Why I deleted social media from my phone

The internet is clogged with blogs and vlogs about quitting social media, planning digital detoxes and navigating the deleterious effects of screen time on mental health. Google yields 288 million results for ‘why I quit social media,’ a veritable tome of technological self-help. I have consumed a great deal of that content, basking in a glow of vicarious satisfaction yet failing to quit entirely myself. Until recently, that is. Until something clicked in my mind.

I no longer use social media on my phone. A few weeks ago, seeking psychological clarity, I deleted the apps, saying goodbye to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube in mobile form. I now login sporadically using my MacBook, more to check messages than to scroll newsfeeds, and my overall social media browsing time has been cut to a bare minimum.

The result? I have more time in which to do things that matter, and I’m starting to wrestle back control of my brain from the persistent fog of digital overload. I have often been sceptical of articles like this, which seem to crop up every few days, but there are changes you can make to help your mental wellbeing, and I want to encourage you down that road.

My love-hate relationship with social media

More than most people, I have experienced both sides of social media – the sublime exchange of real-time information, bringing people together across borders in the throes of free expression, but also the gut-wrenching cesspit of cancel culture vitriol, eviscerating people before the entire world, leaving them scared to utter a single thought. 

As a writer, author, blogger and journalist, social media has been a useful tool in my career. A lot of my work is self-published, so the opportunity to develop a platform of readers and followers is brilliant. Previous generations never had that chance, and I appreciate how lucky we are as modern artists capable of curating a bespoke and captive audience. Without Twitter, I never would have found the community that appreciates my work. Therefore, without Twitter, said work would be a little more pointless, because I would simply be shouting in my echo chamber.

However, as an introverted depressive with obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe anxiety, social media has often been disastrous for my mental health. In particular, sites like Snapchat and Instagram – or rather, the content users publish there and the culture that propagates therefrom – have fuelled bouts with suicidal ideation. More generally, the inexorable surge of bullshit that passes for content online contributes to the incessant, low-level dissatisfaction I feel with the modern world. For many people, the prospect of cutting it all out and closing it all down looms like a cathartic elixir, and that is a sad requiem to contemporary life.

As a digital native, I managed to avoid social media for a relatively long time. I joined Twitter while covering Euro 2012 as a freelance journalist. One of the publications for which I worked insisted that all writers promote their stories on social media, so I finally took the plunge, aged 17. There was a similar deal with LinkedIn around this time, too. Apparently, I needed it to make contacts and find new work, although that has never proved an effective strategy in all eight years of usage.

As for Facebook, the king of social networks? I joined that particular shitshow in 2013, delving with morbid curiosity into the world of retired women sharing posters of missing dogs from Denver, Colorado in groups about Birkenhead crime gossip. Instagram and Snapchat came at similar times, about three years later, in 2016. I even dabbled with a few YouTube videos from time to time, completing my full set of apparently indispensable platforms.

All joking aside, without social media, my career would have stalled. It may not have even started in the first place. For instance, Planet Prentonia, my hub of Tranmere Rovers coverage, has been phenomenally well received for almost five years, attracting more than 4,000 followers across various channels. Those followers have been instrumental in my development, and their support has been pivotal in the growth of my personality.

Furthermore, I have been fortunate to flirt with my dream of becoming a professional baseball writer – a vocation that, due to my Britishness, would have been impossible in eras before the internet. Being able to discuss Major League Baseball with friends in the United States – using my Pinstripe Galaxy project as a conduit - is a thrilling luxury, and I never lose appreciation for that simple pleasure.

Social media also led directly to my transition out of freelance journalism and into a full-time, secure, corporate career. In 2017, I was headhunted on Twitter by someone who enjoyed my work, and although that employment experience ended in acrimony, it was a stepping stone to bigger and better things that would not have materialised without social media and its stunning virality.

Nevertheless, for every positive wrought by social media, there seems to be at least one negative, perhaps more, lurking in the shadows. Penalties for succeeding, I guess. Caveats for feeling happy. I have fallen down many obsessive-compulsive rabbit holes with social media, suffocating under its churning potentiality. I have also been cancelled on numerous occasions for sharing unorthodox views, while the general tenor of debate often leaves me bereft of hope, determined to deactivate once and for all.

Why social media is bad for my mental health

In the first instance, my main problem with social media – especially sites that rely inherently on contrived visual presentation, such as Instagram and Snapchat – is how it turns every post, thought and opinion into a referendum on coolness and hyper-liberal acceptability. 

We now communicate our likes and dislikes – or, speaking more accurately to the pervasive polarity of modern life, our loves and hates – through technological means. We retweet things we like and we block people who diverge from our viewpoint. We share sarcastic memes and we mute words that trigger discomfort. We are programmed, in other words, to filter our existence through pixelated taxonomies of binary classification. It is hard to unlearn those behaviours.

In bygone eras, we had hunches about our own unpopularity, but now our neurotic otherness is quantified for all to see. Anyone who gets less than 100 likes on an Instagram photo is a weirdo, an alien, a social pariah. Anyone who receives less than 50 retweets of their latest blog is pointless, useless and inconsequential. Anyone who does not use WhatsApp is unreliable, untrustworthy and just a bit of a dickhead. Failure to meet the arbitrary thresholds of social media coolness, set by the self-appointed guardians of woke trendyism, is failure to live as a worthwhile human being entirely. Why would we listen to anyone who has just 76 followers? 

We live in a world obsessed with documenting rather than experiencing. People view life through a social media prism, scouting for story ideas and content opportunities, rather than enjoying the moment. We look at the Coliseum in Rome through a Snapchat filter. We watch decisive penalty kicks from the away end while attached to selfie sticks. We appreciate beautiful sunsets in retrospect, perhaps a few months later when we finally flick through our crowded photo streams. 

If mindfulness is a coping mechanism for anxiety, social media is a turbine of the stuff. If staying present and harvesting gratitude helps ease the spiky shards of depression, social media sharpens those points to a deadly degree. If meditation shushes the demons for a few hours, social media invites them round for breakfast, lunch, tea and supper.

Nowadays, I view social media as a reverse cognitive behavioural therapy machine, akin to slots or digitised roulette. Sometimes, your endless scrolling is rewarded with a huge dopamine hit. Tranmere announcing the signing a capable striker, for instance, or the Yankees sharing an old video of Derek Jeter. More often, though, you are served a smorgasbord of triggers that catalyse depressive episodes. People from your past, for example, or memories from three years ago when you were mired in the grips of hopelessness. Where therapy breaks negative connections and learned reactions thereto, social media regurgitates misery and stops us moving forward.

Sure, you can delete people. Yes, you can curate your friends, followers and groups. But such actions are typically redundant, because social media relies on the homogenisation of culture and personality to make profit. It encourages us to adopt uniform standards of taste, style and ideology, overwhelmingly skewed towards the libertarian left. No amount of digital gentrification will rectify that scourge, so attempting to do so is merely wasting time.

You see, on Instagram, there are no bad days. Everything is sunshine, smiles and pancakes for breakfast. The app allows us to alter reality, creating alternate worlds of choreographed situations and feigned pleasure. Therefore, whenever we scroll through its inauthentic gallery of photos, our worst day is placed in stark contrast to everybody else’s best day. We are subjected to a remorseless deluge of prettier people having a better time than us with more friends, better props, pricier clothes and grander houses than we can muster. Except, that is not true at all, because behind the camera, insecurity is thy closest companion.

In this regard, we feel a constant urge to check our phones, hopping from one app to the other, feeding our self-authored sense of inadequacy. Some call it jealousy. Others call it schadenfreude. I just call it life, because what goes on in our phones is now apparently more important than anything else on the planet.

According to one recent study, more than 90% of humans reported multitasking while using a digital device every single day. You know the drill – listening to music while looking at spreadsheets; watching YouTube videos while on the toilet; putting a film on in the background before tackling that pile of ironing. This is insane.

Our brains were never designed to function in such a scattered, diverted and distracted manner. It is often said that men cannot multitask, but humans cannot more generally. All that mind fog you live through? Yes, that is the result of fractured attention. That TV static in your frontal lobe? Try unplugging for an hour and see if you can feel the difference.

Capitalism, data mining and moral bankruptcy – the dangers of social media

To really understand social media, it is important to remember the background of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook who turbocharged the genre. Zuckerberg studied psychology at Harvard, mixing it with computer science. He built Facebook in his spare time, a powerful amalgam of both competing passions. In this regard, social media has a smart techy interface, but it really amounts to psychological manipulation for the financial benefit of a small minority.

Facebook is designed to be addictive. Zuckerberg insists on that hallmark, splicing propaganda techniques with the psychology of casino gambling to create narcotics-grade dopamine machines. That may sound fun to some, and in short bursts, it can be. However, the human brain is an ancient operating system. It was never designed to encounter such a bombardment of self-activated, self-regulated, self-styled ‘pleasure.’ Every swipe takes us further away from organic happiness.

Most of us know the theory on this. We know that Facebook monetises our eyeballs with sickening efficiency. We know that no good ever came out of stalking your ex at three in the morning on Instagram. We know that Twitter alters our perception of time. But still, we cannot resist one last look. Still, we cannot sleep without the phone beside our beds. Still, we cannot put the fucking thing down, and that is the dumbest realisation of our time.

The average human checks his or her phone 58 times per day. The average human, meaning that a whole heap of people exceed this threshold. Unbelievably, 50% of all screen time sessions around the world start within 3 minutes of the previous one, which is to say that we can barely go 180 seconds without being hooked to the internet. That is absurd.

Every day, as a collective species, we typically spend 2 hours and 24 minutes using social media. That is almost 17 hours per week. That is almost three whole days per month. That is an entire month per year – scrolling, steaming, stewing and swearing. Somebody born today, right this very minute, who lives to be 85 will lose 7 whole years of their life to social media. And for what? Followers? Likes? ‘Influencer’ status? Please - there has to be a better way to live.

Facebook has 2.6 billion active monthly users. YouTube and WhatsApp have 2 billion. Instagram has 1 billion, TikTok has 800 million, and Twitter has 326 million. In a capitalist world obsessed with profit, anything that holds such mass attention is bound to end in catastrophe. When so many eyeballs focus on the same thing, the owners of that thing are trained by a culture high on entrepreneurialism to view it as a conduit to cash. Thus, originally a web of bold ideas, social media has become a pawn of elitist profiteering.

Personal data recently surpassed oil as the most valuable asset on our planet. The digital detritus we leave scattered about the internet - from credit card swipes and bank transfers to GPS usage and retweets – is a timeless elixir for marketers and advertisers. It allows them to mine nefariously, developing intelligence on us that can then be used to serve an endless stream of tailored content and presumptive ads, keeping the economy in synch.

Of course, the Cambridge Analytica scandal illustrated the dangers of illicit data harvesting. The ‘behavioural research and strategic communications’ company claimed to have 5,000 data points on every American voter during the 2016 election. I do not even have 5,000 data points on myself, and the extent to which these ruthless factions control our lives is frightening.

Cambridge Analytical excavated personal information - including status updates, private messages and location check-ins – to create digital reincarnations of people that were then used to streamline political messaging. While assisting Donald Trump in his election campaign, the company targeted ‘persuadable voters’ in key swing states, identifying target audiences even down to individual voting precincts. Those targets were then bombarded with bespoke ads, catering to their whims, playing on their insecurities and appealing to their core instincts, as projected by the data.

Cambridge Analytica did not care whether the content of those ads, messages and posts was accurate or not. In fact, they worked with the Trump campaign to drop curated – and toxic - content into online communities suited to enhance its virality, not to improve knowledge or understanding. Sometimes, entirely fake profiles were made just to disseminate fictional news, subtly altering the subtext of political discussion and, ultimately, manipulating people into thinking a certain way. The Trump way.

In essence, the rise of Cambridge Analytica and similar organisations heralded the end of universal truth. If we can constantly mutate facts – be they biographical nuggets or manifesto pledges – by turning one sentence into 100 different Facebook ads playing on the individual sensitivities, stress points and emotional triggers of 100 different people, where does it stops? Is truth even a thing anymore? Where does fake news stop and real news begin?

We now live in a world where websites have the power to ruin democracies. Everything is tailored exactly to our liking by these digital behemoths, to a point where we no longer question the validity of information that washes before our eyes. Now, we are able to send infinite political messages – real, embellished or otherwise - to an infinite number of people.

Gone are the generalised placards of yesteryear. Gone are solid statements and clear commitments. Gone is certainty. There is always another source to check, another opinion to seek, another nuanced elements of controversy to upset corroboration. There is always another layer, and that makes us paranoid, suspicious and untrusting. That makes us unhappy, dear readers, and it is an unhappiness we choose every time we unlock our smartphones.

The good, the bad and the ugly – my history with social media

During depressive episodes, I often take a break from social media, seeking peace of mind and familiarity with my own thoughts as opposed to the raucous chorus of woke similitude. Duplicitous gurus speak of social media holidays or vacations. Moronic life coaches talk of digital detoxes. I just delete the apps and find other ways to occupy my time.

After recovering from a particularly hard battle with suicidal ideation in 2018, the first lifestyle change I made was to delete Snapchat entirely, never to login again. I got rid of the other apps, too, only to gradually fall back into a modified routine when promoting my books, blogs and other projects. However, for the last two years, my overall social media usage has declined sharply, and that is linked inextricably to the rise in hatred conveyed through the popular platforms.

In 2019, I got high on Gary Vaynerchuk and Darren Rowse, fake prophets of the internet age, and my foolish attempts to follow their philosophy damaged my relationship with social media even further. Most people know me as the founder and face of Planet Prentonia and Pinstripe Galaxy, moderately successful projects, but few readers are aware that, over the past seven or eight years, I have started more than 30 similar social media brands on different topics, obsessed with the populist vision – preached by GaryVee and his acolytes - of monetising my passions. Only two of those projects were successful. The rest ended in disaster, making me agitated and distressed.

The road has even been bumpy for Planet Prentonia. In the winter of 2018, three years after launch, I announced the project’s premature end. I was pruning everything in my life at that stage, adrift in a stint of minimalism, and some experiments worked better than others. I brought back the blog last year, coinciding with the release of my debut book, and a new, laissez-faire approach to Tranmere Twitter has allowed Planet Prentonia to enjoy a renaissance. 

Here, we see that social media does have utility, and I even find pleasure in certain parts of its potentiality. It is great to hear feedback from readers, for instance, engaging in honest and respectful debate. When managed correctly, Twitter in particular can be a terrific resource for breaking news. I enjoy promoting my articles on social media, while keeping in touch with friends is a phenomenal gift. The trick is to modify your usage and tailor it to your needs. Make social media work for you, rather than you working for it.

How to cut down your social media use and moderate screen time

After oscillating between magic and meltdowns on social media, experiencing its full range of emotional responses, my frustration reached critical mass in the first week of July this year. My timelines became a swirling vortex of cancel culture nonsense, faux political intolerance, coronavirus scaremongering and tokenistic liberalism. I needed to take a break.

More accurately, I needed to find a long-term solution to the same recurring problems. I needed to discover a balance between quitting social media entirely and using it in moderation – using it for the purposes I enjoy, but sifting out the bullshit that weighs me down.

Here are four steps I took to cut down my social media use and moderate my screen time. You can follow them, too:

1. The great unfollow spree

Do not be afraid to unfollow people, brands, organisations and teams that trigger feelings of anxiety, jealousy, regret, sadness or unhappiness inside you. We choose the accounts that interest us - nobody else. Only follow accounts that add value, meaning or pleasure to your life. Our existence is too short to follow things just because everybody else does. I have no use for updates from Justin Bieber, for example, so I do not follow him. It is that simple, really.

2. Muting people who talk too much

When completing an unfollow spree, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a subgroup of nuisance accounts that must be dealt with: those people you like, but from whom you wish to hear less. We are all familiar with those annoying accounts that post four or five times per hour, every hour. Well, there are several analytical tools that compute proprietary metrics to help identify such social saturation. Find those accounts and mute them. Do the same with anything that bogs down your timeline with worthless nonsense. You can even mute specific words nowadays, and that is a pleasure all of its own. You never have to see that content again.

3. Modifying notifications, settings and preferences

Turn off email notifications from all social media accounts – they are pointless. Turn off push notifications, too, minimising the likelihood of distraction. Then, adjust your account settings to take back a modicum of privacy. Study the fine print and dig deeper into those confusing dashboards. Ask questions where needed. Oh, and streamline your content preferences to see less random garbage. I do not need a notification that 17 of my Twitter followers also follow an account dedicated to trainspotting, and that said trainspotting account just posted a photo that is trending in Stevenage. Get to fuck.

4. Deleting the mobile apps and using social media through a browser instead

Finally, once you have curated the accounts you follow, refined the accounts you see and altered your overall settings, the next step is to ditch those addictive mobile apps and use social media through a browser instead. Only login on a desktop computer or laptop. That way, you remove the desire to impulsively check social media and you also take a huge leap towards intentional use rather than reckless browsing. If you do not have time to sit at a desk to scan Instagram, you should not be scanning Instagram at all. Honestly, it is not that important. 

The beauty of deleting social media from your phone and only logging in on a laptop or desktop

In all honesty, I’m surprised at the lack of content around this topic. As mentioned previously, the internet is full of how-to guides promising freedom from your digital nightmares, but few of them focus on the most rudimentary measure of all: using these platforms as they were originally birthed, as websites rather than as apps.

Ultimately, the solution to my social media malaise was hidden in plain sight. Back before profit and mass attention became the driving motivation of social media, these platforms were launched with humbler intentions. They were social networks originally, designed to bring people together and spur the flow of communication. Remarkably, you can still use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube in this manner – you just need to be disciplined in your approach.

Nowadays, rather than checking social media habitually with the mindless flick of a thumb, I must specifically make time to sit down, login and consume the fresh hell that awaits. All joking aside, however, my use of these platforms has fizzled to infinitesimal proportions. I checked Twitter twice last week, briefly scanning my direct messages, and I have probably spent less than an hour on the website this month. That represents huge progress for me.

More importantly, the time I’m spending on social media is now more productive and valuable. Even if I spend 20 minutes each day checking my profiles – a 90% decrease from my peak – but that time is focused, deliberate and managed according to my preferences, I’m less likely to suffer a psychological breakdown due to pernicious cyberspace scandals and meaningless nonsense dressed as earth-shattering developments. Undoubtedly, this is a healthier relationship with social media, and it is working very well in my life. 

The benefits of quitting social media overload – what I found after deleting the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat and YouTube apps

One of the main misconceptions about people who are not hooked up to social media like intravenous drips is that they are somehow out of the loop – distant, reclusive, uncontactable, not up to speed. I have often worried about this myself, especially as a baseball fan living in Britain, but my biggest takeaway so far has been the surprising degree to which I feel more alert, perceptive and cognitively agile as a result of a refined social media lifestyle.

I’m actually watching football matches again, rather than gawping at the social media reaction to those matches. I’m living life with my head up, my eyes open and my hears pricked – seeing things, noticing things, appreciating things. I’m having conversations again – real conversations, with genuine eye contact, real listening and considered responses unimpeded by the rude glow of a smartphone. I’m living my life rather than living the Snapchat highlight reel of my life. The difference is gargantuan.

Bizarrely, I’m actually getting more value out of my YouTube usage these days. I’m sitting down with a specific aim in mind, most often researching for an article, and there is structure to my consumption. I’m no longer flicking off a video after 20 seconds, distracted by another tantalising thumbnail. The true brilliance of YouTube as an educative aid has been revealed to me, and it took using the site less to discover its power.

Similarly, though I’m less exposed to news just now, my opinions, values and convictions are stronger than ever – clearer than ever, in fact. I’m not reacting emotionally to everything in the world, all the time, in binary tones of euphoria and devastation. I’m feeling less angry, polarised and disenfranchised. I’m becoming familiar with my beliefs rather than being infect by the consensus miasma of a scrolling class that attempts to suppress individuality.

Now, strangers online no longer have the unfettered ability, 24/7, to ruin my day, week, month, year or life. I’m not dreading that notification from someone abusing me for sharing a different opinion to the mainstream orthodoxy. I’m not twitchy waiting for the phone to buzz with disapproval. I’m not on edge when publishing my work, because social media leaves my mind when I close that window on my MacBook. It does not follow me around the world. It does not sit beside my bed at night. It does not lurk in the background, so capable of derailing any positive mood.

Sure, there have been a few hitches in this transition. I have missed a few messages about media opportunities, and I have replied to conversations a few days after they fizzled out. I also appreciate that, for self-employed and freelance workers who rely on social media for the sales that underpin their livelihood, such hiccups could be devastating, and that is a daunting realisation. However, for me, I now realise that, online, nothing is so important that it cannot wait. If something truly life-altering happens in my world, there will be a phone call or knock at the door. I’m pretty sure about that. Therefore, everything else is optional noise. 

On the whole, I’m proud of the progress I have made with regard to social media. Obviously, I have more free time as a result of deleting the world’s most popular apps from my phone. I have actually filled that time with positive self-help activities such as yoga, meditation, reading books and writing without distractions – the type of stuff I have always wanted to do, if I just had more time. The uptick in my mood and behaviour is motivation to continue finding those efficiencies. 

What is digital minimalism? And where to start

In the past, I have written about the ethos of minimalism and how it helped my recovery from the aforementioned mental breakdown of 2018. In particular, the work of Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus has been a source of intermittent inspiration. I highly recommend checking out their entire back catalogue of essays, podcasts and videos if you are looking for an instruction manual on putting your life back together. The clarity they offer is unique.

Essentially, minimalism – as espoused by Joshua and Ryan – is a guiding philosophy that underpins actions that contribute to meaningful and intentional lives of greater value. According to The Minimalists, we should analyse every object, item, role, responsibility, relationship and behavioural trend in our lives and ask two simple questions: does this thing have value, in relation to my core instincts, and does it bring me pleasure? If the answer is no, that thing has to go. No matter how expensive it is, and no matter how difficult it will be to cut adrift. Get rid.

Accordingly, digital minimalism is the distillation of this doctrine in specific relation to technology, gadgets, screen time and the internet. If a mobile app does not provide value or pleasure, in accordance with your base desires, delete it. For me, that meant getting rid of social media and email from my phone. Netflix, Amazon and eBay went, too. I’m now left with just 45 apps, a number that still seems high, but which is half the global average. I plan to whittle those down slowly, as well, freeing up yet more time in my life.

You see, that is the ultimate point of digital minimalism, and indeed minimalism of any kind: to make time and space – physically, emotionally and mentally – for the implementation of healthier routines and for the unburdened pursuit of the things you love. Remove the clutter to let in the light.

Sounds great, huh? Well, you can begin that journey today. Contrary to popular wisdom, you do not need white walls, white furniture and a skateboard to become a minimalist, especially a digital minimalist. After all, minimalism is a lifelong process that begins with a single item. Make your first cut today, and I promise you will want to keep going.

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