“What impact does social media have on my life?”

It’s a question that I constantly asked myself throughout the Summer of 2020. Social distancing guidelines and a lingering injury were depriving me of real-life connections, so I heavily relied on platforms like Instagram for feelings of normalcy.

As an elite runner from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I’m familiar with the lonely life of the long-distance runner. I entered 2020 plagued by injury, grinding through home workouts and two-hour-long sweat sessions on the bike. Add mandatory social distancing into the mix, you get a very lonely time. My saving grace was staying connected via Instagram. But I wondered whether the platform was helping me, or instead threatening my privacy, mental health, training effectiveness, and real-life connection with others.

I felt guilty every time I checked how many hours I spent online – some of my friends also felt like social media was invading their daily lives. Yet, none of us were prepared to quit altogether – life offline seemed impossible. Nonetheless, I committed myself to an experiment: a 100-day social media detox that began in mid-September.

Life Offline

The first week was debilitating. I found myself picking up my phone throughout the day, only to realize that I didn’t have any use for it. But now that I am past the halfway point of the challenge, I am realizing that being off social media has brought more connection into my life.

I’ve recognized certain pros and cons related to being off social media, and I am finding the benefits of being off my personal platforms are outweighing the costs.

The Cons

Logging off popular platforms can make you feel detached. Social media mimics the need for social connection inherent to human nature. It offers certain opportunities to communicate, network and reach a larger audience that wouldn't otherwise be possible, especially during a global pandemic. Without it, we can lose out on those opportunities – however virtual or removed from reality they might be.

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Secondly, as a marketing student I’ve been informed by many professors that the “influencer market” is a $8 billion industry (and growing) and it is increasingly important for businesses to exploit social media for strategic purposes. Successful marketing is about telling stories and navigating the attention economy, which social media has in spades. In other words, social media use can lead to professional advantages.

Thirdly, social media is a form of entertainment – much like gambling - on which I am missing out. In fact, former executives of social media companies make this comparison in the documentary The Social Dilemma; revealing that similar tactics that are implemented to keep people gambling on slot machines in Las Vegas are used by business professionals that head large social media companies to keep screen time on a steady incline. Creepy? Yes. Invasive? Yes. Effective? Oh yeah. But privacy concerns aside, these tactics are what make social media so addictive and entertaining. Needless to say, my list of cons to being off social media wouldn’t be accurate without recognizing that it is fun and entertaining.

But from my perspective, the pros/benefits associated with being off social media outweigh the large network of online connections, slight advantages in the professional world, and addictive form of entertainment.

The Pros

I stopped comparing myself to other people and, immediately, a constant noise in my head went quiet. Being active on social media is a huge energy drainer, disguised as a low-key activity that we simply engage in during spare time. In reality, we live online, and constantly sizing up the people we see through our screens has impacts on our mental health and wellness, whether or not we are willing to admit it.

(Photo: https://imgflip.com/tag/raise+your+hand+mean+girls)

And the long-term effects of these constant comparisons on our overall health and well-being are still largely unknown. As an athlete, I am especially curious about mental health. Sports psychologists and high-level athletes stress that achieving greatness requires a strong sense of self-awareness. Many aspects of social media work to distract us from that awareness. When we compare our training, body image, access to resources and support systems to those of others, we lose focus on our own training situation.

Plus, being an open book online can give an edge to our competitors. Running a tactically flawless 1,500m race is in part about exploiting your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses become all too easy to configure if you are an open book online – why give others that free advantage over you? Besides, showing all your cards takes away part of the excitement of sport and can have a negative effect on mindset.

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Social media gives off the illusion that we have a realistic interpretation of a given situation, when really, it’s never a complete picture. When I logged off social media I felt that a weight was lifted during training and I’ve been able to embrace the work on my own terms without worry of what my competitors are doing. Coming back from injury and during a global pandemic where training circumstances are even more unequal than under normal conditions, it was exactly what I needed.

The Takeaway

Social media has a greater effect on our lives than we like to think – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst. I'm learning to live offline as I go, and I hope to have even more thoughts and pieces of evidence to share once I am done with this experience. For now, this quote from former Olympic rower Annie Vernon's sports psychology book Mind Games resonates with me:

“It’s about choosing the right mindset, relative to the occasion and to the individual; and that mindset comes from self-awareness. Understanding what’s right for you and right for the occasion.”

One thing I’m certain of is that my self-identity [level of self-actualization, worth, esteem, and perception] is the highest that it’s ever been. I can say the same for my self-awareness. And if those are not enough reasons to at least experiment with life offline, I don’t know what is.

For more on my point-of-view related to logging off social media read this blog post.