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Technology

I went off social media for 30 days, and here's what happened

Aaron Aupperlee
| Tuesday, March 6, 2018, 2:27 p.m.
'Safety Net' will focus in the impacts and issues that social media use can create for young people. (AP file photo)
REUTERS
'Safety Net' will focus in the impacts and issues that social media use can create for young people. (AP file photo)

Social media has had a bit of a rough go recently.

Russia used it to meddle in our elections.

Bullies and trolls use it to attack, harass and make life miserable.

We use it and it could be damaging our mental health, our relationships and our democracies.

And I stopped using it. Temporarily.

But don't worry, I'm back.

I went completely off social media for 30 days during February and early March. No scrolling on Facebook. No retweeting. No liking posts on Instagram. A total blackout.

It started as a personal challenge. Could I really do this? What would I miss? How would 30 days without social media change the way I approach it?

But it morphed into an opportunity to examine the importance of social media and how it affects our lives.

There's a lot of talk in the tech community about whether tech is good or evil, healthy or unhealthy, constructive or destructive. Twitter's CEO Jack Dorsey, who will visit Pittsburgh this month , recently posted that his company loves the instant, public, global messaging and conversation it fosters but didn't predict or fully understand the real-world negative consequences.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has been candid about righting some of the wrongs his company has helped introduce. Facebook also owns Instagram. The company has started tweaking its News Feed so users see fewer posts from companies and more from friends and family.

"We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren't just fun to use, but also good for people's well-being. So we've studied this trend carefully by looking at the academic research and doing our own research with leading experts at universities," Zuckerberg wrote in a post in January.

Robert Kraut, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who studies the impact of social media on people's behaviors and has consulted for Facebook, said people he knows at Facebook are concerned about what social media is doing to people.

"You want to have experiences that aren't rotting their minds and soul," Kraut told me last month.

Kraut and his former student Moira Burke collaborated on studies showing the positive and negative effects of Facebook. Burke is a research scientist at Facebook and co-authored a Facebook blog post with the company's director of research asking whether spending time on social media is bad for us. Kraut said Facebook has taken Burke's work much more seriously in the last two years.

But it isn't all Facebook and Twitter's fault. Some of it lies with us.

Sarah Romotsky, head of science communications for the meditation app Headspace, made a good point during an interview with me last month. Romotsky said it isn't technology that is inherently good or evil but our relationship to that technology. Smartphones get a lot of blame, but smartphones aren't the problem, Romotsky said.

"It's about the relationship with your phone," she told me.

So with that, I deleted Facebook, Twitter and Instagram from my phone and blocked the websites on my laptop. To change my relationship with social media, I had to leave it.

My blackout made one thing clear: Social media is not that important.

I don't need it for my job. It isn't essential for my social life. What happens on social media often makes its way into the real world quickly.

Social media does serve a purpose, however. It is a great place to collaborate and to share, to stumble across news, ideas, products and people you never knew existed. And where else can you find so many pictures of cute dogs?

I've been back on social media for a few days, and I'm already using it differently. I spent less time mindlessly scrolling through my Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds. I seek out posts from people I care about and interact. I've unfollowed a few people and found some new followers. I think I have a better handle on how social media can be a positive tool in my life.

Here are five things I learned while off Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for 30 days.

• I didn't miss much.

When I fired up social media this week, I had two friend requests and 72 notifications waiting for me on Facebook and 77 notifications, six direct messages and more than 30 new followers on Twitter.

Seems like stepping away from Twitter was a good way to boost my followers.

None contained crucial, life-or-death, socially essential information. I missed a couple news tips on Twitter but nothing that can't be followed up on. I missed some invites to like people's pages, to an upcoming birthday party with a bouncy house, Passover Seder and a Dungeons and Dragons session this Saturday at my house. Glad I saw that one.

There were lots of retweets and mentions and people tagging me in posts about a panel I was on in early February. I did feel bad when one Twitter friend I finally met in real life tweeted how excited he was to meet me in real life; it took me 10 days to like his tweet and respond. Sorry, Mike.

But, for the most part, and I mean no disrespect, much of what I missed was just noise.

• No one noticed. Or at least (almost) no one said anything.

I intentionally told very few people what I was doing. Two reasons. One, if I failed, there would be fewer people to tell I had failed. Two, I wanted to see if people missed me. Only one person asked me if I had quit Twitter during my 30-day absence, and that was with three days left.

• It wasn't hard.

The habit of checking social media when I woke up, after breakfast, when I got to work, throughout the day, several times when I got home and right before bed ended quickly.

Social media lost its importance to me. People would still tell me what they saw on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram that day, but I didn't feel I needed to check it out. I didn't feel I was missing out on much, and my life went on as normal.

• I didn't use my phone less.

I found other ways to fill momentary gaps in my day, and I'm not too proud of them.

I checked Slack more often, finding myself scrolling back through channels and skimming messages that weren't important to me. I checked my email, a lot. I spent too much time on news websites, reading headlines, looking for stories to read, reading one here and there. I didn't feel better read or informed.

I thought I would fill that time with a brain-training app like Luminosity or meditation apps to calm down. I didn't.

My phone habit isn't as bad as some people's, but I still have some work to do.

• I didn't become a better friend.

I took a break from social media in part because I had become frustrated with how little I talked to the people who are important in my life.

I don't have regular text conversations with friends in Pittsburgh. I hardly talk to best friends from high school or college. I don't call my brother, sisters, dad or mom as much as I should. Sorry, mom.

I wondered if social media was at all to blame. Was I substituting Facebook posts and Instagram photos for real conversations? Was social media giving me a sense that I knew what was going on in the lives of people I care about and causing me not to reach out and really ask?

Maybe. But probably not. I didn't text more. I didn't call my high school friend who just moved to Alaska or text my college roommate who lives in Seattle. I called my mom, but not as much as I should.

There's still some work to do there as well.

My life didn't come to a screeching halt when I stepped off social media, but it wasn't a complete fix either.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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