Recovery: Can You Have Stockholm Syndrome from Social Media?

As of today, December 18th 2020, I have removed myself from the gravity-well of Instagram and put myself into the outer orbit of Facebook. It’s been fifty-seven days of feeling -as cliche as this is- free and awake from the hypnotic powers of Mount Doomsta and Lord Zuckerberg. I have no regrets. I owe all my thankfulness of somehow getting out to a video I watched, ironically, on Youtube. The video was a Ted Talk called Here’s Why You May Be Depressed or Anxious.

The video wasn’t specifically about social media. It was specifically about how as humans, -and personally for me, someone living in a first world country- are living lives that are no longer meeting biological needs that we’ve developed over the our history as a species. What needs are the host talking about focusing on in the video? Deep connection between humans and sharing community.

Coming from someone who identifies as being highly anxious and intermittently depressed, I can vouch for the fact that isolation fuels my anxiety; which fuels my depression; which in turn makes me feel unwanted; which then finally circles back around to isolation again in the beautifully terrible vicious cycle of fear and loneliness. Basically, an Ouroboros of disconnection and despair.

So, I watched and finished this video and I felt good. I felt heard and seen even though I had never heard of the host, Johann Hari; Nor was I fortunate enough to have met him. Post-video, I felt the euphoria and go-get-em attitude that usually arises in my optimist’s heart after I consume an inspirational piece of media and I sat there thinking to myself: “I’m going delete my Facebook! I’m going to delete my Instagram! I’m going to reconnect more intentionally and more often with my friends! I’m going to be happy!” Well, typically whenever this particular train of thought crosses my mind -because this wasn’t the first time-, the pattern usually unfolds as followed:

  1. Consume a piece of inspirational media, for example: a self-help book, a Ted Talk video, a Hallmark movie (joke), some music from Josh Groban, etc. We’ll call this media “M”
  2. Become introspective and thoughtful.
  3. Appreciate how interesting points or beautiful observations were made by “M” that I had never thought of and how eloquently the author or creator framed their thesis or message.
  4. Become enraptured by the positive benefits or feelings associated with what I just learned or heard from “M”
  5. Decide to make a positive change to my life that arose from “M”
  6. Begin to make the change, successfully acting out my new goal for a few days.
  7. On day number x, fail to do the prescribed action because of whichever excuse.
  8. Attempt to create the habit again and succeed for a few days.
  9. Skip a day because I needed to, for example, binge read a new book and I just couldn’t pull myself away to do the self-prescribed new action that I hoped to turn into a habit.
  10. Not too disappointedly give up trying because this is obviously too difficult, and how bad did I really want to start this new habit?

You might think, and I would confirm your thought, that I have a difficult time building new and positive habits in my life as many people do. A very difficult time in fact. Well, for whatever inexplicable reason, this time the new habit stuck.

As an often self-described social media and cell phone addict -we’re talking I filled any second of not being stimulated or engaged on my phone; and often I would use my phone as a way to actively avoid being engaged or stimulated- I figured the best place for me to start was by getting rid of those accounts in some capacity.

I took the basic first step distancing myself of this scientifically proven negative influence on my life by deleting the Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone. Then, because that’s the easiest and least effective way of getting out from under the influence of social media, I tried blocking the websites from my phone. I’m not sure if I have the understanding of technology that an 80 year old has, or maybe I’m simply not technologically savvy, or maybe there’s actually no way to do this without putting child restrictions on my phone, but I ended up having to remove the JavaScript functionality of those websites on my phone and laptop to make them virtually unusable because I couldn’t figure out how to fully block the websites. Oh well.

This landed me successfully on step 5 of my life change pattern. From here, it was just a matter of seeing if this tech cleansing (cheaper, and probably more beneficial than a juice cleanse I might add) would stick.

Side note that will appear again later: People often say that getting rid of a negative habit is significantly easier if you fill the empty space the old negative habit held, with a new positive habit. Conveniently, I had just the thing to fill the empty space. I began the 2020 New Year with a modest resolution to read twenty-four books in the following twelve months.

The next step in solving my loneliness/anxiety affliction after having been digitally ‘clean’ for a few weeks, was to begin implementing the more important part of this whole shift, and to start rebuilding the friendships I felt like I had let shrivel in the past few years, begin new friendships, enter new communities, and reinvest in the ones I already had.

Well, that was a pretty tall order, so you know, I decided to take the easiest path I could think of for accomplishing this goal. I quit; kind of, not really, but I suppose I never started with that part. See, for me, having a child, being married, working full time, and having or if one -or two if you’re crazy- hobbies, shockingly takes up about 80% of your day at the very minimum. Once you enter the deep end of the adulthood and parenthood swimming pool you begin to run out of free time, especially free you time, frighteningly quickly. You think as a kid that people saying life passes by fast is an exaggeration, I can truly vouch as someone that has just hit the whirlpool of this bizarre time-acceleration whirlpool that it’s not an exaggeration. It’s a bullet train and the days are just the trees next to the track. Anyways, I needed to make new friends and revitalize old ones to feel like I was on the right path. In a classic cosmic punchline though, this certain crazy thing had happened six months prior, and it was like the anti-friendship storm. It was the Corona Virus. Yeah. You can have whatever thoughts you want about it, but regardless of what you think, corona put a planet size damper on connection and community.

As Corona was wreaking its all encompassing havoc, I gave myself a little bit of grace on the goals I had created by shaving just a bit of loftiness, and thereby difficulty, off of them. Physical proximity was mostly out which left distant connection. Unfortunately remote relationships aren’t my strong suit; I’m infamous for at the very least annoying people by not maintaining the conversation if it’s over text, and at worst literally avoiding answering the phone if I see someone calling. I’ve created an irrational fear of phone calls, associating them with bad news or future possible obligations I know that I will have zero desire to actually follow through on when the day or time suddenly arrives. This phobia of communication arises from a self-diagnosis of a combined problem of social anxiety, depression, and generalized anxiety (if there’s a difference). It doesn’t help that I’m naturally an introvert anyways. Going to a doctor or therapist would be the ideal and obvious solution to confirming this self-diagnosis but doctors are expensive, and insurance is also expensive and life is expensive, and my hobbies are expensive, and I simply can’t live without my fancy coffee, so I just have to choose my expensive battles; obviously fancy coffee takes priority over my mental health (this is a sarcasm. I jab at my own ridiculous behaviors and I fully realize that coffee literally just makes anxiety worse) every morning of the week.

It’s December 18th now, and I can unhappily admit that, for the most part, my goals of social connection and community have fallen through and I failed at taking any significant steps in breaking through my anxieties and following up on completing my goals. The few exceptions to this are the literally handful of times that I pleasantly surprised myself and invited friends over or requested to get together with certain people. I can count on one hand how many times I actually did this. If I’m honest with myself, at the time, those rendezvous felt like accomplishments to me, they felt like baby-steps in completing the desire of strengthening and growing my relationships. Those get togethers did offer up some lovely conversations and shared experiences, so they weren’t total losses. In fact, they weren’t losses at all; they were all small accomplishments that did apply towards my re-developing of social skills. This disillusionment with my own small accomplishments is another problem I’ve had for a long time. The problem is the false belief that small successes and more intimate lifestyles aren’t as fulfilling or grand as those that are prominent and momentous. What I’m trying to say is because I didn’t become friends with Oprah or Elon Musk, or instead, less famous but more numerous people, I feel like I failed, and while there’s an element of truth to that, it’s not the truth, because I did grow and learn about my relationships with a lot of different people this year, and that, by my own definition of the goal I had this year made it a success.

The only goal I can confidently and proudly say that I completed this year was reading a lot of books. I had conservative goal of twenty-four for the year. Thus far I’ve read 30 books which is a result I’m elated by. Many of these books have helped me grow emotionally, intellectually, as a lover of stories; and as a learning and growing writer.

As I finished that last paragraph, I felt like I was losing my train of thought and changing subjects from the initial community/connection/depression/anxiety topics I was hitting, but really those books have helped me grow a lot and engage other people I may not have, as well as being a priceless tool for trying to accomplish creating new goals and relationships next year. When I pause with purpose and reflect on the soup of disbelief that was 2020, I begin to see that there was so much I did learn because this year was such a reset in so many ways. I mean, of course every year is a reset as every day is, but something about 2020’s reset just felt bigger and more personal at the same time.

Next month I’m going to begin the year with new goals. Seeing the feasibility of completing 24 books in a year gave me a lot of confidence, and that isn’t even accounting for the fact that I deleted 90% of social media almost three quarters of the way through the year, which means that next year I’ll have nine extra months worth of free time I would’ve spent scrolling purposelessly through algorithmic quicksand the year before. Thinking about the fact that it wasn’t until September that I escaped social media, I want to give myself just a tad more credit for what relational goals I did accomplish. I got a late start trying to meet and learn about people this year, hopefully that means I’ll be four times as successful next year.

I think my goals in 2021 are going to put significantly more emphasis on the things I put priority on in 2020: Continuing to read, even more; learning and growing as a father and husband, riding my bicycle for fitness, mental clarity, and trying to be just slightly more environmentally conscious; writing more, both in the world of fiction and in the contemplation of life; and connecting with people more often and more deeply.

Maybe next year I’ll take the full plunge and make social media 100% inaccessible to myself, I guarantee both you and myself that I’d have even more time to invest the things that give me a tangible and meaningful return. Maybe I’d even forgive my digital captor (and myself) for making me waste days upon days made up of split-second glimpses of other peoples lives; and I’d realize that yes, I didn’t really enjoy the vast majority of my time on it, it just made it so easy to look away, to avoid, and to disconnect from social life.

I’m excited to see the physical manifestation of my goals being completed, things being learned, people being befriended, and hopefully a world slightly less chaotic. Next year as I re-immerse myself in the world and community I am a part of and try to cling just a little tighter to the moments that have begun to rush through my fingers like fog, I’ll get to thank myself for cutting a parasitic non-thing out of my life to replace it with more reality, more tears, more smiles, more hugs, more coffee, more of the things I love, and new things, real things. Hopefully everything I’ve set out to do thanks to Johann Hari will make me just a little bit less anxious too.

Although I will miss one thing on social media: Instagram contests. I did love me a good contest. Oh and the filters.

Things I’m enjoying at the moment:

Currently listening: Mount Alaska, Skalpel, Kevin Morby

Currently watching: The Good Place, Breadtube (left-leaning social commentators).

Currently coffeeing: Prelude Coffee Roasters single origin Rwanda and The Familiar Blend.

Currently reading: Bird by Bird- Anne Lamott, White Tiger- Aravind Adiga

Currently developing: my voice as a writer, the stacks on my bookshelves, my son’s jumping skills.