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Taking back control

Features

The Social Challenge
Anne-Marie Flynn

When The Mayo News contacted me to participate in this challenge, it couldn’t have been timelier. The challenge came off the back of a local festival, which had necessitated a lot of time on social networks, and I use social media daily for work. But, as a heavy social media user, I tend to justify my excessive usage by blaming it on work, when in reality, I spend far too much of my own time scrolling mindlessly, too.
When the time came to start the challenge, however, I found myself in an unanticipated situation. Confined to isolation for nearly a fortnight, not working and not in the best of health throughout (yep, you’ve guessed it), I realised just how much I rely on social media for connection, and during a time like this, how essential that connection was. Also, Twitter during a US election is a treat that only comes around every four years!
So, from the outset, I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I probably failed this challenge, but at the same time, my attempts to restrict my usage taught me some valuable lessons.
The biggest change for me was not habitually checking my phone first and last thing. Some nights, I left my phone in a different room, and I honestly felt a sense of separation anxiety, instinctively reaching for it for no good reason, and I had to make a conscious effort to refocus on reading.
Books require a level of concentration that scrolling doesn’t, and my brain has become unfit. I will keep doing this, because out of sight gradually becomes out of mind. I managed to read three books during my challenge. That wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and now I’m back in the habit of reading.
Not being met with a barrage of information – and, let’s face it, negativity – first thing in the morning was also liberating and I felt happier in myself for that.
While I found I could put Twitter and Instagram aside more easily (I don’t really use Facebook anymore anyway) WhatsApp, surprisingly, was the biggest challenge, perhaps because I was self-isolating. I didn’t think I was a heavy user, but realised I rely on it a lot. Disclaimer: I’m not great at responding instantly on a regular day, but my greatest anxiety came from worrying that I wasn’t answering friends or family. The real downside of WhatsApp for me is WhatsApp groups, which, unless among friends, are a relentless, invasive scourge that blur the boundaries between free time and work. I now have all groups permanently muted and have learned that you miss nothing if you only check them once daily, instead of feeling obliged to stay on top of them all the time.
I also realised how blurred the line has become now between what constitutes actually social media. The challenge suggested committing to more exercise with less reliance on podcasts or music – two things I’d never have associated with social. I would equate podcasts with radio; and as a daily podcast listener, after this challenge, that won’t change. Even if it is passive, it feels educational; time well spent. I found during the challenge that I watched more TV and Netflix, which felt slightly counterproductive. That said, I’d be more inclined to resume walking and running now without headphones, to take advantage of that time to clear the head.  
The challenge was positive overall; it showed that reducing social media consumption boils down to discipline. Picking up the phone too frequently is the real problem, and it needs a conscious effort to break the compulsion. Much like Covid, physical distance is key – if you can’t see it, you’re less likely to use it. It’s about taking back control and ensuring that you consume content when you decide-not when social media companies want you to. I still haven’t cracked it, but I’m getting there.

The rules
Participants must turn off their phone and stay off all social networks from 9pm to 9am every day. Participants should turn off notifications on apps; make more phone calls instead of just messaging someone; commit to more exercise with less reliance on music, podcasts etc; more reading of books.