How Do I Quit Social Media?

Advice from The Sherwins for January 2019

Broken Feed


Hi Sherwins,

Last year, I made a New Year’s resolution to quit using social media. Which went about as well as you’d think. I used a few different tracking apps and by the end of the year, it was worse than when I started. This year, I really want to make a change, but I failed so miserably last year that it feels hopeless. Any advice?

K in Denver

Ah, the infamous New Year’s resolution. You make one or two every year, and every year you fail. And you know you’re not alone in your failure. There are a bunch of studies running around to prove it. And yet, you still do it. This entire letter could be about all the reasons why we continue to engage in narratives that hurt us, but what you really need, K, in design parlance, is a reframing of the problem.

You say you want to quit social media. Let’s start there.

Step 1: Write a More Specific Resolution

What do you mean by social media? We’ll talk about quitting in a minute.

Are we talking about Facebook and LinkedIn? Or do you mean messaging like WhatsApp and Twitter? What about YouTube and Vimeo? Will you exclude social apps you might use for work, like Slack and HipChat (oh wait, HipChat got bought, so hey, there’s part of your problem solved!). There are thousands and thousands of apps that offer social connections, helping you create, deliver, and consume content from other people.

Social media, in all of its forms, succeeds because we are social animals. Doing things that are too different from the rest of the crowd is a good way to get eaten, goes the conventional cave-dweller wisdom. Exchanging content is the best way to inform members of a community about where it’s safe and where danger lies. Posting cute puppy videos does the same thing that posting investigative journalism about election fraud does, they explain to the audience (or the community) what is an acceptable behavior or viewpoint.

Social media gives people the ability to provide content, but there’s no guarantee that the content will be returned in kind. Despite its grand promise to connect us, a lot of social media offers louder amplifiers rather than better headphones. It’s the illusion of having a voice, the presumption that someone is listening. And don’t even get us started on feedback behaviors such as likes or claps or retweets.

Why do you want to stop using social media? List all the reasons. If one of the reasons is “People say that I should,” then step over here for a moment.

With your resolution, we’re talking about behaviors on apps. There aren’t a lot of things eating people anymore, but we still exhibit the same don’t-get-eaten mindsets. Broadly speaking, we’ll happily engage in “different” behaviors from our community when they’re beneficial to us, but usually only when the benefit exceeds the risk. Getting off of social media—which usually means Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and their ilk—is the new, different behavior. Enough people have gone there to prove to you that you’re not going to get eaten by doing it, that the reward exceeds the risk. But not being on social media can weirdly morph into bragging. For the past couple of years or so, quitting social media has been right up there with I don’t even own a TV! in the Hall of Fame of Things People Say That Aren’t Really Accomplishments. Do it because it’s right for you, not because it’s what everyone else is doing.

And now for the quitting part. Does this mean quit right now, this very minute? Or quit by November? Or quit using this one app that’s terrible? Or quit except for just the things you have to use to do your job? How long does a thing need to be quitted before you’ve Quitted The Thing? Again, be specific.

Now that you have some specifics about your usage and your goals, revise your problem statement… er, resolution.

Step 2: User Research (on You)

Reframing a problem in design involves research, but all you have right now is usage data, maybe some apps and links. That’s not enough to understand your situation, especially because usage is actually a cluster of behaviors, a bunch of risk/reward cave-dweller responses. It involves whens and wheres, with whoms, under a variety of conditions.

This first question is the most important question, and it might derail this entire process (which changes your resolution from Step 1): Where do you use social media the most? Some sources have people using mobile phones five hours a day, with 80% of our social media usage happening on that same little screen. It’s easy to conflate social media usage with phone usage; we know some folks who use their phones specifically for “social”. But these behaviors are two very different things. Do you want to stop using social media, or do you want to spend less time on your phone? It’s not that you can’t have both—deleting every social media app from your phone will pretty much guarantee that you’ll use it less—but you need to be able to see the behaviors as distinct. They come from different places.

Get a sheet of paper and work through each of these questions. Replace “social media” with whichever apps you identified from earlier. The questions don’t need to be completed in any particular order. In fact, you may find that they feed into each other in a way that asks you to move back and forth as you go.

When do I use social media?
This is about the situations in which you turn to social media. Don’t worry about what you’re doing in the apps yet. Imagine yourself. Where are you? Who’s around you? Are you consistently sneaking peeks at Instagram when you’re in meetings? Or does Facebook feel more compelling on Wednesday nights, when you used to hang out with friends before you moved away?

Why do I use social media?
When you open that app, what are you looking at? Or looking for? Are you asking your mom about her health? Do you want to see something sexy or funny or both? Waiting for another hot take about the president? Is social media the only way you can find out what’s happening in your town? (This is a significant issue for some. There are towns across the United States where entire swaths of important civic information can only be found on Facebook pages, from school closings to food recalls. During the California wildfires last season, Twitter was the only place for up-to-date, life-saving information about road closures and evacuations. The reliance on social media in situations like these demands that companies examine how they monitor their products, but sadly, those demands remain largely unanswered. The risk vs. reward argument around social media is very real for some. We could go on, but let’s get back to you. If you needed social media to keep you alive, you probably wouldn’t be trying to resolve your way out of using it.)

When I use social media, how do I feel?
Before, during, and after is a good way to think about this. There are a lot of different answers to this, including feeling good when you start but feeling bad later. Also, not to give anything away but… don’t overlook “I’m bored” as an answer.

How do I use what I find on social media?
This is the jackpot for you, K. What’s useful to you, and is social media giving it to you? Is the content you’re posting, exchanging, or taking in helping you? How? If something you found on a site makes you feel inspired or angry or happy, do you do anything with that feeling? Don’t get us wrong, you don’t have to do something with social media, but remember, it’s supposed to be giving you important cave-dweller information. Have some standards for how you spend your time. And, again, not giving away any answers or anything, watch out for the need to “be informed”, a common refrain we hear from folks. Knowing about something is not the same as doing something with that information or doing something about it.

Sit with your answers for a few days. Track it against your actual social media usage for a few days. Check yourself and review your answers again. Since you’re trying to eliminate a behavior, pay attention to the situations or patterns where you experience negative things with that behavior. At the same time, look for the times when you feel good or you feel rewarded by using an app. If you don’t capture this feeling in another way, if you don’t feed the emotional need being met by social media in a different way, you’ll always return. Social media is addictive. If you don’t believe us, ask Google.

Step 3: Test a Change and Report on It

Identify anything that you get from the question “How do I use what I find on social media?” and see if you can get it from somewhere else. Phone calls, emails, a newspaper, a visit to an art museum, a day volunteering, a change in career. Big, small, it doesn’t matter.

Take that one thing and test it. When you need that thing—to feel informed or powerful, to laugh or cry—replace your sprint to social media with something else. See how it feels. See what’s lacking. See what improves. And track it. (Ideally not on an app… C’mon now.)

Social media is fast, reliable, and easy to access. With a few taps, you can find a spark for every single human emotion. It can entertain you, enrage you, and distract you. Finding ways to get those things outside of an app feels difficult; if apps didn’t feel essential and ubiquitous, you wouldn’t be having such a difficult time.

Quitting takes effort. In design terms, there’s a lot of friction. It takes steps and progress. You didn’t give over half of your day to Facebook or Tumblr all in one go. You did it over a period of time, because it slowly became the most optimal choice for the things you wanted. And if you didn’t really have an opinion for what you wanted, social media gave you one. It provides and you react.

Making this resolution means upending that relationship. By looking at what you’re getting from social media and what you actually desire, you have to question what you value, how your interactions with people through screens make you feel. At the end of all of that, what impact do you want that to have on your life? These are big questions with difficult answers. Answers that will grow and change with you at the speed of you, not the speed of your internet. Answers that will take you the rest of your life to uncover.

That’s what you’re really signing up for when you change a habit like this, when you make a resolution rather than just a decision.

Don’t abandon this one, K. Don’t look away.

Happy New Year!
The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will be here till February 2019.