In Journalism class, my teacher posed the question: What would you do for a day without Internet? Everyone gasped. A day without Internet? How could anyone survive? What would we do if we couldn’t check Instagram, or refresh Twitter?
It wasn’t an uncommon question; I had heard many of my teachers joke about it before. I’ve noticed that Baby Boomers believe in a hyperbolic version of teenage interest in social media. Forget avarice—Mark Zuckerberg is the real root of all evil. People past the age of forty pretty much universally agree that all vapid teenage brains must be constantly occupied by the immediate gratification of the Interwebs. Or, you know, whatever it’s called. But how do I get to the email box? How do I work my wireless printer? Gosh, you kids and your Tweeters.
It was December 30, and I wanted to put my teacher’s theory to the test as a New Year’s Resolution. I’m a student, so I couldn’t disable email accounts, but I deleted everything else: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram. Apps completely erased from my phone. Sites un-bookmarked. Welcome to a new age—or should I say, an old one. One without the screen interface.
At first, time seemed to stop completely. I found myself unlocking my phone to check apps that weren’t even there. But as time went on, I habituated. Now, at the end of a long five months, I’ve pieced together a few of the lessons I learned during the time I spent without social media:
- I had much more time. I got to sleep in instead of checking my Facebook as soon as I woke up. I wasn’t checking Tumblr at breakfast. I focused more on school and found that I was done with everything at 10, instead of 11:30 or 12, which meant I went to sleep earlier.
- But I still found ways to procrastinate. Turns out, social media isn’t the only thing keeping me from homework. Knitting, teaching myself how to contour my face, making cupcakes, all provided distractions from hitting the books. Still, I think those procrastinations were arguably more productive than retweeting and reblogging, especially because…
- …I wrote. A lot. Writing has always been one of my favorite hobbies, but I frequently claim that I don’t have enough time to do it. With the extra time that I otherwise would have spent online, I was able to write. Over those five months, I wrote maybe twenty poems and polished off a forty-three page not-so-short story, which ended up winning a National Scholastic medal and a school book prize. (Eschewing social media actually won awards. Indirectly, but still.)
Of course, quantity is not the best measure of quality—I could have easily churned out a hundred terrible poems, which wouldn’t be productive in the least—but the act of practicing writing solidified good habits and offered me lots of opportunities to exercise my favorite creative outlet.
- The people who wanted to talk to me still did. A 2013 New Yorker article shared the findings of a study by University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross. Kross found that people who used Facebook felt lonelier and unhappier than those who did not. Another social experiment concluded that relationships suffered from jealousy when Facebook was added to the equation, and yet another found that Facebook boosted envy by continually displaying the accomplishments of others.
As a teenager, I’m often hyper-conscious of my real-life social network. How many friends do I have? And do they like me? And what do other people think of me? There’s a subliminal constant competition online to show that you have friends. And lots of them. Social media is a comforting way of confirming that you do have friends. Fifty of them liked your photo. Twenty posted happy birthday messages on your timeline. Seven retweeted that joke. You must be so popular.
What we don’t realize is that those aren’t really friends. Sure, you might have hundreds of other people linked to an online persona, but those bonds are diluted, like water with too little lemon juice to be considered lemonade. They’re acquaintances, not friendships.
After deleting social media, I lost contact with a lot of people. While it seemed that everyone else had hundreds of friends, I had maybe five or six. However, this experience showed me the importance of quality over quantity. To me, having five or six really good friends beats thousands of acquaintances any day. The people who really wanted to talk to me texted me or talked to me in person. I didn’t have to see that they liked my photo to prove we were friends. Bona fide friendship comes from substantive conversation. Without it, we become just another number on a screen.
- I got to decide first impressions for myself, and I got to control the image others had of me. In “Mystery vs. History,” one of my favorite How I Met Your Mother episodes, Ted goes on a blind date and promises not to look the girl up online. This way, there’s no bias or preconceived notion that affects their interaction.
Spoiler, it doesn’t work. A quick Google search informs Ted that his date is a child prodigy. Immediately, he feels self-conscious about his own intellect. Wouldn’t we all, if we were on a blind date with Einstein?
Deleting my social media made my “blind dates” truly blind. People who met me didn’t have any ideas that they’d derived from an online profile; their first experience of me was me, in person. Of course, it was impossible for me to go completely off the grid. I still showed up on Google if someone searched my name. But there was definitely a perceivable shift in dynamic when nobody had seen pictures I was tagged in; I was able to control the first impression I would have on someone, rather than letting my social media do it for me.
At my spring service project in Chicago, one of my new friends was trying to look me up on Facebook, to no avail. When I explained that I didn’t have a Facebook—or a Snapchat or a Twitter or an Instagram—she was shocked. “What? You don’t have any of it? Are you just above it or something?”
I wasn’t fazed. “No. I just don’t need it anymore.”
Slowly, I’m starting to reactivate my accounts. It’s been a good experiment, and I’ve learned a lot, but I don’t think social media is evil. It provides new opportunities to connect with each other, to unite people who would otherwise lose contact completely. And wanting acceptance and affirmation of your best traits is natural.
So, no, I don’t think society should revert to a strictly-snail-mail-and-talking-in-person system of interaction. That’s unproductive. But I don’t think we should only see each other online either. As I’ve learned over these past five months, everything in moderation—on both sides of the screen.