A few months ago, I noticed something interesting: On days when I was so active and busy that I did not have time to look at Facebook, I was much happier than on days when I constantly scrolled through my newsfeed. I wasn’t sure if my mild Facebook-induced depression was a result of my frustration with the political posts filling up my page or my jealousy at seeing friends’ exotic vacations, but the correlation between my mood and hours logged was clear.
Curious to explore this further, I decided to take a month-long retreat from social media. I hypothesized that if I was happiest on days when I didn’t have time to look at Facebook, maybe I could increase my overall level of contentment and my productivity by consciously decreasing my usage.
As the recent invention of a keyboard that delivers an electric shock to users who spend too much time on Facebook suggests, breaking the Facebook habit is not easy. Without a physical prod to enforce my resolve, I had to take other steps to maintain my self-imposed ban.
It took about a week for me to stop composing status updates in my head and taking random pictures for which I imagined likable captions...
I told all my friends I was taking a break and instructed them to use old-fashioned email or the phone if they needed me. Then, I got rid of the Facebook app from my phone. It was a little intimidating to hit “delete” after the dire warning that all the associated content would be lost, but I knew I needed to make it harder to get at the addictive stream of puppy pics, ironic commentaries, and birthday reminders. Yes, I could still access Facebook through my phone’s web browser or on my computer, but the extra effort of doing so was generally enough to deter me.
It took about a week for me to stop composing status updates in my head and taking random pictures for which I imagined likable captions, but as I adjusted to the private life, I found that I was more relaxed and that I actually enjoyed my privacy.
The biggest surprise was that my break from Facebook didn’t produce a surplus of spare time. Somehow, I had expected to find myself with extra hours each day to write or cook or clean, but it turned out that Facebook was part of a multitasking experience for me. No wonder I'd forget to put the coffee in the French press before pouring the water in. In some ways, then, my break from Facebook became an exercise in mindfulness, and one that I’m sure I needed.
Recent studies have shown that chronic multitaskers have difficulty focusing, even when they aren’t multitasking. One researcher says they are “impulsive, sensation-seeking, and overconfident of their multitasking abilities.” Perhaps this helps explain why I often felt frenzied, scattered, and stressed on days when I was logged on. Maybe it wasn’t Facebook’s fault, but rather that I was dividing my attention between Facebook and watching TV or cooking dinner or paying bills.
More likely the decline in happiness I experience when using Facebook too much is a combination of the multitasking behavior it encourages and the nature of the social media experience. A 2013 study that tracked Facebook use and feelings of satisfaction concluded that regardless of the number of Facebook friends a person has, or her reasoning for using the site, those who check the site frequently report lower levels of overall satisfaction. (The researchers concede that they only studied people’s behavior and feelings for a brief span of time, but their findings are nonetheless striking and certainly correlate with my experiences.)
When my month-long retreat was up, I did log back on to Facebook, but my usage habits have definitely changed. I’m not missing much by tuning out of Facebook, but I was missing an awful lot of what was happening right in front of me when most of my daily interactions were with a screen.
This program aired on October 9, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.