Quit Social Media Every Other Day

One approach for people interested in breaking a compulsive checking habit

Cristina Quicler / Getty

Okay, not quit. Go without. I’d say cleanse if the word hadn’t been corrupted by the less wholesome sides of the weight-loss and wellness industries.

There are expensive multi-day digital detox programs that a person can go through, but I’m not sure they’re necessary, or likely to lead long-term results. I care about results.

One of the few evidence-based, trendy approaches to losing weight right now is something called “intermittent fasting.” And an intriguing iteration is known as the “every other day diet.” The idea is that you eat whatever you want one day, then significantly limit yourself the next—say, to a single, modest meal. Most people don’t eat enough during the unrestricted, gorging days to compensate for the caloric deficit created during the “fasting” days. By the end of the week, these people tend to have eaten less overall.

The approach is less extreme (or potentially dangerous) than outright fasting for a prolonged period, and it’s more psychologically manageable than trying to take on a restrictive diet every day forever.

More importantly, by the end of the month and year, you’ll very likely have a different relationship to food and hunger. The gorge days will become less egregious. The “fasting” days will become less painful. The process is meant to help people get used to hunger—something most in wealthy countries rarely experience beyond a very mild “sure, I could eat something” sensation that we address quickly.

Intermittent fasting is meant to break a sort of addiction— not to food, but to the feeling of being almost constantly full.

I think there could be something to this idea when it comes to social media, too, in terms of re-learning intentionality. It could mean a relationship to Facebook or Twitter that’s sustainable, maybe even healthy. Looking back on the year, or the decade, or your entire life, how much of it would you like to have spent scrolling through social/news apps? Specifically, how much of it would you like to spend reading or ranting about Donald Trump?

If the answer is all of it, or even a few entire weeks out of any given year, then okay, a lot of people are on pace to hit that mark. All good. For any responsible citizen of the world, the answer is something more than zero percent. But for most humans, to remain sane and effective, the answer is also less than 100.

So readers have been asking me this question a lot: In terms of health, how much is too much news? Too much social media? And the corollaries: When am I being a responsible, informed citizen, and when am I unnecessarily bathing myself in stress hormones? Am I going to die younger because of the tenuous state of American democracy? Is it grossly privileged to worry about my own stress hormones when I’m not the one whose home is being washed away by the sea?

I think the answer is to aim for something between obliviousness and paralyzed anxiety. That’s easy to say but harder to turn into meaningful directives.

Hence the every-other-day diet, but for social media.

It’s pretty self-explanatory at this point. Before bed, sign out of all accounts on your phone and computer. (If you have a tablet, discard that altogether.) There’s no need to “delete your account.” Then spend the next day doing things besides checking social media. Cook, do karate, garden, talk aloud—whatever you’re into. Sign back on a day later.

The key to being purposeful about media consumption is breaking the habits that apps and devices are built to create—the mindless checking and scrolling, the Pavlovian response to any ding or buzz or notification, the sense that to leave home without the device is to be as enfeebled if you forgot your shoes. Intermittent social-media fasting doesn’t just mean you’ll waste less time on social media. It means you’ll really appreciate the time when you check back in. And eventually, compulsive checking habits should fade. Usage should be more purposeful. (A purpose can be to relax and/or to have fun.)

I can’t make this approach work for myself because of my job, but I wish I could. If you try it out, let me know how it goes. If it goes well, tell me how great the experience was and how much better your life is now. If it goes poorly, tell me it went “basically fine.”

Like almost all diet advice (and other advice), this won’t work for everyone. But it may be healthier than gorging every day or withdrawing altogether.