Steve Karsch was in bed Tuesday night reading a memoir when he had the urge to check Twitter just before falling asleep. The social media platform was abuzz: President Trump had tweeted a few hours prior about how big his nuclear button is.
“I’m like ‘You know what, why did I do this?’ It gets me all anxious,” said Karsch, 42, who lives in Aston, Delaware County. “It’s not even the 24-hour news cycle anymore. It’s the minute-by-minute. And it beats you down.”
Karsch is aiming in the new year to “unplug” more often, or disconnect from social media in order to enjoy the things in life beyond technology (i.e. reading something longer than 280 characters). He’s one of many resolving to digitally detox in order to avoid negative news, stop comparing themselves to others, or just have more time to do something else — anything besides mindlessly scrolling.
Celebrities have made similar New Year’s resolutions, including singer Ed Sheeran, who has in the past ditched his cellphone entirely around the new year in order to balance out his life. Social media platforms, just a few days before Jan. 1, were rife with proclamations to the effect of: “I’m getting off.”
But New Year’s resolutions are so often destined to fail. And anyone who’s attempted to ignore the “ding” from a phone notification knows that level of self-control is easier said than done.
Nicole Lipkin, an organizational and clinical psychologist whose practice is based in Society Hill, said there’s a physiological response when a person sees his or her phone light up, even if that person is deep in a face-to-face conversation. The stimulus sends a signal to the brain’s reward center, triggering a “dopamine loop,” Lipkin said, that’s similar to what happens in the brain when a person drinks alcohol, smokes a cigarette, or eats sugar.
She said social media has addictive qualities in the same way those other stimuli do, and quitting it can result in a “withdrawal” period.
“From a social health standpoint, detoxing is imperative,” said Lipkin, who is the CEO of Equilibria Leadership Consulting and Equilibria Psychological and Consultation Services.
That includes getting away from the day-to-day barrage of negative headlines, whether it’s related to natural disasters, sexual violence or the president’s latest feud. Steven Stosny, a Maryland-based therapist, last year coined the phrase “headline stress disorder,” positing that for many, “continual alerts from news sources, blogs, social media, and alternative facts feel like missile explosions in a siege without end.”
Lipkin said there’s a reason for this. In face-to-face interactions, humans experience a phenomenon called “emotional contagion,” meaning when you’re around someone who’s depressed, you may feel sad, while when you’re surrounded by upbeat people, you may also feel happy. Consuming negative news at a high rate can have a similar impact.
“This past year, there’s been so much negativity, and if it affects us face-to-face, of course it’s going to affect us online,” she said. “The more negative feed you have, the crappier you’re going to feel.”
The alternative, she said, is “social comparison,” or the idea that seeing someone else’s success might trigger a form of anxiety. That’s what Andrea Carter, a 35-year-old writer who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, is trying to avoid. For the last several days, Carter has stopped checking Facebook and Instagram as part of a resolution to stop comparing herself to others on social media so she can instead spend more time dedicated to personal growth in her job, faith and relationships.
So far, it’s been a challenge.
“Subconsciously, I think my hand is trained to go into the Facebook app and Instagram app,” she said. “I have to mentally give myself a slap on the wrist, and when I catch myself, I get back out.”
There are some strategies to making this work. Valerie Braunstein, a psychologist in private practice based in Center City, offered four ideas:
— Ever kept a “food journal?” You can try something similar to track your online life. Braunstein recommended before giving up technology, keep a log of how often you’re using what, when you’re using it and how you feel before and after you use it. This can help you set goals about what you can reasonably limit.
— Practice “dosing,” or putting a limit on how much news you consume. Rather than trying to cut out the never-ending news cycle, Braunstein recommended setting “your own parental controls” — like only looking at Twitter during your lunch hour, etc. — in order to take compulsion out of the equation.
— Focus on the time of day. Braunstein said some studies show looking at your phone right before bed, for example, can interrupt your sleep patterns. Lack of sleep can have a negative impact on mood, she said.
— You can always, well, force it. Braunstein said if your goal is to quit social media apps, delete them entirely or have a friend log in and change your password. Or maybe try this neat tool — whenever your hand instinctively opens Twitter, your phone will reroute to the Kindle app and open up the last book you were reading, right where you left off.