Over the past year or so, I’ve been scaling back how much time and energy I put into social media.
For a long time, I’d keep my Instagram story “up to date”, regularly post on TikTok, and spend far too much of my day scrolling various feeds. Lately, I’ve been scaling that back. I know a number of people who’ve totally deleted their accounts, but for me that wasn’t quite desirable. I didn’t want to risk losing touch with people or what’s going on. Much as I don’t like it, a bunch of social organising has moved to social media.
- A number of geographically distant friends I keep in touch with almost exclusively over Instagram
- I’ve found tech community on Twitter + Mastodon
- It’s useful for meeting new people while travelling
- It can be useful for work
Lots of my behaviours towards the consumption of social media were not what I regarded to be healthy. Much as it can be a useful tool, it is a tool that requires control; otherwise, it will use you.
I started off trying to limit things. I figured I could retain some of what I saw as upsides while reducing the downsides if I stuck to say, 15-30 mins a day.
Attempt #1: Screen time limits
I initially setup Apple screen time limits. These did a pretty good job of stopping me from scrolling, for a few days anyway.
After 30 minutes, the screen time limit pops up. Unfortunately, it’s easy to bypass - my poor impulse control and big-tech addiction soon got used to dismissing this without even noticing.
Attempt #2: One sec
Next up, I tried One Sec. It essentially delays your access to apps, making you wait for a certain number of seconds before it is possible to open them. This actually worked pretty well! It interrupted the easy-dopamine reach of just opening social media for “a few seconds”, and forced me to actually think about what I was doing. Most of the time, it resulted in me remembering that I wanted to spend my life differently and backing out.
After a while, I noticed a different pattern. Sometimes I’d open the app before I anticipated I’d actually want to use it, and other times I’d just use it for longer. My overall usage had gone down a whole bunch though, so I’d call this a partial success.
Just delete it
The main thing holding me back from uninstalling Instagram and Twitter was the messengers. Especially with international friends, it’s easier to swap social media than it is to request phone numbers - and often more socially acceptable. Even though I’ve put a great deal of effort into trying to move people to better alternatives, it’s realistically not going to happen any time soon.
If I tried going on a techie rant about how addicting social media is, how it’s used to control groups of people, and how “if it’s free, you’re the product”… most of my not-tech friends would ignore me and think I was losing it. I admire those who stick so strongly to their principals there, but I’m not willing to pay the social cost.
Recently I setup Beeper. It has done an amazing job of totally replacing social media apps for messaging. I can still keep in touch with people where I need to, but I don’t end up getting sucked into a time vacuum. Fantastic!
The first thing I removed was TikTok. It had an uncanny ability to absolutely entrap my attention, for an embarrassingly long period of time. After an hours doom-scrolling, there was rarely (if ever) anything I could remember. The app is excellent at absorbing your time and contributing little to your life. The worst part was that most of the posts weren’t anything at all from my real friends, just internet personalities and memes.
For a while, I actually used to post videos - mostly relating to motorcycles. A few of these ended up with millions of views. TikTok analytics show the total amount of “human time” that has been spent, per video. It showed that videos I had uploaded, putting in very little effort, had been complicit in pointlessly absorbing days of combined human lifespan. Across the platform, it must be measured in decades/centuries.
Some people have said they manage to learn useful things from TikTok, but that wasn’t really my experience. I’m also unsure if people convince themselves of this, so that they feel less bad about spending so much time on it.
After a while, I uninstalled the Instagram app entirely. I didn’t delete my account, as I do still find it useful from time-to-time. I started using Instagram purely through the instagram.com web app, and it hasn’t been anywhere near as addictive.
I think the lack of polish on mobile (vs the apps) is just about jarring enough that I don’t waste any time at all! I’ve actually found it interesting how the UI being “smooth” keeps me absorbed, but if it’s jerkier/less native the likelihood of me becoming too absorbed decreases dramatically. It’s usually the case that after a couple of minutes I just think “wow, there really isn’t a lot here huh” and close the page.
I mentioned above, but Beeper has really helped here. I can continue to message people who prefer staying in touch via Instagram, without actually having it installed on my phone.
Twitter / X
I’ve kept Twitter for now. Much as I’m not a big fan of the platform, I still maintain connections with a bunch of people there, and it has been useful for my work. I’d like to see that change, but for now it is still the case.
The app is still on my phone, but I think soon I’ll be banishing it to a Firefox tab just like Instagram.
I honestly haven’t used this in several years. I have an account, but it’s inactive. Nothing to remove!
I’ve found Mastodon to be very refreshing. The total lack of algorithm means I can very quickly have a quick read of what’s been shared since my last visit, and then get back to my day. There’s not new content every time the spinner loads.
Generally (and perhaps that’s not everyone’s experience) I’ve found the community there to be much more pleasant. Less flamewars, less politics, more genuine humanity.
I’ll be keeping this one 😊
I’ve heard lots of people say that they like checking social media as a way to wind down, or to relax. Obviously I’m unable to speak for everyone, but for me personally there’s a huge difference between conscious and intentional winding down, and switching your brain off while the magic box feeds you with whatever the algorithm deems best for engagement. One is restful, while the other burns time.
After a few months, I’ve found that I have much more time. I’ve filled it with other things - more time outdoors, reading books much more often, and more time for projects. I’m also trying to learn the guitar.
So far, I’ve been writing much more too! There’s a whole bunch of drafts for my blog, and notes are being published pretty regularly.
I no longer reach for my phone at the first sign of boredom or “empty time”, instead using it purely as a tool. I think there’s still work to do here, but it’s a big improvement.
In an ideal world, tech wouldn’t have such a grip on our lives. But there’s certainly compromises we can make, without having to go all out and delete everything.