The lessons I learnt during my social media break, and why I still love connecting online
When people talk about social media being a bad influence on mental health, I have mixed feelings. I can see how for many (especially young people) it can have a detrimental effect. But my experience has been nothing but positive.
As someone who’s experienced poor body image issues and an eating disorder, Instagram was the place I learnt to shrug off diet culture’s hold on me and accept my body. At the same time, Twitter showed me a wider view of the world and my interest in politics, intersectional feminism and social activism was peaked.
As a writer, blogger and a life coach, social media is where I go to connect with others, promote my work and have thought-provoking conversations. A couple of months ago, however, I was beginning to feel the strain of living my life online. I was losing hours to scrolling and felt pressured to ‘perform’, turning every moment of my day into #content.
I decided I needed to rethink my relationship with social media. I wanted a hard reset and planned a five-day break
I took those five days off work too, so I wasn’t writing articles or hustling to get more coaching clients. I wasn’t Kat the writer or Kat the coach. I was just Kat for a while.
And it’s probably not going to shock you when I say it was glorious. What might shock you though, are the lessons I learnt from my time offline.
1. Sharing online is an ingrained habit
I learned this lesson on day one. I was by the river in my hometown, with a plan to read and enjoy some sun. I noticed a particularly pretty view of reeds swaying in the wind and ducks swimming along and, without thinking, my hand reached for my phone.
I was getting ready to shoot an Instagram story of my view, rather than just enjoy it for myself. Of course I quickly realised what I was doing and put the phone down but... wow. I had no idea how much of a habit sharing had become.
As soon as I realised sharing was off the agenda, not only for that moment, but for the next five days - a weight lifted. I allowed myself to sit in moments in a deeper way than I had before and slowly the habit released its grip.
2. Boredom isn’t bad
Boredom was one of the things I was most worried about when I planned my social media break. After all, who doesn’t have a quick scroll while waiting for their coffee order at a cafe? I was so used to filling pockets of time with a quick check for new notifications, I wasn’t sure how I would handle the whitespace in my days.
At first, it was a challenge. My mind was like a restless toddler, demanding to be entertained by the bright colours on my phone. But, after a few days, I found other ways to fill that time. I picked up my book and read a couple of pages. I practiced mindfulness and let myself notice everything that was happening around me. I became an expert people watcher.
And do you know what happened next? Ideas began to flow. Words and stories came to me. I began writing short poems for no reason other than for fun. I realised that boredom allows our minds to wander and that’s where creativity thrives.
3. Scrolling can be a numbing tool for anxiety
During my break, the times when I missed social media the most was when I was feeling anxious. When my usual symptoms of chest pain and a tight throat kicked in mid-social media break, I realised how much scrolling social media usually numbs the discomfort of anxiety. Instead of facing difficult emotions, I would watch other people’s days through stories or get lost in a Twitter thread of cute cat videos.
Distraction can be a helpful tool for anxiety and panic disorder, so I don’t want to discredit it, but for me, having the opportunity to face my anxiety and difficult thoughts head on was helpful. I turned to other tools like journaling and meditation, and found them much more effective and long-lasting.
Now the break is over, I still reach for my phone for a little escapism when I’m feeling anxious, but now I’m much more likely to pause and consider my other options.
4. Online connection is beautiful
The other element of social media I missed was the connection with others. I was away from the office and my partner was working, so a lot of my break was spent alone. Even though I consider myself an introvert (I get recharged by alone time) I was surprised at how much I missed the conversations I have online.
Sharing something and having other people say, ‘yes! Me too!’ is a beautiful thing, especially when you talk about mental health, which I often do. It makes you feel understood and seen. For some communities, this is even more poignant. If you have a chronic illness, if you face discrimination, connecting with others who ‘get it’ can be a lifeline.
5. Intention is key
When my five days without social media was up, I felt like I had a new perspective on how I use it and what I gain from being on it less. During my break I got through so many books, had room to be more creative and discovered more helpful ways of managing my anxiety.
The time away from social media also highlighted to me why I love it so much - the connection
Since my break I’ve become a lot more intentional with my social media usage. I decluttered my feeds so I’m following inspiring and diverse accounts and have every Saturday off completely for a regular break. When I do log into my accounts, I know why I’m there. Sometimes it’s to enjoy a mindless scroll, but more often than not it’s to engage in conversations.
Social media isn’t the scary, addictive monster many people perceive it to be. When used in an intentional and mindful way, it can be uplifting and a tool for connection. The trick is to get to know your relationship with social media, consider how you can be more intentional, and then set up boundaries to support that.
Taking some time away from social media is a great way for you to get the clarity you need to do this. For me, five days was enough, for you, more time may be needed. Try to note how you feel without social media, what you miss and what you don’t. Take the opportunity to clear out accounts that make you feel bad and find new voices outside of your bubble to follow.
Take back control of your scroll.