By Francesca Giuliani-Hoffman, CNN
For nearly six hours on Monday, the world experienced a forced break from Facebook’s social networking tools.
We lived to tell the tale. But how did we feel in the process?
Although relatively short, the Facebook outage showed “how reliant we are on social media in different ways to distract ourselves, to escape, to connect, to cope with anxiety and stress,” according to Ian Kerner, a marriage and family therapist.
When people can’t scroll and post as they usually do, Kerner said they can become bored and vulnerable to difficult emotions and stressors — sometimes without knowing how to cope with them.
“People find that they are alone with their own thoughts. And they’re a little bit of a stranger to themselves in a way. Prior to social media, I think we were much better at being on our own, finding ways to engage ourselves and remain curious,” Kerner added.
A sense of relief
The collective nature of the outage had some of Kerner’s clients feeling liberated, he said.
“People definitely have a fear of missing out,” Kerner explained. Losing or breaking a phone, or having a phone die can cause folks to panic, he said, as it prevents them from knowing what’s happening and being connected to others.
The outage, conversely, “provided a great sense of relief, because everybody was experiencing it. So people didn’t feel as alone or as isolated or as panicked,” Kerner told CNN.
Therapist John Duffy reported having similar conversations with his clients on Monday.
“Once people realized, ‘oh, these networks are almost all down,’ there was this bizarre, but very clear sense of relief. The feeling was ‘I don’t have anything I have to keep up with. I’m not missing out on anything,'” Duffy told CNN.
During the outage, “people realized in real time the importance of face-to-face relationships, and the relative emptiness of a connection that takes place solely via Facebook or Instagram,” he added.
Clients that expressed relief during the outage took concrete steps to connect with others in real life, Duffy said. “One took a friend out for coffee. Another took a walk with a friend,” he said.
Some have come away from the experience with the realization that their fear of missing out was unjustified, and they could approach the apps with more moderation.
“I think some of us realized yesterday, ‘I’m way over-involved and invested in social media in my life’,” Duffy said. People realized that “maybe I can check this once or twice a day instead of 20 or 30 times a day.”
Social media and the brain
Most people are guilty of spending too much time scrolling and posting.
Seven in 10 adult Facebook users in the US say they visit the site at least once a day, and 49% report visiting several times a day, according to Pew Research Center 2021 data. Some 59% of people visit Instagram at least once a day, with 38% visiting several times daily.
But if some of us felt relieved when social networking apps went quiet for a while, why is it difficult to stop checking our feeds so frequently?
Dr. Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and the Medical Director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, looked at the brain for answers.
In her book “Dopamine Nation,” she explored how the overabundance of easily accessible stimuli is affecting our brain chemistry and our happiness.
“The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation,” Lembke wrote.
While “social media addiction” is not currently included in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” Lembke told CNN she believes social media can be addictive, based on her clinical experience and her knowledge of how human connection and dopamine release are tied.
“We can verifiably show that human connections stimulate dopamine release, which is how they are reinforcing, and anything that stimulates dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway has the potential to be addictive,” Lembke explained.
The Facebook outage was something of an “accidental en masse experiment that hopefully revealed to people just how addicted they’ve become,” Lembke said.
How to develop healthier digital habits
Therapist John Duffy said some of his clients spend four or more hours in a day on social media — double that amount in some extreme cases.
“The people who are on (social media) the most tend to be the loneliest, because they aren’t feeling connected. Even if they’re messaging people, even if they’re commenting on people’s posts, even if they’re posting themselves, there is something lacking in that connection. It truly is digital, and it is not directly interpersonal,” he told CNN.
To clients who could benefit from it, Duffy recommends a month-long “digital detox” to develop a more intentional relationship with social media. “People I work with now will simply voluntarily remove social media apps, news apps, and every other unnecessary app from their phone for a month-long cleanse.”
“I find if people take a month-long break, they spend maybe a third of the time they used to on social media as a result. I also see a rise in self-worth and self-esteem that corresponds with that,” Duffy said.
Marriage and family therapist Ian Kerner often assigns homework to his clients that involves curbing the use of devices during time spent with partners and family members.
“The number one complaint that I think I hear from couples is that he or she is always on their phone,” Kerner told CNN.
Lembke hopes the outage “will encourage people to actually intentionally plan to abstain from social media, and maybe their phones altogether, for a period of time.”
She recommends laying off social media completely — whether that means selected apps or putting the phone away altogether — for one month, enough time for the brain’s reward pathways to reset themselves.
To be successful, Lembke said, it helps to plan ahead.
“You would do it maybe together with a friend or a family member, which is easier than doing it alone. You’d have some kind of message or alert or automatic response that lets people know that you’re offline for that period of time, so people know they don’t have to wonder where you are, what happened to you,” Lembke advised.
During the month-long break, you should plan activities to provide you with “an alternative source of dopamine,” such as spending time in nature.
“When people go back to using (social media), often just realizing how addicted they’ve become is motivation to use differently,” Lembke told CNN.
Some of those changes might include eliminating alerts, switching to a grayscale display, or setting time limits or specific days of the week to check our feeds, she advised.
Fostering meaningful connections online and offline
All the experts CNN connected with emphasized how social networking tools have many positive effects on society, allowing people to stay connected to distant loved ones and helping them fare better emotionally during a long, exhausting, isolating pandemic.
“It’s important to say that the ways in which these technologies allow us to be social online is very powerful and can do very good,” Lembke told CNN.
Also, not all online connections are negative, just like not all real-life connections are positive, Lembke said.
“There are instances when our online connections can be more intimate, more positive and more powerful in good ways than real-life connections. If you go to a cocktail party and have nothing but superficial conversations, that’s not going to make people feel good, either,” Lembke said.
As some struggle with social anxiety while in-person life slowly resumes, we have an opportunity to rethink how we engage with one another in the real world.
“As a society, we need to establish digital etiquette and tech-free spaces, where we intentionally leave our phones at home and really make an effort to be present in the moment in real life with each other,” Lembke said.
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