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Social media cleanses: The science behind our high-tech habits

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CHALK Social media cleanse

It’s a Wednesday evening, and like usual, I’ve got two screens in front of me.

On the TV is yet another episode of F.R.I.E.N.D.S., the one where they all play football during Thanksgiving, I think. Honestly, I’m not paying much attention as I scroll through Instagram.

My roommates, who sit on either side of me, are doing much of the same. One is scrolling through a friend’s wedding album on Facebook. The other, like me, is on Instagram.

“Look at us,” I say, sarcastically. “So social.”

It’s bad, they agree, but the scrolling continues. It’s a nightly ritual, one that none of us are willing to let go of. As my thumb swipes past the hundreds of photos of smiling friends, impossibly beautiful beauty gurus and jealousy-pang-inducing vacation vistas, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is there something better I should be doing?

Despite the carefree, positive attitudes we tend to display on it, social media has taken on an ominous and shadowy role in the lives of the modern person. Aside from the looming concerns about data hacking, election rigging and digital spying, social media use itself has become somewhat of a dirty little habit we all harbor but refuse to admit is a problem.

In the past couple of years, social media cleanses have become the trendiest way to end what some consider to be an anxiety-inducing, ego-boosting vice, and to reconnect people with the “real world” around them. One Google search reaps hundreds of blog posts from zen internet mavens who preach the benefits of cleanses.

So in an effort to reap these Buddha-like benefits, I decided to take on the challenge and give up social media for a week. The plan was to delete all social media from my iPhone — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, for five days.

Would I be transformed? Better connected with my friends and family? Perhaps. But before I embarked on this modern mission, I consulted some experts to get a more scholarly assessment of the idea.

Jeffrey A. Hall is a professor of communications at the University and an expert in interpersonal communication. His research focuses on a subject called “social displacement” — the idea that spending more time on social media inherently cuts down on face-to-face social interactions.

“People thought that this happened with the telephone too, so this one goes back even a hundred years,” Hall tells me one spring afternoon in his Bailey Hall basement office i. It’s a sunny day, and I can see students walking down Jayhawk Boulevard from his window. I bet the tulips are blooming, I think absentmindedly, and remind myself to take a picture for Instagram on the way home.

“What's weird about this displacement argument is the presumption that social media is social,” Hall says. “It's not like reading a newspaper or watching television.”

The reality, Hall tells me, is that social media is neither socially driven nor socially interactive. In other words, we don’t really use it because we want to be social with our friends; we use it because we want to observe our friends.

“People have been watching each other since time immemorial,” he says. “This is not news.”

So if it’s not social interaction that’s driving us to pick up our phones all the time, then what is it?

“It's actually driven by killing time,” Hall says. “Not feeling bored, not feeling without anything to do.”

Which makes perfect sense. When I set out to try a social media cleanse, I enlisted my the help of my roommate, Rachel, who had also expressed that she’d been thinking about cutting down on screen time.  

By the end of the first day, we both were feeling more bored than anything else.

“I’ve just been playing this dumb 248 game all day instead of being on Facebook,” she said “I want to be able to see what’s going on with my friends.”

Is the hype around social media cleanses just an overreaction to a new technology that people have been portraying as the boogeyman for decades? Or is it a reflection of our inability to be idle?

Even during the time I wasn’t wasting on social media, I was wasting it somewhere else — usually shopping online or reading useless articles on Buzzfeed.

The same kind of phenomenon was documented in some of Hall’s latest research. In 2018 he asked a group of undergrads to take a break from social media and document their daily habits. Instead of filling that free time with virtuous activities, like face-to-face conversations with friends, participants reported they spent that time surfing the web, cleaning or doing school work.

Internet addiction was first introduced as a concept when Dr. Kimberly Young, a social researcher, proposed it be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1996, well before the advent of smartphones.

Since then, China and South Korea have recognized Internet Addiction Disorder as a valid health concern, and have funded ongoing programs to address it. In the United States, there has been no formal governmental response to the issue of Internet addiction.

Young, who died earlier this year, devoted much of her career to understanding and treating the concept of internet addiction. In her book, “Internet Addiction: Symptoms, Evaluation, and Treatment”, Young suggests a number of treatments, including disrupting internet use by doing something else, setting goals, abstaining from particular applications, using reminder cards, and entering support groups.  

Although Young’s research was meant to be applied to people who might engage in 24-hour-a-day gaming or other more intense forms of addiction, some of her methods for going offline are still relevant today.

Erin Brock, a University alum, moved to California after graduation and now holds a job managing social media for the NBC network. For her, being online isn’t just about being bored. Aside from doing her literal job, she uses Facebook to connect with friends back home or her family, who lives on the other side of the country.

“Without my phone, I’m not connected to a lot of things that mean a lot to me now or I have a lot of responsibility over,” Brock says.

When she gets overwhelmed from pressure to constantly post or be online, Brock says she’ll leave the phone at home and go for a hike, or deactive certain apps like Instagram and Snapchat, which she said she spends a lot of time on.

“Now that I’m a little bit older I’m making more of an effort to not be so online,” Brock says. “There’s so much about the internet that I love, but there’s also so much about the internet that I hate.”

Brock said she feels especially weary of the internet after the 2016 election, when vitriol and hate saturated sites like Facebook and Youtube. And Brock isn’t alone in her disgust. Since 2017, 15 million users have left Facebook, according to a recent Edison Research report. 

The ubiquitous levels of disdain, along with increasing pressure to post, have tons of young people looking for a way out.

Mark Landau is a professor of psychology at the University who studies social motivations in humans. He explained the impact that social media comparison can have on us.

“There's a certain unspoken norm that you don't talk about depression experiences or feelings of worthlessness on social media,” Landau says. “It's like, ‘here's my awesome guacamole, or I'm going to France, or I got this award.’ So you're exposed to constant messages of people at their best, or sometimes even better than they really are.”

It’s very typical for humans to use others to increase their self esteem. Landau described a habit called BIRG-ing, or “basking in the reflective glory” of another person. Whenever we see a friend or family member accomplish something, we feel better about ourselves.

“By having friends who are accomplishing things, you can feel as though you are, you can feel positive benefits yourself indirectly or vicariously,” Landau says.

That still leaves one question unanswered: why do I feel so lousy when I see other people doing well in life? The short answer, Landau says, is because of upward and downward comparison.

Sometimes, he says, we like to see other people doing badly in life because it makes us feel better about our own circumstances. That’s called downward comparison. If we see someone who has the same resources and circumstances as ourselves doing better than we are, we’re going to feel bad about ourselves. That’s upward comparison.

“Social media creates an opportunity for upward comparison because people are constantly curating their social media profiles, they're constantly presenting themselves in a positive way,” Landau says.

One of the biggest things I missed during the week was being able to document my day on Instagram. On Tuesday, I woke up to 75 degrees and sparkling blue skies. My first instinct was to take a nice walk to the coffee shop that I knew would be a great place to take an aesthetically pleasing picture.

“But what’s the point of getting an iced chai latte” I thought to myself, “if I can’t brag about it on Instagram?”

I thought taking a break from social media would be a big benefit to my self-esteem. But it turns out social comparison happens in real life, too. During the course of the week, I found myself feeling insecure when my friend told me they ran a half marathon, or when my classmates got way more awards at a school ceremony than I did.

Despite my lukewarm experience with a social media cleanse, there are still people who sing its praises.

Megan Marsh, a senior at Drake University in Iowa, decided to take a 90-day break from social media earlier this year, and said she found herself replacing a scroll through someone’s profile with a phone call or a meet up.

“Instead of going to someone's Instagram to see what they've been up to because I haven't seen them a while, here's a great idea: call them or text them, or say 'hey let's chat, I want to see how you are,'” Marsh says. “It seems like such common sense, but we just don't do that.”

On Saturday morning I pulled out my phone, gleeful to redownload Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. I spent most of the day “catching up” on what I had missed, which just means I used it as an excuse to stare at my little glass rectangle all day.

I don’t feel any more at peace, or like I saw the other side of life. But I do understand why social media makes me feel bad at times, and how to avoid comparing myself to others.

The next week, I got home from work exhausted, ready to settle in for a night of dual-screen time. But as I sat down I paused, turned my phone on airplane mode, and stuck it in a drawer.

My roommate came down the stairs. “How was your day?” she asked.

“Meh,” I responded. “But hey, tell me about yours.”

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Person 1: This song slaps.

Person 2: Your mom slaps.

Person 1: Thank you, my mom is a kind and wonderful lady.

 Person 1: I’m so sick of alcohol.

Person 2: I don’t know, I’m getting stronger every day. I love it.

Person 1: Do you do the vegan wrap here?

Person 2: We can do the chicken wrap with no cheese?

Person 1: I’ll take the Beyond Burger please. 

Person 1: Oh my God! I feel like I know you somehow…

Person 2: Yeah, we went to high school together. 

Person 1: Oh! *walks off*

Guy 1: Is the black market even real? Has anyone ever been on it?

Guy 2: I tried once but I couldn’t figure out how to get on.

Guy 1: I stayed up until 2 am watching Disney plus

Guy 2: I told my girlfriend I fell asleep but I was actually watching the Mandalorian.

Girl 1: How long have you guys been dating?

Girl 2: Since the summer, well actually for like two years but it’s a long story.

Girl 1: Who are you looking for?

Girl 2: This guy, wait I found him. Fanny pack boy. He flipped off my professor after a test and ran out of the classroom.

Girl 1: How did you choose KU? 

Girl 2: Honestly, I flipped a coin. 

Boy 1: Did I tell you? I think I had a threesome this weekend.

Boy 2: Woah, hold up. You think?

Boy 1: I was born a Phi Delt.

Boy 2: Please don’t ever say that again.

Girl 1: How do you get your boobs to look like that?

Girl 2: I don’t ever wear a bra? I don’t know. 

Girl 1: I just really want a guy to bend me over you know?

Girl 2: How do you know? You’re a virgin!

Guy: Sometimes I wish I could just be a dog and sleep all day. 

Girl: You wake up at like three every day. 

Guy: I know.

Girl: So…

Guy: So does that make me a dog or something?

Girl 1: I wish I was a little bit taller.

Girl 2: I wish I was balder.

Girl 1: I wish I had a...wait, wait, wait balder?

Guy 1: Let’s slap dicks

Guy 2: You ever pee and it feels like throwing up?

Woman 1: *holding baby* He would have been safer at the Hawk

Woman 2: Oh absolutely.

Girl 1: I would never date that guy.

Girl 2: Well, it depends how much money he has.

Girl 1: I’m going to the doctor to see if I have bronchitis before I hook up with him again.

Girl 2: Yeah that’s smart so you don’t give it to anyone else. 

Girl 1: No I mean I want to make sure I infect him.

Guy 1: I'm cutting some of my unnecessary costs, starting with Juuling.

Guy 2: Ight man, good luck.

Guy 1: Actually I might just start chewing

Guy 1: How was work?

Guy 2: My manager was chastising me for not dressing up in a Halloween costume, she doesn’t understand I’m strictly here to get paid.

Guy 1: I am so tired of this week, man

Guy 2: Dude it’s Monday

Guy 1: I know

Person#1: I want to be on the first ship to mars

Person#2: Not me, I doubt they have Wi-Fi

Perons#1: Yeah but at least they’re evolving up there. We’re all just devolving.

Girl 1: Um, I don’t eat pig.

Girl 2: You eat bacon all the time, bitch.

Guy 1: You better get going. 

Guy 2: Yeah, see ya. I’m off to get some Adderall.

Girl 1: Are you home right now?

Girl 2: Yeah, why?

Girl 1: I bought a cat

Girl 1: I just don't understand what fishing is for.

Girl 2: I don't know. Food, maybe?

Guy: I’m just gonna have to like carry an entire box of spiders up the hill tomorrow.

Girl: What?

Guy: Yeah, just like a hundred spiders in a box.

Guy 1: Sometimes ya just gotta give yourself a haircut.

Guy 2: Dude, you shaved half your head. That’s not a haircut, that’s a mess.

Girl 1: Can you eat fruit raw?

Girl 2: How else are you supposed to eat it?

Girl: That class is killing us. ​But they say rest is for the dead.

Guy: Well, at least we'll be rested.

Girl: She's not in class this semester.

Guy: Maybe she's dead.

Girl: Or studying abroad.

Girl: They're like oil and water.

Guy: Wow, you're so good with analogies.