Last fall, in the midst of touring for my latest book, I stepped away from the public stage that arguably made my publishing career possible.
After investing six years into growing my following on Twitter from zero to over 42,000, with millions of monthly engagements, I left the platform, at least for now. This might not sound like such a momentous decision, but it was for me. My 127,000 tweets — an average of 57 tweets per day — had dramatically raised my profile as a writer, sociologist, and scholar on race. The platform prompted countless interactions and conversations, frequent media attention, and valuable professional opportunities — such as connecting me with my literary agent and helping secure a publishing deal for the book I’m still touring with, How to Be Less Stupid About Race.
Yet at the precise moment when most writers would have redoubled their efforts to promote their work, I felt compelled to step down from my bully pulpit and shutter my most successful social media account.
This certainly wasn’t the first time that I tried to reduce the footprint of social media in my life. I’d previously discussed social media stress with my therapist, used productivity apps to limit my screen time, experimented with boundaries and a “bedtime” for my electronic devices, and deleted the Twitter app from my phone countless times — only to download it a few hours later. Nothing seemed to work. After a brief absence, I’d always return.
Most disconcertingly, even when I wasn’t tweeting, I found myself thinking in tweets — crafting pithy, retweetable observations about my life, social dynamics, and world events to share with my followers as soon as I could get my hot hands on my phone or laptop.
And then I reached a critical breaking point. Crisscrossing the nation for the book tour and connecting with readers in real life was a new, thrilling experience for me, but it was also unspeakably exhausting. A full-time professor, I had to juggle speaking engagements and readings with my teaching responsibilities in the midst of a busy semester. Bouncing between bookstores and universities from New York to Los Angeles, Nashville to Whitewater, Wisconsin, I felt simultaneously exhilarated and depleted. As exciting as it was to meet audiences across the country, I grossly underestimated the toll the tour would take on my body, mind, and soul.
There’s an inherent stress to existing and attempting to thrive as a black queer woman in a racist, sexist, and homophobic society. On tour, that was coupled with the unique pressures and the emotional labor of unapologetically and publicly denouncing white supremacy in a country where white nationalism is on the rise. While the vast majority of my interactions with folks at book events were uplifting and supportive, I never quite knew what to expect from Q&As. I felt the constant need to mentally prepare for everything from microaggressions to outright hostility.
What I faced most often, however, were the racialized and gendered expectations that I provide on-the-spot emotional processing, counseling, and strategizing for a never-ending stream of racial dilemmas and existential trauma. “How do I deal with my racist cousin?” a white woman would ask, expecting a sensible answer in 60 seconds or less, while a dozen people waited in line behind her. “What should I do about racism on my job?” a man urgently inquired as I signed a copy of the book.
Black women would come up to me in tears, recounting the heavy weight of intersectional oppression in their lives. It was with these sisters that I felt the greatest responsibility — to ensure that black women and girls felt seen, heard, and validated.
But as I struggled to give the fullness of my attention and intention to each and every person who I met on the road, I began to realize that I had little energy left for myself, and no energy at all for Twitter.
I began experiencing debilitating insomnia for the first time in my life. Anxiety became a daily concern. My wake-up call came when my Fitbit informed me, last November, that I was averaging less than five and a half hours of sleep.
Finally, I realized that a social media detox wasn’t optional — it was necessary for my health. I knew that the only way to really kick this habit and refocus on well-being was to go cold turkey. I gave my password to my girlfriend and asked her to take over my Twitter account until further notice.
Media technology companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are quite literally invested in making us internet addicts. They’re effectively manipulating social psychological responses to ensure that our clicks and engagements don’t fizzle — or else their bottom line will. Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s founders, described the platform’s “like” button as “a social validation feedback loop… exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
He’s right: Social validation is potent stuff. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, sociologists and social psychologists pioneered the field of social exchange theory, seeking to understand the motivations determining human behavior. In the 1964 classic, Exchange and Power in Social Life, the sociologist Peter Blau argued that human beings are motivated to engage with one another via the exchange of social rewards.
Imagine yourself mingling with a crowd of strangers at a cocktail party. Are you more likely to keep chatting with someone you find immensely boring, or with someone who shares your obsession with Star Trek: The Next Generation? Of course, social interactions tend to sustain themselves when we experience them as rewarding — that is, when they fulfill (however fleetingly) our needs or desires. Interactions that fail to provide sufficient rewards typically fizzle.
Social exchange theorists like Blau and George Homans also drew upon the psychological experiments of behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner, known for his work on “operant conditioning” — the use of sanctions and rewards (think: sticks and carrots) to understand and manipulate animal behavior.
If it feels difficult to quit social media, it’s because corporate strategists and programmers work very hard to embed their apps with digital carrots that ensure that scrolling through our feed feels deeply rewarding. Facebook “likes,” Twitter “hearts,” and Instagram notifications all drive addictive behavior by doling out intermittent and unpredictable rewards. These rewards, in turn, fuel the release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, which are associated with the experience of pleasure in the brain.
The work of Blau and other scholars concerned with the rewards driving face-to-face interactions provides key insights into the powerful social and psychological mechanisms that keep billions of us tethered to our “smart” devices today. Indeed, social media apps prime us for maximum usage, reinforcing and capitalizing on our incessant thirst for human support, validation, and connection.
Of course, the sense of community created on social media has many potential benefits when used appropriately and in moderation. But these fleeting digital rewards come at a great price. Social media apps are able to stealthily manipulate our brains into believing that we are experiencing pleasure, despite the fact that heavy usage leads to increased depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and reduced quality of life.
And Parker, the Facebook exec mentioned earlier, is far from the only industry insider to publicly acknowledge that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and their ilk were explicitly designed to promote overuse and addiction — with disastrous effects. Chamath Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist and Facebook’s former vice president of user growth, confessed to feeling “tremendous guilt” over his role in developing addictive social media technologies. Addressing a group of students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, he put it this way: “Computer internet businesses are about exploiting psychology… we want to psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible and then give you back that dopamine hit. We did that brilliantly at Facebook.” And it’s not just the individual that this affects, he observed: “We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
As Alex Hern has pointed out in the Guardian, many social media executives and developers have either stopped using their own products or never used them excessively in the first place. Facebook made Palihapitiya a billionaire, but he has said he doesn’t use Facebook himself, and his own children are not allowed to use social media. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, “rarely replies to strangers and avoids discussions or arguments on the site,” Hern wrote. “He doesn’t live-tweet TV shows or sporting fixtures. In fact, he doesn’t really ‘use’ Twitter; he just posts on it occasionally.” Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has an entire team to manage and curate his social media account for him.
If the wealthy men who designed and profit from social media severely limit their own exposure or avoid the apps altogether, what does this signal to the rest of us?
Reclaiming my time from social media had several immediate, dramatic effects. As my stress levels decreased, my resting heart rate (RHR) dropped by six points in the first few days alone and fell another eight points over the intervening months. I’m now reclaiming an astonishing 20,000 heartbeats per day. In a year’s time, that adds up to over 7 million beats saved.
I went from getting barely five and a half hours of sleep to averaging between six and seven hours nightly — up to 21 days of sleep regained each year. Insomnia is now, mercifully, mostly a thing of the past. Now that I’m more well-rested, I have the energy to make additional lifestyle changes to support my health and well-being.
Emotionally, my mood has greatly improved. I feel less glum, pessimistic, and angry with the world than when I was constantly “connected.” I keep a gratitude journal and count my blessings. While I sometimes miss the creative, intellectual, and political community of my tweethearts, I’m immensely relieved to no longer feel the mental pressure of organizing a social media press conference several times a day in response to trending hashtags, controversies, and tragedies.
My girlfriend reports that I’m far more pleasant to be around, more present and playful. I began trying new things far outside of my comfort zone — like joining a softball team and taking up tennis. I’ve also invested significantly more time and energy into nurturing my social relationships off-line. And I have the bandwidth to make progress on the three book projects currently in my docket.
I’ll probably come back to Twitter one day in the not-so-distant future, but I hope never again to return to my prior level and intensity. While I remain tethered to my electronic devices and dabble in Instagram, ultimately my goal is to reduce the amount of time I spend on the internet altogether.
When we are aware and intentional with our engagement — on and off-line — we are less prone to mindless behaviors, and more open and available to deeply connect with the world — and people — around us. And it is precisely this kind of supportive, curious, and expansive engagement with our face-to-face community that makes real life so richly rewarding.