Charlotte Philby was feeling strung out and exhausted when, on an impulse, she switched off all her social media accounts. Here's what the experience taught her, and why she's returned for good.
It was not so much a Eureka moment as a quiet but unshakable feeling that something wasn’t right.
Despite being utterly exhausted, I would regularly find myself waking at 2am and unable to fall back to sleep while my brain attempted to filter through the backlog of information that started to seep into my subconscious as I scrolled my various social media accounts, as well as rolling news.
Like everyone else these days, I am busy. With three young children, several jobs, and in the throes of writing a novel as well as a major home-build, sleep was precious, and already scarce. How could I justify losing precious kip and headspace over the online musings and lunch snaps of people I barely knew?
When it came to my social media usage, there was a sense of concern, too, at what I was modelling for my kids (now turning three, five and eight) who had taken to running after me waving my phone at me if I left a room without it for more than a few minutes, as if returning to me a vital organ.
Thankfully, what I lack in self-restraint I make up for in impulsivity and so on 26th June last year, after thinking it through for about 7 minutes, I decided to switch off social media for a year. Twenty minutes after that, having pulled over in a lay-by and furiously typed out my dramatic farewell, I had announced it on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Because as I noted in that post, my life had started to feel like a physical manifestation of that philosophical quandary about if a tree falls in the woods but no-one was there to see it, whether it ever really fell at all.
Ultimately it was about stepping back in order to reassess; a much-needed pause in order to give myself the mental space to reassess how I felt about sharing the details of my life with around 15k people – largely strangers – across three platforms.
Because the fact was, I no longer had the ability to cut through the noise long enough to really assess how I felt. In the 10 years since I had joined social media so much had changed. Not just on a mass scale, but on a personal level, too. When I first joined Facebook in 2007 (initially with a gusto that involved me adding anyone with whom I had ever exchanged more than three words and then subjecting them to 3000 slightly blurry photos of a single night out), no-one could have predicted how pervasive social would become.
Besides, I was far too busy going out, building my career as a newspaper journalist, to have thought through the potential consequences of sharing the minutiae of my life with hundreds of relative strangers online. Over the following decade, whilst having kids, growing my social media following as editor of the online magazine Motherland, and seeing the fallout of people living out their lives online, I had become more circumspect, and confused.
When I looked at my life and what was wrong with it, what I could see quite clearly was that I was tired, and burnt out. Was social media to blame for my life fatigue? Certainly not entirely, but much as social media provided a much-needed escape from the work pressures and life pressures, it simultaneously exacerbated the anxiety.
When I looked at it, my life looked like a heaving mass of unbalanced parts and I needed to cut something out. I couldn’t leave my jobs, or my life, but I could cut out the white noise that social media was creating.
The immediate sensation was one of immense relief. Suddenly I felt free – free from a cage in which I had trapped myself. Free from the perceived scrutiny of others and the constant desire to dissect and objectify my own life. Finally I could live in the moment without constantly striving to recreate it through an inevitably distorting lens – a disconcerting process which has no doubt been the subject of many a media dissertation by now.
The six months that followed were infinitely more enjoyable, and productive, than those preceding them. In a bid to live a more analogue existence I took an upholstery course (the main learning was that I’m a terrible upholsterer) and tried to draw a bit (I’m an even worse artist). I spent almost a week writing by hand at a writer’s retreat in Devon with no internet and communicating with the outside world (ie my long-suffering husband and children) via a pay-phone once a day, which was undoubtedly the most resetting experience of my adult life.
Yes, people stopped mass-inviting me to group events because I was no longer so much on their wave-length, but some thought to get in touch to make more meaningful face-to-face dates, instead. As someone who suffers not from FOMO but rather from a fear of social inclusion, this was a desirable side effect.
By the time Christmas last year came, I had even broken the back of my novel. All in all, aside from the odd pang when I thought of the people I had lost contact with away from the easy (if often surface) connections of Instagram and Facebook, and the occasional desire to share pieces I had written or funny snapshots of my life, there was little reason to return.
But that is not to say that life was perfect. The problem with social media, after all, is that it is just a strand of a much more knotty problem of the frenetic pace of modern life. And that didn’t just vanish.
Then, on Boxing Day last year – six months to the day since I had switched off – I had a text to say an old (very young) and very dear friend had died. Because he had been travelling, and because of our diverging lives, we had taken to communicating on direct messenger. Without that line between us, we had not spoken for months and the sadness and regret I felt about that shook me to the core.
When you lose someone you love, everything else pales into insignificance, and the urge to hold onto those you care about becomes all-consuming. At its best, that is what social media does; it allows us to, even at a distance, maintain a thread of connection with more people than we should rightfully be able to.
The next day, I returned to social media, to read the tributes to my friend’s life and to share my own, but mainly to reinstate myself in what I had to accept was a key part of modern connectivity. Historically, people lost contact with friends over the years and yes, maybe there is something to be said for streamlining your life as you get older, rather than maintaining an overwhelming number of friendships, at a reduced rate; to this end, my grandma always told me ‘don’t have more friends than you can look after’. But in this moment, all I wanted was to be part of my people’s lives, regardless of what cost.
The return to social media started gently but has gathered pace so that nine months later, as Marie Claire launches their timely #ScreenBreak campaign, I am forced to once again reassess my usage.
The results, if I’m honest with myself, are pretty bleak. While I’ve massively reduced the amount of pictures I put up of my children (not least as my non-attention-seeking daughter, who is turning eight, knows what Instagram is and hates the concept of it; her words: “Why would you put up pictures of your life? That’s just showing off…”), in the months since creeping back onto Instagram, and later Facebook and Twitter, I found myself making up for lost time in terms of how much I was using it. The thrill of the interactions, of catching up with old friends, of, well, mindlessly passing the time, is addictive. We all know that, it is just how we choose to address our behaviour.
The truth is, I oscillate between various positions when I consider what social media means to me, and how I want to use it. Some days I think it only has as much power as I give it; if I want to upload pictures of my life, then what is the problem, so long as I’m not exposing my children in a way that could be harmful to them?
Other days I’m more circumspect, waking in the middle of the night to purge my feed of personal pics, and aggrieved by things I’ve read. Much as I hate the concept of the term ‘personal brand’ for all its connotations, one of the problems is for me and a growing number of my friends who use social media platforms both to talk to friends and to promote and discuss work, is that the distinction between the personal and public has become blurred. Like so many of us, my job largely depends on me having an online presence, so it would be a massive commitment to give up my accounts altogether.
In a way, total abstinence feels a cop out. Why can’t I just control my own behaviour? My husband, who doesn’t have an addictive personality (he was always one of those annoying social smokers who could take it or leave), has an account but goes weeks without posting and is much more restrained in his strolling habits. That is what I want for myself, to be a mindful scroller; or at least one who isn’t a slave to their screen.
And so, in the past weeks I have reduced both my screen-time and my general reason to go online. I listen to books on the commute rather than scrolling my feeds; I have put on an out of office on my Gmail explaining that I am not checking my emails as regularly; I don’t have my work emails on my phone so I only check them when I’m in the office; I have signed up for a magazine subscription and weekend paper delivery. I have stopped looking at Facebook altogether but save it for moments when I need to contact people, rather than endlessly mentally taking on-board other people’s lives in a way that creates that torrent of white noise in the early hours. I have also started to take a moment to pause and think before impulsively posting on Instagram. As for Twitter, I tend to lose a follower every time I tweet so that is an effective method of self-policing.
But I could be so much better. So, as of now, I pledge to sometimes leave my phone at home when I take the kids out, and have downloaded the app Moment which logs how much time you spend on your phone each day. I will hide my phone under the piles of rubble on my desk in the office so I’m not tempted to pick it up every time I look away from my computer screen (a sad state of affairs) and leave it at my desk on my lunch-break.
More importantly, I want to return to that space where I spend my ‘spare time’ immersing myself in things I love, like writing, rather than referring to my default setting of mindless browsing. After all, a recent study found that the average person wastes 23 days a year and 3.9 years of their life staring at their phone screen. I have already scrawled this horrifying fact onto a post-it note which I will stick to the front of my computer screen for when I start my book edits next month and will be, more than ever, searching for a distraction from the matter at hand.
It sounds basic but in my experience most of the good and meaningful things in life are. Sometimes we simply need to remember to ask ourselves what we are doing and why.