Is it really possible to disconnect from social media?

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Recently, there’s been an increase in calls to “disconnect online to reconnect with the real world.” However, unplugging completely from social media is easier said than done. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Years after social media’s explosion in popularity in the early 2000s, significant numbers of people today are afraid of their dependence on these platforms and are scrambling to backtrack on their use. Recently, there’s been an increase in calls to “disconnect online to reconnect with the real world,” and a surge in apps that promote concentration, meditation, and other pseudo-conscious lifestyle changes. Some people in the U.S. are even instituting a National Day of Unplugging.

However, unplugging completely from social media is easier said than done. Everywhere, pressures for permanent connectivity manifest on the daily — from the Grab driver who loses income every time he disconnects, to the citizen who experiences more red tape if he chooses to remain anonymous from banks and government offices online, and to the individual who misses out on life updates from friends and far-flung loved ones.

But it isn’t a surprise that disconnection comes at a cost. After all, social media was designed for users to remain engaged on the platform, thereby contributing what some would call “free labor” in the form of data we willingly surrender to advertisers. While we claim to value authenticity in our interactions, we are also painfully aware that it is this humanity we trade away for continued connection and in the process, for the commercial interest of tech moguls. Complete disconnection has been rendered almost structurally impossible.

Nevertheless, this isn’t completely hindering people from still trying. Here are five individuals who’ve managed to, for the most part, unplug from social media:

Taking back our time
Jay*, 26, designer for the development sector

One apparent quality of social media is how time consuming it can easily become. For Jay, this manifests in the expectation people have for constant and immediate contact. “Messages that need to be immediately returned, phone calls that must be taken,” he says. “I find it difficult to stay on top of those things (and make a conscious decision not to hold myself to that standard) and it can lead to some friction.”

Aside from the need to always be and immediately reply online, the mere act of checking one’s feed in itself consumes so much time too. While Jay doesn't really think of his disengagement as a big decision given that it’s simply what works for his personality, it took him an active decision to stop idly browsing social media feeds. He realized that it was this idle browsing that was so easy to fall into and yet took up so much time. Jay hits the nail on the head — in a country that consistently tops the global ranking on social media usage, the average Filipino spends almost four hours every day on social media.

So Jay decided to stop himself from getting hooked on social media, especially since he knew that there were more valuable things he wanted to do outside of it. “Comparing between what things are like now and before I decided to stop browsing social media, I feel like I have more time on my hands,” he says.

While he still appreciates how social media can connect people to communities and to things they’re interested in, Jay doesn’t really find any compelling reason to return to the it. Even if he is less updated on happenings in his friends’ lives, he’s discovered that he always ends up hearing about the important things from them eventually anyway.

Taking back our focus
Kristine Fulgencio, 24, project development officer

A self-confessed private person, Kristine Fulgencio can rarely be found online unless she’s adding a new photo to her Instagram, which serves as her photography portfolio.

“It’s definitely quieter,” she says when asked how different her life is from friends who are always online. “I find it easier to be in the moment, to focus on what’s in front of me instead of constantly checking up on what everyone else is doing or thinking.”

For Kristine, she believes not being online as much brings her closer to other people. Her friends know that she probably doesn’t see their posts (after all, Kristine once deactivated her Facebook account for more than a year), leading them to check up on her in person and share stories with her.

The only accounts she’s kept are her Facebook and Instagram, which have become more of a repository of what living in the moment looks like through her lens. “I like to take photos and [Instagram is] a convenient platform to get them seen. I’m @augenblck on there!” she quips.

Otherwise, the only other use Kristine has for social media is to stay up-to-date with current events. She appreciates how useful social media is during crisis situations like the Gaza-Israel conflict back in 2014, where citizens were able to give the rest of the world a more nuanced narrative of events through their Twitter posts.  

“I post, I am” seems to be the new “I think, I am,” Kristine says. While she thinks it’s impossible to be completely unplugged given social media’s speed and convenience, Kristine believes we can at least control what we post and what we don’t post.

Taking back our mental health
Vins Miranda, 34, gardener

Vins Miranda has deactivated from her Facebook account 472 times. Once addicted to social media, she would be online 24/7 and would lose sleep over chats, blogs, games, and online selling. One day, she got so overwhelmed with the influx of info and decided to start doing “social media detoxes” to give herself a mental health break.

“Para kasing rollercoaster ang emosyon kapag online ka,” she says. “Di mo pa napo-process ang isang thought or nabasa, may panibago na naman.”

A mental health advocate, Vins shares the prevailing belief that the internet can be addicting, and that limiting time spent on social media platforms will greatly help those with anxiety and depression. For Vins, Facebook ironically became a platform where she lost friends instead of connecting with more people. “Siguro napagod sila sa akin kasi noon mas ‘present’ ako online kaysa sa totoong buhay at face-to-face encounters,” she shares.

After unplugging, she’s found that she’s more relaxed now and is no longer fazed by likes or comments on her posts. She also still manages to communicate with family and friends through email, snail mail, and phone call. The only need she has of social media now is for her advocacy work, as well as to lend an ear to people who need a friend to unburden to.

“Sabi nila noon na kapag nagde-deactivate, may pinagdaraanan … totoo rin 'yon,” Vins says. “So halo-halo talaga dahilan pero minsan gusto mo lang talaga hanapin ‘yung katahimikan kasi ang ingay ng mundo.”

Taking back our perception
Rico De Guzman, 30, farmer/businessman

One criticism of social media is the way it’s evolved to showcase fabricated online personalities. For Rico De Guzman, staying unplugged helps people see through the veneer and keep a clear head when it comes to the various info we receive online.

“Unplugging from social media helps you learn not to compare yourself to others, to not feel pressured to create an online identity that isn’t always who you really are, and to not feel compelled to agree with everything an ‘influencer’ peddles,” Rico says.

An entrepreneur in the agriculture sector, Rico mainly uses social media to post his products and get news and updates regarding certain Philippine and European industries, aside from keeping in touch with family and close friends. Other than this, he sees no need to share his activities online nor to return to active social media usage.

“I think the internet and social media should be tools to improve our real lives, not a place where we cherrypick how people want to see us,” he says. Social media has become a curated gallery of images, with several curation tools available even for individuals to manage their online image with.

But Rico still sees the internet as a tool that provides an instant and easy way to learn new things, to meet others with similar interests, and to create bridges of communication between those we don’t normally get to talk to. “These are useful and powerful, eye opening, and even important to understanding others,” he says.

Taking back our relationships
Rodan Mecano, 26, associate director

Rodan Mecano is still reluctantly on social media. While he isn't producing content for the most part, he still feels the pressure from co-workers, family, and friends to have a presence online.

“I’m not a huge fan of the lack of segregation between work and personal life, but that is how co-workers communicate tasks and updates,” he says, referring to how professional contacts use Facebook chat to discuss work. “In terms of actually using the platform to post, write statuses, like, or comment, I’m not active.”

When not working on social media, Rodan still keeps his accounts alive because of friends and family who want to tag him in posts, especially now that he’s moved to the Philippines from the U.S. “So part of the reason I’m still on the platform is partly the desire to be part of ‘the moment’ but also the pressure from other people to be ‘taggable,’” he says.

But Rodan doesn’t feel the need to stay online all the time, since he’s realized that it’s added little real value as compared to interactions outside of it. He talks about something he calls “genuine discovery” as a result of not knowing what happens online.

“I enjoy the fact that when I catch up with friends I haven’t seen in a long time or even close friends that I see every few weeks that when I ask, ‘What have you been up to?’ most of the time I literally don’t know — I’m curious,” Rodan shares. He feels that being online too often, while keeping people updated on their friends daily, robs people of meaningful conversations that don’t rely on social media content as fodder.

For all five, unplugging from social media can be a sustainable way of life, but it seems that complete disconnection is still something to be made more feasible. The decision to be unplugged in this day and age is a matter of going against the majority, where pressures from co-workers, family, and friends force people to at least not deactivate their social media accounts.

As more and more people get hooked online, there also is the realization that we now pay for freedoms that are really truly ours — our time, emotions, and relationships. So the decision to unplug cannot simply be an individual decision. In the same way that social media was designed to mimic the communal, it seems that genuine disconnection can only be fully realized if the bigger community questions the powerful few who keep social media in place.

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*Name changed at subject’s request.