It wasn’t until I quit my job as a newspaper reporter that I realized the stranglehold social media had over my life.
Up until the end of May, I was a business and technology reporter at the Waterloo Region Record, where a natural part of the job required me to spend hours every week on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, scouring the Internet for story ideas.
After more than a decade as a journalist, social media was ingrained in my daily life. I’d check Twitter while waiting for my morning kettle to boil so I could catch up on any breaking news that might have happened overnight, or I’d browse local Facebook and Reddit groups to find out what people were talking about in the community.
It worsened during the pandemic. Working from home meant I was essentially cut off from my community and co-workers, so I leaned even harder on the social media crutch. But as my isolation from people outside my immediate family grew, I was growing increasingly distracted and irritable towards my wife and two daughters.
I’d lose my temper over the smallest incident, like the girls fighting over a toy or the television remote, and raise my voice in ways that, in retrospect, I had never done before. Usually my response was calm, collected, but firm; but now I was annoyed, irritated and frustrated all the time, and it was getting worse.
At first I chalked it up to the stress of my job combined with the uncertainty of the pandemic. But when I left my job, the anger and irritability didn’t disappear. That’s when I realized something else was wrong.
It wasn’t the job – at least, not entirely. I had a hunch it was my Twitter and Instagram feeds; social media was making me a worse father.
My wife and I had taken enormous steps to shield our two young girls from the impact of social media by sharing very few photos or other information about them online, but the technology still found a way to worm its way into their lives through me.
I decided I needed to make a change. We rented a cottage in Grand Bend during the second week of July and I conducted an experiment while we were away by deleting Instagram and Twitter from my phone. I also didn’t take a laptop or any other devices to the cottage that week, except for my phone.
I was inspired by the book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain, an American filmmaker and the founder of the Webby Awards – an annual celebration of the best the Internet has to offer, sort of like the Academy Awards for the web.
The author urged readers to take one full day of rest by completely unplugging from their smartphones, tablets, computers – anything with a screen – and just live in the moment for 24 hours. She was inspired by the weekly Shabbat, or Jewish day of rest.
I decided to take it one step further and see if I could go the entire week without social media. It was actually pretty easy to slough off my dependence on Instagram; I don’t post much anyway, and I often just scroll mindlessly for hours. Deleting the app and ignoring that online world was surprisingly smooth.
Facebook was also fairly easy to give up since I usually only go to the site once or twice a week to see whose birthday I might have missed, and I’ve never even installed the app on my phone.
Twitter, though, was a whole different beast. At first I thought I would just delete the app from my home page. Out of sight, out of mind, I thought to myself.
But that decision to delete it just from the home page instead of from the phone itself was probably the first sign something was amiss – why couldn’t I just delete it like Instagram, or ignore it like Facebook?
Within an hour I had typed “Twitter” into my phone search function and launched the app. It was then I realized I couldn’t give myself an easy opportunity to dive back in; I needed to just rip off that bandaid and delete it altogether. So I did.
My screen time plummeted as a result. The week after I deleted the apps from the phone, my usage fell by 41 per cent down to just over two hours per day. And the number of times I picked up my phone fell by the same percentage to just 36 times per day.
The trend continued even after we returned home, with my usage hovering around the two-hour mark every day – and the majority of that was for streaming music and podcasts on Spotify.
Over a period of 56 days between July 8 (just before we left for the cottage) and Sept. 2, I tweeted a total of 15 times, and didn’t make one post on Instagram. This is remarkable, considering I’ve averaged nearly six tweets per day, every single day, since I joined 12 years ago.
And the companies took notice. I started getting emails from Instagram almost every day, alerting me to new updates from friends that I might have missed. And Twitter also started alerting me to popular tweets I had missed from some of the accounts I follow.
They knew I had logged off, and were trying to drag me back.
The addictive nature of social media has been well-documented, and these companies are using our own brains against us to continue to entice us to log on. Whenever we get an alert, “like” or some other notification, our brains receive a flood of dopamine (the so-called “feel good” hormone).
The more you log on, the more you crave it.
But that can also lead to compulsive and excessive use of the technology. I never dreamed I’d become addicted – I didn’t even get my first cellphone until I was done university in 2008, and it wasn’t until 2011 that I got my first iPhone.
It had happened so slowly, so incrementally, that I didn’t even notice; the time spent waiting for the kettle to boil, or the hour or so on the couch before bed just scrolling through content without really reading anything – it all added up.
And it was taking a toll on my interactions with my family. I’d get irritated when my girls tried to talk to me, ask me questions, or wanted me to play while my face was buried in my phone doing “very important work,” as I told myself.
And I believe the seemingly never-ending deluge of crazy Donald Trump stories or doom-and-gloom headlines related to climate change that flooded my Twitter timeline daily were leaving me in a persistent state of worry, anger and apprehension, and those feelings were being transferred onto my family.
Deleting the apps and ridding myself of the endless distraction not only relieved the stress in my life, it gave me more time to spend with my girls and slowed my life down.
I even managed to read 10 books between June and September, after averaging about one book per year over the past few years.
But it hasn’t been perfect. Over the past few weeks I have found myself logging into Twitter on my phone via Chrome; the site sucks if you’re not using the app, but it’s just as addictive. And I can sense those old feelings of frustration, annoyance and anger seeping back into my life.
After a few months away I started to feel the tug of Twitter again; all these online relationships I’d developed over the years were beckoning. I needed to know what they were talking about!
I went from spending my summer enjoying reading again and easily reading for a few hours each day, to having to force myself to focus on the words printed on the page and not the words flooding my Twitter feed.
I’m still a journalist and freelance writer, and many of my ideas come from what people share or complain about online. I’ll need to find tougher ways to restrict my own access.
As for Facebook? As the company continually tries to bury bad publicity and concerns over privacy, misinformation and hate speech on the platform, or how its own products (such as Instagram) are toxic for users – especially teenage girls – well, the more everyone steers clear of it, the better we’ll all be.