April 22

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Social Media Detox: what works and what doesn’t

By Vaishali Gauba

April 22, 2021


This is the story of my Social Media Detox.

It was a Friday morning and a universal day off – does it get better than that? Yet for me it was only going to get worse. I felt a twitch that forced me into chaos even before both my eyes were open. Suddenly, I was shrugging off my heavy winter blanket, tossing pillows in the air and turning my head from side to side in desperation. Finally, somewhere in the crease of the bedsheet it was – my 5.5-inch oasis – my smartphone. I got my hands on it like a giddy kid and went straight to the bauble called Instagram.

After scrolling through all posts and stories on my feed, I dug into the ‘Explore’ section. Each square on it was either beaming with a lavish vacation or tips to be successful or celebrities being papped at airports or some influencer making outfits out of household items. I was used to this routine.

 But on this Friday morning, which was the epitome of positive mindsets and fresh starts – did I say it was January 1st? I began to feel something not so positive.

A sense of anxiety. A heating up of the body. Erratic breathing. A hefty chest. And then a spiral. Of social comparison. Of inadequacy. Of crushed spirits. Of worthlessness. And all this before 8 am on the first day of the sunrise year that was 2021. What the hell was I doing?

My Instagram usage in the last week of December 2020 : Before Social Media Detox

When I think of this moment today, I find it ironic that it unfolded on January 1st. That’s a time for resolutions anyway. For better bodies. For dry Januarys and for all types of detox that start strong and break sometime in the first fortnight of the year.

But I still had to try, for the sake of my sanity,  to preserve whatever little shards of self-confidence I had. For my mood and simply to get rid of this addictive feeling. Yes, if the chaos I described in the beginning sounds like you, you too are addicted. 

In his book Digital Minimalism, Prof. Cal Newport tells us  psychologists’ description of the much-hated word: Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in a use of a substance or a behaviour for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behaviour despite detrimental consequences.

But it wasn’t only this realisation of addiction that catapulted me into taking action. It was two other things: my productivity was gradually sinking because I would daydream about the vacations I wasn’t taking, the thoughts I wasn’t putting in a ‘Reels’ video, the parties I wasn’t attending, and second, as a result of wasting time and not achieving much in my day, I felt terribly low.

I had to stop. Back in October, I had tried to stop. I had tried two things - a quasi social media detox - but they hadn’t worked.  

The failed action

Move my social media apps to an unfamiliar folder.

That way I wouldn’t use much, say that folder containing Tips, iBooks, etc.

This tactic worked for like 3 and a half days until my thumb found its new dopamine home.

I must also disclaim here that I wasn’t obsessively using any other forms of social media besides Instagram such as Facebook, Snapchat or YouTube. But this article can be applied to any form of social media.

Delete Instagram 

Out of sight, out of mind. Except not really. I would go to its URL equivalent and although that interface is much harder and less fun to use, I didn’t mind it if I knew in the back of my mind that I hadn’t downloaded the App back.

The real action - my social media detox

So, this time, I needed a hack that would work. I’m not fond of the word ‘detox’ so what I was looking for was a controlled social media detox. One that would not have an expiration date and would not make me feel like I’m working too hard for it.

Basically, what I wanted was that I visit social media anytime I want (in a controlled fashion) but for it to not meddle with my psyche or mood or make me feel anything too severe. Not having read this post on the six ways to reduce screen time, I created my own social media Detox, and it worked! 

I started to think of it as going out to shop but not buying anything and being totally okay with that outcome.

So, I applied the following 4 approaches to undertake this controlled social media detox and guess what? It worked!

1. No Gram in the AM

Countless articles and funnily, WhatsApp messages will tell you to ditch the phone in the morning. And while it is unoriginal advice, it works.

I had been working from home till January, and around the time of my controlled detox, my office reopened. While I whined about having to go to work, the good thing it did was leave me no time in the morning to waste. After hitting snooze a couple of times, the only option was to wake up.

You’re thinking, What if I don’t go to office yet? Well, can you find an activity that requires urgency once you’re up? Maybe take charge of opening the door for receiving milk, if that’s what works for you. Or set up your work calls for earlier than you would so you’d have to take them soon after waking up? Maybe sign up for early morning yoga classes?

The goal is to focus your energy on any activity besides mindless scrolling on the phone the moment you’re awake.

2. Find out what makes you feel content

This is a deeper one. I was so frazzled after using Instagram because it would make me feel so insecure about myself. I would often think - Have I achieved anything?Am I worth anything? Can I ever be successful if I don’t have hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers? etc., until I mentioned this to my therapist and what she said stuck with me.

She said that anyone can only make you feel insecure or inadequate if you have nothing to be confident for. In fact, any blow to self-esteem only occurs when you’re discontent with yourself. I thought deep and hard about her words, and I had to figure out when do I get a sense of achievement or contentment.

For me, it is when I create a to-do list in the morning and finish most of it by the end of the day. But wait, how does that help with my Instagram mania?

Once I would have any pang of jealousy or wishful thinking after looking at an Instagram post, I would think - hey, I have this in my life to be content for or look forward to or feel remotely successful about. That ‘this’ can be finishing writing an article that would pay me, or submitting a college application that I may have dragged for weeks or visiting a restaurant that I’ve really wanted to go to etc.

The goal is to remember that you cannot weigh your contentment against that of someone else’s, that too a stranger’s you know nothing about. You have to find out what it looks like for you. There is no "one-size-fits all" Social media detox.

3. Posting less frequently on social media

A friend told me: when you post on social media, you are saying – here’s a virtual evidence of me having fun (unless you’re promoting a business on it or something productive like that).

But when your followers see it, most of them aren’t ecstatic for you. Not because they are evil human beings but simply because it’s human tendency.

When the majority of people aren’t  happy for you and vice versa, it creates a halo of negative energy. Now, I am not into astrology, but I do believe in vibes, and a part of me does not want those negative vibes coming my way.

So, I used this slightly twisted belief to post less and less on Instagram to ensure that I’m not frantically revisiting the app to check my likes or views.

4. Finding things to do in your downtime

If you’re not spending your waking and half-asleep hours on social media, you will still find yourself picking up the phone. So, there’s got to be something better to do with it.

For me this was Chess and the NYTimes Crossword.

For you it can be anything – Audible, a game or podcast, something that you enjoy and is not social media.

I then replaced a lot of Instagram time with playing chess because it gave me a different kind of high. And isn’t that what we are doing with social media – feeding a high?

The lesson

Here’s what I learned:

1. Social Media is an endless loop of unquenched thirst

If you see people taking a vacation on social media, and you also take a vacation and you’re back from it, you’ll find something else to complain about.

So, I kept reminding myself of this because I did go on an awesome work trip in the third week of January. But then, I kept thinking where next? I mean how unhealthy is that?

Honestly, if you remember this nugget of information, you’re already half-way there. Half your ability to detox from social media comes from recognizing evil.

2. You don’t need to quit 100%

Telling yourself you need to be 100% off social media won’t really work because you’ll probably feel a lot of FOMO.  But Jenny Odell says “I suggest that we reimagine #FOMO as #NOMO, the necessity of missing out,” in her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.

So, what I did instead was tell myself that it’s only a window-shopping platform. I won’t take any of it home with me. Any feeling of inadequacy would be met with - hey, here’s what I did today and that’s going to help me succeed professionally/socially/mentally/recreationally.

3. You must give yourself a month

Any controlled detox done for less than a month will be temporary, and you’ll be back to your twitchy morning self. So, push and try it for at least a month so it becomes a part of your muscle memory.

My Instagram usage in March 2021 : after Social Media Detox.

Where am I now?

I started off with a daily average of 2.5 hours. Now I am at 50 minutes. And, I can foresee it only going down from here.

Here are some advantages I feel: 

  1. Mentally and emotionally, I am doing better because I am building a stronger sense of self-confidence since I’m not comparing myself to others.
  2. I get more done in a day because a) I have more time and b)
  3. Since, I am not going often on the App, I take time to text or call my friends. This feels better than a DM connection.
  4. I feel unique in most professional and social settings because I am not picking up my phone as second nature.

Disclaimer: I falter. But now the threshold for faltering is lower. Earlier, I would be alarmed if I were on Instagram for an hour straight. Now, I’m conscious even if it’s been 6 or 7 minutes, and I turn on my mental ultimatum.

So, what next?

Social media addiction is real, and it can hamper mental and emotional well-being. Most friends or family I speak to admit to feeling negative emotions while or after using it.

But it is possible to be involved on social media on a peripheral level and preserve your happiness and self-confidence. My Social Media Detox really changed how happy and fulfilled I am. 

If any of the above methods make sense to you and you decide to try them out, I feel you will see a difference. And if you do, don’t hesitate to reach me on Instagram to share your experience. Lol, just kidding. You can share your feedback in the comments below. Until then, here’s some food for thought:

“Philip Morris [cigarette brand] just wanted your lungs. The App Store wants your soul.”

-Bill Maher

P.s. If a Do-It-Yourself doesn't work for you, you can consider the Himalayan Digital Detox. It is run by the founders of this website, and has helped many people cut their Screen time by 50% or more. Details at https://unscreen.org/himalayan-digital-detox-india/ .  

Vaishali Gauba

About the author

I am a communications professional, author, blogger, TEDx Speaker, and a former journalist. I love sunny days, mimosas and a book – one to read or write in. I get my energy out of fun and deep conversations and love people who forget to check their phones. I like to write about life issues that I have experience with and help people feel more self-confident through my writing. I hate referring to myself in the third person because I like to keep it very real. My personal essays are on my blog, and my first book is at: https://amzn.to/3jR7fJd.

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  1. Wow, this article is an eyeopener. I haven't even thought of measuring my own screen time, content in believing that it's not that bad. We all likely need to seriously scrutinize our own social media usage to get a jolt of reality. I am inspired to do this myself. Thanks so much Vaishali! Great article.

  2. Well written article vaishali! First I think i should check my time i spend on and then work on reducing it.
    Definately eye opener.

    Keep writing and keep giving us tips.

  3. Love the work! Part of us never accept or realise how social media affect us and our behaviour but this text was a reality check. The simplicity and the "what to do next" part really got me thinking that maybe detoxification isn't as hard as it seems. Time to try it! Peace out!

  4. This is really needed to detox social media as it hampering our lifestyle. Now I am thinking to reduce my screentime too.

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