Marium Riaz was painfully aware that she should be studying for her statistics quiz when she logged into her Facebook account. This didn’t stop her from opening another tab for YouTube, and another tab for spontaneous Google searches — neither of which would help her pass.
Earlier that day, the first-year business management student laid out a plan for the week to catch up on all the modules she had missed. But instead of reviewing stats and figures, she cycled through multiple browser tabs, watching videos, messaging her friends and sharing posts on an endless loop. Before she knew it, three hours had gone by.
“When I know I have a big task at hand, I usually end up trying to seek refuge in going online,” Riaz says. She describes her relationship with social media as being complicated. While going online has become a sort of pacifier for stress, she also finds it hard to fully relax without thinking of the growing pile of tasks she’s avoiding while logged in. After tracking her time management for a school assignment, she realized just how many hours she could sink into Facebook and YouTube without realizing it. So, she decided to break things off. It was time for a cleanse.
A social media cleanse is the practice of disconnecting yourself from social media both practically and emotionally. Social media cleanses differ from person to person. Durations vary from a few days to a few months, with some people simply logging out and others fully deactivating their social media accounts and removing the apps from their phones.
In Riaz’ case, she just reduced her online dosage, only allowing herself to check messages and notifications in the late evening after school. At first, she struggled to ignore the fear of missing out, but eventually she saw improvements in her lifestyle. Now a few weeks into her cleanse, she’s found that she has more energy. She’s more productive. Rather than messaging people, she’s been meeting up with them in person.
For Riaz, guilt-driven self-discipline was all it took to regain control of her online life. For other students, however, it’s not so simple.
When Shannon Schaefer was in her first year of Ryerson University’s journalism program, she was more active on social media than she had ever been. Twitter and Facebook were no longer reserved for personal use — she was being marked on her ability to live-tweet events and create shareable articles. Her professors stressed that social channels were a tool for making industry connections and gaining readership. But over the summer, her relationship with social media turned toxic.
“I had a lot of friend drama going on, a lot of worries about ‘what is she thinking, what is he thinking, what’s going on here, why wasn’t I invited there?’ When you go on social media it’s all in your face,” Schaffer says. “In the height of an anxiety attack I said ‘Screw this. I don’t need any of it; it’s not helping,’ and I basically just deleted everything. On Instagram, I archived things so my account was blank but it was still there, Twitter I temporarily suspended and then on Snapchat I just deleted contacts.”
Schaefer’s frustration stemmed from an overwhelming sense of loneliness in an online world — one where everyone projects a perfect, active social life. But after fully disconnecting from all her accounts, she only felt more isolated.
Schaefer worried about the professional implications of living a life off the grid. As a journalist, social media is a part of the job. Just one day after vowing to take a cleanse, she reinstated her accounts, but with a new mindset. She says she negotiated a professional albeit impersonal relationship with the online world, primarily using her accounts for work purposes.
Now, Schaefer doesn’t use Twitter and Instagram very actively. As for Snapchat, she still only has one contact.
In certain situations, social media becomes more than a clingy relationship you can’t quite shake. Although internet addiction is not officially recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard manual that defines diagnostic criteria for different mental illnesses, more and more research indicates that being addicted to being online is more than a #millennialproblem.
A 2016 study from McMaster University suggested that internet addiction is linked to mental health problems. Led by Dr. Michael Van Ameringen, the online survey asked 254 first-year McMaster students to fill out several scales screening for internet addiction, symptoms of anxiety and depression, impulsiveness and their ability to function on a day-to-day basis.
In total, 33 met the criteria for internet addiction and 107 met the criteria of problematic internet use. Researchers also found that the students who screened positive for addictive internet use had significantly more trouble dealing with day-to-day activities than those who screened negative, displaying problems with planning, impulsivity and time management. They also showed a higher number of symptoms of depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Almost 50 per cent of the participants named social media as an area where they struggled to control their internet use.
Eva Saphir, a psychotherapist who treats internet addiction at The Mindfulness Clinic in Toronto, says that the issue doesn’t lie in social media itself. Instead, people become addicted to the escape that being online offers — the way that Marium Riaz used social media to cope with overwhelming deadlines, for example.
“People get addicted because they want to run away from something else,” Saphir says. “Any addiction is intended to take you out from the reality where there are problems to be solved.”
Saphir says that tools of addiction are never problematic on their own, they’re simply used in harmful ways. Nonetheless, in treating addiction, she doesn’t focus on reducing usage. Instead, she applies the practice of mindfulness to help people address the problem behind their addiction.
“Mindfulness is a way of returning to the now through the breath,” Saphir says. “It’s only in thinking about the now that we can solve problems; the problems are not solved in the past or in the future. I ask [patients] to help me with some actions, and help them choose the first action that is doable.”
Saphir also finds success in prioritizing encouragement over criticism. She cautions against making sweeping statements of millennials, noting that everyone is different and that we should believe in young people’s ability to solve their own problems.
For Riaz and Schaefer, going on a social media cleanse was a conscious attempt to resolve problems in their personal lives. But for first-year journalism student Frank Quaranta, going offline wasn’t a choice. While studying abroad in a jungle in Panama, Quaranta had sparse access to the internet: electricity was limited (solar power does not fare well during the rainy season) and his laptop got water damage within days of arriving. He was forced to live off the grid for the duration of his ten-week co-op, only gaining access to the internet when his group went into Panama City every couple of weeks to charge their electronics.
Quaranta clearly remembers the first time he was able reconnect to the outside world. He was on a bus into the city when everyone’s cellphones got service at the same time, with notifications and news flooding in. The girl sitting beside him said, “Oh my God, Kylie Jenner’s pregnant.”
Quaranta describes his relationship to social media prior to the trip as being relatively healthy. He had never struggled with feeling overwhelmed or addicted. Nonetheless, he found peace of mind in being disconnected.
“Panama was a very impulsive decision,” he says. “I was at a crossroad —I was not happy at [the University of] Arizona so I took this break to kind of figure myself out. The fact that I was able to disconnect so well really gave me a lot of time to think.”
“I forgot how much I liked reading. When you don’t have TV and you can’t access Netflix and you can’t check Twitter, Facebook, or whatever, you resort back to reading. I read three or four books over the course of those ten weeks.”
He says he hadn’t read a book from cover to cover since 2016. Since returning from Panama, Quaranta says he’s back to regularly using social media. However, his involuntary cleanse has made him more mindful of the way he uses it. He moderates the amount of time and energy he puts into his social channels, and he remains aware of his surroundings, rather than disappearing into the online world. He’s currently reading The Lost City of Z by David Grann.