woman celebrating as got one like on social media

The Social Media Detox Diaries

9 mins

What happens when a social media ‘addict’ who would scroll through posts, reels and stories constantly looking for her dopamine hit goes cold turkey and delete her apps? A lot actually…

‘I’m taking a break from social media,’ I declared. In real life, I might add. I didn’t announce it via my Insta stories or post my news with a random selfie. We all know that’s a social boo-boo and would only be met with multiple trollers doing the digital equivalent of a shrug with a ‘who cares?’ or the occasional ‘you OK, hun?’

The thing is, I’d said this multiple times out loud, but never gone through with it. I’m addicted to scrolling through Instagram as much as the next person. In truth, I’m the worst kind of addict: I rarely post, so I’m not actually social, I just gawp.

This leads to doom scrolling and activates the brain’s reward centre by releasing dopamine, the so-called feel-good chemical that ironically can be damaging to our mental health. I can vanish down rabbit holes for hours, listen to advice I never asked for (and actually don’t welcome), and start to wonder why my life isn’t as amazing as everybody else’s (it’s called comparisonitis!).

woman with hands locked onto smart phone to show she's addicted to social media

Why didn’t I go to gymnastics as a child and learn how to backflip? Why can’t I earn $100,000 whilst being fully present with my kids? But these platforms are designed to be addictive, making us come back for more, more, more. So I do. 

‘I’m addicted to scrolling through social media. In truth, I’m the worst kind of addict: I rarely post, so I’m not actually social, I just gawp’

I’ve always been an avid reader. Books give me ultimate satisfaction, maybe because there is a beginning, a middle and an end. An end. Once it’s done, it’s done. I put the book back on the shelf, pause and reflect, then move on with my life, perhaps giving a nod to the book again at a perfectly relevant time. So I have a huge problem with social media. If I’m reading it, I need to finish it! I keep going like there’s an end in sight. If I reach it, maybe I could be done with that too? 

Social Media Addict

woman scrolling through social media on her smartphone

‘When the outcome is unpredictable, the behaviour is more likely to repeat,’ says psychologist Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, an expert in anxiety disorders. ‘Think of a slot machine: if game players knew they were never going to get money by playing the game, then they wouldn’t play. The idea of a potential future reward keeps the machines in use. The same goes for social media sites.’

Social media’s infinity keeps me hooked. What will happen next? What will I see? Will it change my perspective? Enlighten me? But the dopamine hits are so quick, popping like bubbles, and I’m only left with tight knots in my stomach and thick fog in my forehead. Enough was enough. I needed to stop. I missed my old life too much, the one that ticked along fine without these platforms.

A friend of mine gave me an indirect push. He was challenging himself to do a whole month smartphone-free and had gone as far as getting himself an old phone that could only make calls. No apps, no internet. Zilch. Nada. 

‘I thought I’d instantly be more productive. Not having my socials to procrastinate, I found other ways to avoid doing whatever I needed to do. I realised being addicted to our smartphones can’t only be blamed on social media. It’s the scroll we’re addicted to’

He would answer to emails on his computer during working hours and that was it. So I decided to follow his lead, in the best way I could. I’d still use a smartphone. I couldn’t erase WhatsApp as it’s my main point of contact for everybody from work to my kids’ school to my family to my social life. I’d continue using my phone for maps, banking, and messaging. But I deleted all social media platforms and social media apps for a month. Which turned into six weeks. And here is what I discovered…

I started on a high… As soon as I pressed delete ­– something I’d fantasised about doing a thousand times but never had the guts to go through with  – I felt lighter. I felt instant relief.

At bedtime… I knew that as I snuggled under the duvet, I couldn’t doom scroll. The apps were gone which meant that the temptation was gone. I read my book. And honestly, I had a better night’s sleep.

In the morning… I woke up and checked my phone for the time. I answered one WhatsApp message. I didn’t mindlessly open my social media platforms or allow myself  ‘just five minutes’ to overstimulate my brain with random reels on Instagram, which usually left me feeling empty and uninspired before I’d even abandoned the comfort of my bed. I simply stretched and got up.

During my working day… I thought I’d instantly be more productive. This was not the case. Not having my socials to procrastinate, I found other ways to avoid doing whatever I needed to do. I realised that being addicted to our smartphones can’t only be blamed on social media. It’s the scroll we’re addicted to. The tap. The touchscreen. I checked my bank balance more often to see if clients had paid me on time. I fell into a mindless scroll through old photos of my kids when they were babies which left me feeling all warm and fuzzy.

‘I was more focused. I got through a movie without checking my phone. I read every day. As my husband put it, ‘you seem happier, more present.’ I sat with my kids more. My forehead no longer throbbed’

I received a Top Tip… Change the colour settings in your phone to greyscale. Suddenly, a smartphone seems extremely dull and it’s not at all aesthetically pleasing. I began to feel annoyed WhatsApp-ing my friends, it was such a chore. When you switch the setting back to colour, it’s crazy how much your screen looks like a candy shop. Try it. 

But I cheated… I checked Facebook on my laptop. I’m logged in for work reasons. I’d love to admit that I created one work post and closed it down, but I browsed for a short while. As usual, it was tedious and I learnt nothing new or exciting.

I tried Instagram (for work reasons again, promise!). It’s not as user-friendly as Facebook, maybe because I remember the early days of Facebook and learned how to navigate it from a desktop. But Instagram really is all about the scroll and those super-quick dopamine hits on the phone. The effect isnt’ as strong browsing selfies and ads on a laptop. This was quite a revelation: how the same platform can feel so different from laptop to mobile.

Each day got easier… Once the kids were in bed, I used to flop onto the sofa and have a bit of a scroll while my husband made dinner. Knowing I couldn’t do this, I just went into the kitchen and chatted to him. Yes! We spoke words, human to human, catching up on our days.

After just one week I saw a significant difference in myself… I was more focused. I got through a movie without checking my phone. I read every day. As my husband put it, ‘you seem happier…more present.’ I sat with my kids more. I stared into space. I looked ahead, into the distance, something we rarely do these days because everything we think we need is right in front of our noses. And if it’s not, we use our phones to find it. I started to see more colour. My forehead no longer throbbed.

woman on bed in pyjamas reading a book after giving up social media

I went on holiday… And didn’t post any pictures. I didn’t distract myself by scrolling and used a lot of our travel time to look out of the window. I thought a lot; about a whole lot of everything and a whole lot of nothing. It was freeing. We were away during our ninth wedding anniversary. It was the first year I didn’t share a post remembering our special day and reminding the world that I loved the man I’d said ‘I do’ to. 

Instead, we were hiking around a lake near San Diego, reminiscing together (and watching out for rattlesnakes). I made a joke about how I hadn’t posted anything (he has never, and is not a social media addict at all) and I told him to his face what I would say. This was hilarious, and quite cheesy, and we laughed so hard about it. It was a great anniversary.

Back to reality… Home and jet-lagged, I had completed six weeks without Facebook and Instagram. I don’t use X, formerly known as Twitter, and knocked TikTok on the head before I got a chance to get addicted. But was now the time to return? Would I be refreshed, and cured of my addiction? Could I just pop on now and then? 

I reinstalled the apps and suddenly I had this urge to share my holiday pics. Nobody was putting any pressure on me to do so, and yet, I felt enormous pressure – did the holiday even happen if I didn’t tell the digital world about it? Sharing a reel sent my anxiety, well, reeling. I refreshed for likes. For comments. The dopamine hits were coming, but maybe not fast enough. I hated this feeling. 

I lay on my bed, telling myself I’d unpack the suitcases in five minutes, in five minutes, in five minutes… I scrolled. I tapped. I watched. I scrolled. The tension in my stomach tightened into a messy, heavy ball. My head hurt and remained hurting when I closed my eyes and failed to fall asleep. So I scrolled some more.

And finally – finally – I deleted the apps again.

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