rules” might continue to change down the road  in this ever-revisionary relationship with my phone. But, one thing I now know for myself is that it will always require more embarrassing measures than I would like for it to. Like buying a good old alarm clock to sleep by instead.

Whatever it takes, though, the bridge being built will require us remembering and then stubbornly proving to ourselves again and again that our phones will non-tauntingly, without pressure, void of compulsion, unfailing…. wait. This battery powered device’s mere existence, even with its instant availability, does not automatically require that we be on it. It is there. But we do not always have to be there with it.

2. The illusion of connection

I’m starting to see that changing our relationship with social media is not just about changing how we use it, but diagnosing why we do. It’s about discerning not just what our phone is saying to us, but what our phone is saying about us. Exposing not just what we want to accomplish inside of a screen, but what we are hoping to accomplish through that screen, inside of ourselves.

This accomplishing something inside of us might look like approval or affirmation, boredom or laziness, insecurity or escapism, fear or pride. Our desires to be on social media certainly are not all bad. Some may be simple and silly, but not negative. Some are even deeply good and beneficial. However, the infectious ones are well worth the hard work of self examination. Whatever shape our void or desire or motive takes, it is actively and aggressively looking to be filled. So it resorts to the quick fix of habitually grabbing the phone and then dismissing it as harmless. In an effort to connect quickly and easily to whatever is in our phone, we may be forfeiting all kinds of other real life connections; starting with the connection to our very own selves. Our minds might scroll aimlessly, but our hearts do so longingly. Running away by scrolling has a way of drowning out the voices inside of us. We may be simultaneously expressing ourselves online but losing ourselves in real life. 

In his book How Your Phone Is Changing You, Tony Reinker pegs one of these voids that we may actually be after when we reach for our phone as, loneliness. “Smartphones and social media were supposed to cure the epidemic of loneliness. We would all be connected—all together, all the time—and none of us would ever feel alone. But the harsh truth is that we can always be lonely, even in a crowd—and now, even more so, in a digital crowd.”

Why? Why is it that technology can lessen the gap between oceans yet simultaneously widen the one between room furniture that our friends and family are sitting on across from us? Ultimately I believe it’s because humans were made to live in real life community and not just screen level connectivity.

I think when our deepest connections are being met in the world outside of us we can stop trying to force them into the screens beside us. When we initiate friendships that we can stop counting followers. When we let others get close enough to see our flaws that we can stop fooling people with our filters. When we take the time to get to know our raw real-life-selves that we can stop rushing to present our best online-selves. When we stop spending the majority of our relational energy watching stories from those we will likely never meet that we can sit down and hear the stories of our neighbors who just moved in down the street.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that our screens (including the social media that is inside of them) have the unique ability to start and strengthen and shift friendship. I have grown in my respect for, understanding of, and camaraderie with many others solely through social media forums.  Whether it is thought out or thrown together words, immaculate or mundane pictures, sweet or silly comments; I’ve been challenged, picked up, inspired, humbled, emboldened, and educated. I’ve waited in anticipation for the happy announcements. I’ve cried at the sad ones. I’ve laughed at the funny ones. And I knew some of my own would be met with the same cheers and tears and laughter. Perhaps most significantly, I’ve been able to keep up with some of my very favorite human beings who live cities and states and countries away, in an almost day-to-day way.

Yet even with all of this, I have found that social media simply does not have the ability to ultimately and primarily sustain the truest of friendships. It can be an incredible source for all sorts of connection, but it will fail us every time if we hold it out to be our sole hope for deep and lasting community.

True community consists of people who show up in what Andy Crouch calls “the vulnerable moments of life.” They show up, fully present and fully human. Both of which can only take place outside the digital world and inside of the real one. This real world is where face-to-face we see eyes that empathize, lips that tremble, and hands that cheer. It’s where hugs are embraced, smiles are exchanged, and laughs are shared. It’s a flesh and blood, beating heart, all in it together, kind of place. The internet can enhance our experience in the world, it just cannot come close to replacing it or completing it.

I think the catch is that the more wholly connected we are in physical life, the more healthily connected we can become online.

3. The illusion of control

Illusions are the distorted version of what is, at least likely in part, true. It takes an ounce of what is and morphs it into what is not. Therefore I think exposing illusions for what they are calls for stepping back and sifting out the points of truth and then seeing where they have been twisted.

The truth is that our phones are exactly what they say they are, smart. Extremely, almost eerily, smart. The truth is that the distance between the person holding their device and what is inside of it is oceans deep and miles long and informational books stacked high. The truth is that one single device brings dozens of time zones, thousands of languages, and billions of people all to the same exact place all at the same exact time. The truth is that there really is so much potential and power cooped up in one glowing rectangle that can slip inside a single pant pocket. There’s no denying that it’s simply astounding what our phones are capable of.

The subtle shift happens, however, when we go from thinking that these devices are a source of knowledge to believing that they are a wellspring of endless wisdom. We then become controlled by the very thing that we were seeking after for control. Enslaved by the very thing we were running to for freedom. Conquered by the very devices we subtly thought we ourselves could conquer with.

The unchangeable reality that I’m learning is that the relationship we are to have with the preexisting material world can never be found or accomplished in our modern day man-made devices. There is a world outside of our phones that is too big, too beautiful, too raw, too scary, too complex, too brilliant, to ever fit behind a glass. Even the most impressive technology could never reproduce fresh air, soothing scents, and breathtaking sights. Human beings are too whole to trade our interactions with what is already breathing and blossoming in the world for our interactions with what requires chargers and batteries from a store.

We were created with too much capacity to reduce our selves down to phone-size. Our relational space was meant to keep expanding us into the world not shrinking us down into our phone. We’re gaining technological access while forfeiting God given autonomy. We’re exchanging consuming for creating. We’re seeking domination over cultivation. The world that we now think is in the palm of our hand is actually busy slipping right through our finger tips.

Therefore, the antidote to rightly relating to our phones must be rightly relating to the world around us, first. A physical world made up of time and people and nature. A world that our phones will never have the ability to replicate and therefore should never- and in the truest senses could never- replace. I want to jump in the water, taste the food, climb the mountain, feel the sun rays, smell the flowers (and the coffee) … and not just capture and caption them all. I want to intake what God is teaching me in the quiet spaces and not just turn around and output it into the loudest places. I want to let the experiences happening around me simmer and settle inside of me without plotting how to put them in a box on Facebook and rushing to tie them together with a bow on Instagram. I think when we take our little worlds- filled with their own kind of beauty and grace and mess- and delicately and intentionally translate them into a screen, we can stop asking our screens to instead translate the world for us.

Maybe when we choose to release the grip of urgency, defraud the promise for community, and let go of the quest for control, we can start the journey of using our phones instead of being used by them. And maybe, just maybe, the ultimate irony is actually that when we stop trying to make our phones be a means of mastery, they will instead – in a beautifully freeing way- become an avenue for enjoyment.

A mere expression, not an intrusive robbery, of what we value and care about, most.

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