Taking a Break From Social Media: One Member’s Reflections


Stephen Bateman has been a member at Midtown since 2008. He has served on our production team, creative team, and helped create the Personal Liturgy app. The following are his reflections on fasting from social media.

In October 2017, I made a rather awkward public announcement and turned off the social media and news faucet. While social media falls inside the “it depends” category that we talked about in week 2, I knew that for me it tends to beg for my attention, shape my thoughts, and affect my friendships. So after a good deal of thought, I decided to walk away entirely.

Over the past several months, I've experienced more of a mental shift than I expected. The following is a summary of my experience.

I needed to acknowledge the addiction.

Social media addiction works because of biology. I'm no biologist, but I'm told that our brains have two systems that work together to get rewards – the dopamine and opioid systems. The dopamine system is built to tell your brain that you want food, shelter, sex, relationship, etc. Seeking those things releases dopamine. Once you actually get the reward, your opioid system is triggered, telling your body that you've had enough.

But the dopamine system has a problem. The shut-off valve sometimes gets stuck on "open.” This is why it's easier to snack on potato chips than broccoli and also why it feels good to get a text message or an email. The brain's reward system forgets to tell the "wanting" system that it has had enough. Scientists have compared the effect of social media use on your brain to the effects of gambling and illegal drugs, in the sense that they both short-circuit your reward system to keep you wanting more.

My first step to breaking social media addiction was acknowledging that it's an addiction. Quitting wasn't easy.

Facebook wanted me back.

Facebook knows. They knew when I quit. They tried to cajole me. They sent an email saying "they miss me" (they don't.). People started to send me messages. They posted on my wall for the first time in five years. I'm not 100% sure that Facebook mounts a "please come back" campaign through friends, but it sure felt like it.

To put it bluntly, Facebook was selling my time for several hundred dollars over the course of my life. They planned on keeping me addicted while delivering little of lasting value.

Peace came with Do Not Disturb.

I turned off all email and phone notifications. I am still working towards keeping “Do Not Disturb” on, but the peace and quiet are transformative. I have a short list of phone applications which are allowed to ping me: Groupme and text messages. I want to pull information instead of having information pushed at me. There's no reason for Yelp or BedBath&Beyond.com to have the privilege of my immediate attention. By pulling most of my information, I'm reducing the number of dopamine hits I get through the day, cooling my reward system over time.

I needed to start with a trial period.

Leaving forever is sad. Leaving for three weeks is vacation. I started by punting social media for a trial period to see how it felt. After three weeks, I had a ton more headspace to think and learn. I evaluated what social media was providing and found that I was having few meaningful, one-on-one interactions with friends. Rather, I spent most of my time scrolling through videos of dudes falling off trampolines.

I see leaving social media as a first step, not the last step.

The temptation to live an edited life is constantly looming. I want you to think I'm happy and funny and a little goofy and politically-savvy and sensitive and wise and good at cooking. But sometimes I'm just a mess. The good news of the gospel is that the God of the Universe has seen me chase sinful desires and He chooses to display His glory in me by giving His grace as a gift, while I was sinning. 

I believe that leaving social media can create some more room to live in community and pursue the Lord. But leaving social media, by itself, won't do much. We need a positive vision for the kind of life we want to live. A life filled with meaningful interactions between real friends. A life of surprise, joy, sorrow, suffering, fear, love, and hope. A life of learning more about who God is and learning more about who He made us to be.

I read the book "Deep Work" by Cal Newport last year. Several of the ideas included here are inspired by his work. That book had a very positive influence on the quality of my work and focus.