Oh my god, I thought.
I watched as pedestrians streamed into the crosswalk and across the street. Every one of them stared down at their phone as they walked, with only a cursory glance up for traffic.
They look like zombies.
A few days earlier I had read two articles that concerned me. The first was about the epidemic of deteriorated attention caused by cell phone use. It said that people were having trouble with relationships, job productivity was way down, and self-reported well-being showed a sharp decline since the introduction of the smart phone.
The second talked about the ways that social media used algorithms and psychology to capture our attention and keep us scrolling for as long as possible. For example, Instagram has code that withholds new ‘likes’ until the moment when you are most likely to leave the app, so that you’ll stick around longer. These companies were hacking our attention, and we were basically powerless to resist.
That wasn’t exactly true, I realized. I could just quit. But did I really want to tear myself away from family and friends like that?
Then I saw the zombies. It was definitely time to quit.
The truth is, I had been thinking about quitting facebook for a while. I was sick of all the outrage, the pointless news stories about who tweeted at whom, the endless ads, and the repetitive memes that oversimplified issues and seemed to be more about virtue signaling than about real conversation. There were a few groups that provided helpful information, and I would occasionally see a thoughtful post from one of my friends, but for the most part it was wasted time.
That night when I opened my phone, I took a tally of the posts. Among the first twenty items there were seven advertisements, six memes, four political articles that had been shared by friends, two posts from a group of music teachers I had joined, and one post from a friend who was yelling at a referee about a sports game. Twenty posts, and not a single one that I wanted to see. In fact, when I scrolled down further, it was post #37 that finally had something that I felt was interesting. The attempt to count posts was difficult enough—over and again I would zone out in the middle of scrolling, lose count, and have to start over. It was like a fantasy story where the hero realizes he is trapped under a magic spell and can’t trust the clarity of his own mind to help him escape.
Worse, I realized that they were milking me like a cow. I didn’t have to pay for Facebook because I was the product they were selling. They took my posts and content for free and fed them to other users to keep their attention, and then sold that to advertisers for their own profit. It bothered me that they were profiting on my content, but it bothered me more that they were profiting on my attention—your attention is your life! In the roughly 16 hours of waking time we get each day, a portion of that was being pulled away and fed to a corporation without compensation.
You know in The Princess Bride when Wesley gets years of his life drained away by the waterwheel? I realized I was doing that to myself.
It was time to quit.
The problem was that Facebook had a monopoly on my friends. If I quit facebook, how would I know what was going on in other people’s lives? And how would they know what was going on in my life? It was the old adage about the tree falling in the forest. If I don’t post on social media, do I actually exist?
It took my a while, but I finally came up with a solution: email. I would send my friends and family an update once a week of what was going on in my life, what I’d been thinking about, and some of the ideas that had resonated with me. I didn’t know if it would work, but I was willing to try.
It solved a lot of other problems, too.
Facebook’s algorithm effectively censored anything that wasn’t inflammatory or outrageous, so when I shared articles that discussed nuance, they were usually relegated to a black hole and never appeared on friends’ news feeds.
Email would force me to think harder about what I shared with friends and family. Throw-away witticisms were over; that’s not how I wanted to spend my life anyway.
With email, I could share thoughtful content and know that my friends and family would have a chance to see it and consider it. What they decided to do with it after that was up to them, but that was a big improvement over leaving it up to an algorithm that was focused on maximizing profit.
I set a deadline to remove myself from Facebook, and then I invited all of my friends and family to opt-in to my new email list. I expected 15-20 people to take me up on it. I was floored when over a hundred people signed up. When I deleted my account a couple weeks later, it felt like I was embarking on a new adventure rather than depriving myself.
At first it was difficult. When I told people I was leaving the site, some people joked that I’d be back within a month or two. I wondered if they were right.
Pretty soon I found myself craving the site. You don’t realize how much time you think about what you want to post until you realize you can’t post it. It felt just like a craving for food. I started to realize that if I was doing that with my thoughts, there was a good chance I was doing it with my actions, too. I can’t point to anything specific, but I think it’s possible that I was choosing at least some activities based on how I thought they would appear on social media.
Even when I didn’t have a craving for the site, I’d finish a task on my computer, and in the moment of indecision on what to do next, I’d find myself typing in facebook.com without any conscious thought.
A month into the experiment, I was distraught at how deeply these cravings and automatic thoughts ran. Was it worth it to keep fighting? What was I missing out on? Maybe it would be easier to just give in and start a new account. Maybe this time I could show some self control and just use the site occasionally.
I knew that wouldn’t work. I had tried to get it under control so many times, with so many failures, and they were only getting better at hacking psychology. The variable reward system that their algorithm uses is the same system that slot machines use to keep people hooked. Except that while slot machines use rewards like bells, lights, and small payouts, facebook uses something much stronger: social approval. Whether that approval is real or not doesn’t matter; as long as we perceive it as real, that’s enough to keep us coming back
I’ve been free of Facebook for a year now. It hasn’t always been easy, but the rewards have been worth it.
The time the average user spends on their cell phone and tablet is 4 hours and 33 minutes per day. I average about two hours a day (still way too much for my taste), which I think of as two and a half hours more life every day than the average user.
Every week I get emails back from friends and family. Some of them are just quick “hey, I read this and enjoyed it” emails, and some of them are long, thoughtful emails that engage with my ideas and start a real conversation. I’ve reconnected with people who I haven’t seen in years. Before, we might have passed each other on Facebook and thrown out a like or two, but we never really talked to each other; now we’re having real conversations and I’m discovering new facets of their personalities that I never knew were there. It’s a treat.
I have much more confidence in the decisions I make about how I spend my time. With two and a half extra hours, even if I get it wrong sometimes, I still come out ahead.
There have been some challenges. I’ve discovered that much of the time that was taken up by Facebook has been replaced by other activities on my phone. Part of that is sheer laziness, and part of it is my reticence to completely disconnect from social media. Instagram (which is owned and run by Facebook) has its own claim on my attention, which I am working to resolve. I may have to quit that, too.
I had to delete my news app about a month after I quit Facebook because I found myself mired in the daily twit-show as often as I had been on the social media site. Now I search for news consciously, and sometimes skip a day or two altogether. There have been no negative consequences, and much more peace of mind. There’s a perverse tendency to believe that by reading and watching the news, we are doing something to help, but I’ve actually noticed the opposite: we read the news instead of writing our congressperson, we share memes instead of engaging with the process.
In general, though, the challenges have been far outweighed by the rewards. I’ve been able to spend more time with the things I love: my wife, my daughter, writing, reading, hiking. I’ve also noticed that when I’m not in my cell phone for a longer period of time, my attention has a richer quality to it. Before, even when I wasn’t looking at my phone, my attention was divided and scattered as I scanned the world and thought about what I was going to post next. I’m not out of the cell phone mire yet, but at least I’m coming up for air more often. Like most addictions, the first step was to admit to myself that I didn’t have control, and then to set up an environment where I didn’t have to depend on willpower.
Every time I talk about why I quit Facebook, people defensively explain why they need to stay on Facebook. I do think the company is a negative force in society, but I am not here to tell you how to spend your time or to judge you. Perhaps you have it under control, and can use their service in a way that works for you. Part of why I wrote this is because I think some of us don’t realize the true costs that social media incurs, and part of it is to encourage you to find different ways to engage with your friends and family when possible, but I understand that not everyone’s situation is the same. For example, I have ADHD, which makes me more susceptible to addiction and also means that a social media addiction takes a greater toll on my time and attention.
Here’s a test you can take to see if you have a smartphone addiction. The questions themselves are pretty eye-opening.