Right now, a good number of you may be taking a mental health hiatus from social media. A worthwhile endeavor, assuming your brain is on board.
Leaving social media doesn’t always mean that social media leaves you. Dragging an overtapped icon from the dashboard of your smartphone to the trash or disabling the noise of notifications may remove the root of the problem, but you can’t so quickly delete what they’ve done to us.
My own breaks from social media have been characterized by long, conscious bouts of distraction, frustration, impatience, and that most contemporary of insecurities, FOMO — fear of missing out. One recent study in The Journal of Social Psychology that forced (my word) a group of participants to give up Facebook for five days found a correlating dip in cortisol (i.e. stress) but also in something called “life satisfaction” (i.e. just what it sounds like).
The disconnection — actual or perceived — that accompanies social media withdrawal isn’t real (look outside: there are people), but lately that’s not much of a disqualification. While we were staring into our hands, the quantization of our friendships, interests, values, and everything else we post into intangible commodities (“likes”) and transactions (“shares”) somehow flattened our sense of the world, our sense of shared humanity, and most ominously, our sense of ourselves.
“Most of this information doesn’t lead to any worthwhile change in our behavior our lives,” writes Srinivas Rao, host of the Unmistakable Creative podcast, in a post to Medium on his own social media hiatus. “If anything it’s programming our brains to cultivate more bad habits and develop shorter attention spans.”
Search “quitting social media” and you’ll find pages and pages of brave souls chronicling their journeys into darkness as though they were wandering naked into the Amazon or lowering themselves into a well. “My fingers kept automatically hitting the spots on my iPhone home screen where the social media icons used to reside,” writes one. “At my lowest point, I just wanted to sign on to Facebook to read status updates from people who think the Onion is a real news outlet,” writes another. And one of the more haunting revelations from Huffington Post writer Bailey Gaddis: “I felt cut off from reality, when in fact I was living more fully in reality.”
It’s fair to wonder, with so many of us on social media training toward the same uncertain goals, will we we ever be able to undo what we’ve done to ourselves? That is, do our brains stand a chance of recovering? How do we stop thinking differently? And is it any wonder people are signing up to embalm their brains for later use in better times? (That, by the way, is a real thing and a rhetorical question.)
But (and here’s where we pivot to hope) what if the brain is still good for something, right now?
In a piece for The Paris Review titled “The Time For Art Is Now,” novelist Claire Messud warns that our minds are wasted as a matter of course in our “culture of greed and self-interest” — and it may be more worthwhile to sign out of that than Facebook.
“Between the demands of social media (and our constant sense of inadequacy in the face of the thousands, nay millions, whose lives appear — often falsely — more orderly, productive and impressive than our own) and the lessons disseminated by our culture and its so-called leaders (for example, that monetary wealth is the ultimate goal), we risk losing sight of what makes existence meaningful,” she writes.
Joy, Messud suggests, can instead be found in states of “immaterial superfluity” — accessing our “interior world” through the departures of reading a book or “communing with a painting” — or through activities that serve “no clear point” but “make you human.”
“The moments that matter most often occur in our minds or imaginations. They may remain unarticulated, never breaking the surface of our lives, and yet they prove communicable nonetheless."
I’m not at the point where I’m deleting my social media presence quite yet, but Messud’s thoughts have already altered my routine. Her essay opens with a realization that “in these relentlessly dark and riven times, I find myself beset by a near ravenous hunger for beauty” — and in that regard, she likely represents a lot of us. So much of what we put out into social media begs for a response, the flash of a beacon in the form of a “like.”
But lately, I’ve been changing what and why I post; attempting to honor Messud’s call to art/arms by constraining my posts to songs I love, scenes from films I want others to see, poems I know by heart. These are things that connect us and ask for nothing in return. Social media has led us out of our minds; art, if given a chance, is the way back in.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MBrodeur.