On the first day of my self-imposed Facebook ban I logged on three times without thinking. It didn’t surprise me; I have always been a self-confessed addict of the social media network, and at times I’m guilty of being more concerned with ‘checking in’ and uploading photos instead of enjoying the moment (yes, I’m that person – but no, I don’t own a selfie stick).
In all honesty, though, I have become a bit disgruntled with Facebook of late: there are only so many shots of friends posing with their perfectly baked cakes that a person can take, after all.
As a freelance journalist, I justify my need to constantly be on Facebook by saying I’d feel lonely otherwise – little chats with others can make a world of difference when you’re working alone and need a distraction. I’m also a member of various freelance groups, which are great for networking and finding new work, so Facebook definitely has its uses. However, it can also be perfect fodder for a procrastinator like me.
I decided to quit for seven days after reading about a recent study led by the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark – an independent organisation that explores why certain societies are happier than others. The institute found that people who didn’t use Facebook for a week reported feeling less stressed. Could it also work for me? So I announced to my 600+ friends that I’d be logging off for seven days, and I signed out and hoped for the best.
In the study, 1,095 people were split into two groups – a control group that continued to use Facebook as usual, and a treatment group that stopped for seven days. The participants were asked to evaluate their lives on different dimensions at the beginning and the end of the study. And the findings were startling. The group that quit Facebook reported a significantly higher level of life satisfaction – they were happier and felt less lonely.
Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, believes that this increase in people’s reported life satisfaction was caused because the group’s perception of reality was reset.
‘When people make these evaluations, they often take into account how they feel they’re doing when compared to people they know [on Facebook]. If we then shut down the constant flow of great news from their network, this means they evaluate their lives with a different comparison point than before,’ explains Meik.
This isn’t the first time that research has shown us that Facebook can make people feel worse about themselves. In 2013, researchers at the University of Michigan found that using the social media network can reduce young adults’ sense of well-being and satisfaction with life.
So is Meik right? Do we feel worse because Facebook only exposes us to everyone’s good news?
The truth is, we’re all a little guilty of humblebragging on Facebook. We share our holiday snaps, wedding snaps, new baby snaps – in other words all the highlights of our lives. Yet most people won’t know the full story behind the majority of these photos. This brings me back to the aforementioned perfect cake. The reality may be that while your friend was preparing it, the pet dog was howling to be taken out, their eight-month-old baby was crying and dribbling on the sofa, and the tap in the kitchen sprung a leak. And yet, what we get to see on Facebook is the finished product – a beautiful photo of domestic perfection.
So before we get Facebook envy, Meik says it’s important to realise that social media distorts our perception of reality – ‘we’re exposed to an edited version of it,’ he says. ‘People look prettier than they are, eat fancier food than they actually do, and go on vacation more often. Only our good sides are being presented. Someone once said that movies are like life with the boring part cut away – on social media we cut away our failures in the narrative that we put out there.’
I have a few friends who have given up Facebook over the past few months, and they all report feeling better for having done so. To find out if these anecdotal accounts reflect what’s going on outside my inner circle, I decided to see if I could find others who had quit to share their experiences with me. I was surprised to have almost a dozen people approach me on LinkedIn alone.
Enji Kana, a 42-year-old marketing professional living in Dubai, decided to deactivate her Facebook account a few months ago. Enji realised she was spending too much time aimlessly scrolling through her News Feed every morning. ‘I found myself being too aware of other people’s lives without soliciting an update,’ she says. ‘I suddenly knew all about their moods, their latest thoughts. It started feeling very staged and I missed the surprise element of getting a message from a friend directly addressed to me and just me!’
Enji says she’s happy with her decision to quit and that she doesn’t miss Facebook. ‘I’m not a nosey person by nature and therefore not knowing what everyone else is doing is absolutely fine with me,’ she says. Logically speaking, it makes sense that the more time we spend scrolling through the achievements of others in the form of Facebook shares, the more we will compare ourselves with what we’re seeing. In fact, the Happiness Research Institute’s findings show that five out of 10 participants envied the amazing experiences that their friends had posted on Facebook.
Helen Williams, founder, director and trainer at the personal development centre LifeWorks in Dubai, explains how social media, and Facebook in particular, encourages us to focus on the lives of others – their actions, discoveries, likes and dislikes, opportunities, and ways of finding happiness. ‘When we quit constantly looking at others, we then begin to focus more on ourselves and immediately feel more satisfied because, after all, this is what we are all seeking from others – attention,’ she says.
Dubai-based 32-year-old Joe Akkawi has stopped using Facebook during his personal time. He works as a partner at a marketing, public relations and digital media agency, so quitting the social network completely was out of the question. However, it’s been almost a month since he stopped using it after work and he reports feeling less stressed. ‘It’s made me connect to people more over the phone and face-to-face as opposed to just liking their profile picture or writing Happy Birthday on their wall,’ he says. Joe also says he’s realised that most of what is shared on Facebook is fluff.
The truth is Facebook replaces the need for real human interaction, and this hit me during my week-long ban. I quickly realised that I don’t have most of my friends’ phone numbers anymore as I’m so used to interacting with them on Messenger, and I also cannot remember people’s birthdays. It therefore doesn’t surprise me that the participants of the Happiness Research Institute’s study who quit Facebook reported an increase in their social activity.
But while there are many perils to using Facebook too frequently, there are also upsides that cannot be ignored. For one, I am one of the many people who promote their businesses through Facebook pages. Facebook also helps expatriates living in the UAE feel more connected to people back in their home countries. I remember it being a lifesaver when I first moved to Dubai, as I felt like I wasn’t missing out on events that were happening back home. During my ban, I also would have missed out on a freelance job opportunity had a friend not thoughtfully forwarded it to me via WhatsApp after seeing it posted on a group that I’m a member of.
According to the experts, the key to using social media more optimally is to become aware of the fact that increased levels of Facebook usage can have detrimental effects on our mental health. Meik says that the best thing we can do for ourselves is to become more mindful of this and try to consume social media less.
Meanwhile, Helen, who says she uses Facebook Messenger to stay in contact with family members who live overseas but seldom posts anything on her Timeline, recommends looking within us first before seeking out social media. Helen explains how Facebook teaches us to relate from a distance, rather than opening ourselves to being vulnerable and close to those around us. This means we’re distracting ourselves from our hurts, shames and losses, and from relating to people in a healthier way.
Helen says that instead of figuring out how long we should be spending on Facebook, we should look at attaining an optimal level of self-care, self-kindness and self-respect through self-attention. ‘This can be achieved by making personal time and space for emotional fulfilment and then sharing that space with others who are available to us,’ she explains.
I was surprised at how well I coped with my self-imposed Facebook ban. Once the first day had passed I had no problem staying off it, which was quite surprising considering how much I use it. I also filled my time with work, and when I found myself ‘free’, I read a book. Once I logged back on, I had more than 10 messages and one of my friends had flooded my News Feed with photos of celebs in jest – make of that what you will. I guess I didn’t miss anything too important.
And while it’s difficult to say if quitting made me happier, what I can definitely say is that I didn’t miss using Facebook. I also cannot ignore the fact that I was far more productive without it. But due to the nature of my work, an outright ban is out of the question. In light of my experiment I have therefore decided to keep my Facebook usage to a minimum – an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.
And once I’ve baked my own cake, I promise not to post a perfect photo of it – I’ll share a picture of my cute dogs, instead.