Illustration by Suneesh K.
Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.
People are always going off social media and we’re always hearing about it when they come back. “What did I miss?” they ask and we think “oh, were they gone?” So, when Bella Hadid speaks up to let us know social media is not real, and people vow to stay off it, we tend to believe that they will be back sooner or later. That’s a testament to the addictive quality of the medium.
India-specific research shows that up to 36.9% of pre university students in metros like Bengaluru exhibit signs of addiction with manifestations such as anger, eye strain, and sleep disturbance. In America that number is 5-10% of the population. Studies at Harvard University have shown that social media consciously drives dopamine hits, something even Facebook’s former VP of User Growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, has admitted to.
Dopamine is a chemical released by the brain that motivates it to keep performing the action to keep eliciting the response. There are four dopamine pathways in the brain, three of which are associated with the reward response. When these become dysfunctional, we arrive at addiction. In brief, social media is training our brains to keep posting, tweeting, clicking. It’s feeding the addiction.
So, should you get off something that clearly manipulates your brain chemistry on a pre-set algorithm? The simple answer would be a resounding ‘yes’. But we are not simple beings. Social media has also opened up the world for introverts, those with social anxiety, observers across age demographics, people who didn’t have a voice or platform, those who have been excluded from larger conversations on race, caste, gender diversity, and disability, or who do need anonymity or the comfort of a group to express themselves. It’s allowed us to connect across cultures, speeded up the transmission of real-time news, allowed small businesses and the gig economy to thrive, along with all of its ills.
And yet, undeniably, a techie in Hyderabad can assume an identity and issue rape threats to the infant daughter of Indian cricketer Virat Kohli. There were calls for Kohli to leave Twitter rather than face such abuse. And calls for him to stay and counter it, taking an essential but difficult stand against the misogyny and violence that prevails. Some of us have opted for the former or the latter, depending on our sensibility. How do we know which to prioritise?
Most of us hesitate to delete our accounts because we’ve built a large following, we use the ready audience to promote our ideas, work, or market our products and services. In an article, writers Kate and Brett McKay cite management guru Peter Drucker’s formula for eliminating practices, from his book The Effective Executive. Ask yourself: “If we did not already do this, would we go into it now?”, and if your answer isn’t yes, then exit. This is a good way to evaluate whether you’re just hanging on to your social media because it’s become a long standing habit.
However, after you’ve decided to exit, you need to find the willpower to do so. Remember, we’ve trained the brain to rely on the dopamine hits, so like smoking, quitting cold turkey can send you into a form of withdrawal that leaves you with anxiety and stress.
Ideally, begin by eliminating the triggers. Uninstall apps, make it more difficult to log in by dis-remembering the password so you have to key it in each time. Switch off your notifications, fix a specific time to check your mentions. Schedule work tweets. This will allow you to taper down the activity.
A group like Alcoholics Anonymous works because it replaces an addictive activity with a reliable support system. Before you exit, ask what support systems you’re putting into place to feed the needs it met for you. What will now replace the social interactions and feedback mechanisms you’ve come to rely on it for? Do you meet or talk to people by some other means every day? Perhaps join a class or online group, go for a walk in a fairly populated park. Consider starting a newsletter, podcast, or blog. You’ll find the exit smoother. You may also find yourself able to function on a reduced engagement, i.e., you use your social media instead of allowing it to use you.