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I swapped social media for meditation — and it turned me into a monster

It turns out meditation wasn't the right way for me to get my scrolling addiction under control.
Image: A woman walks while on her smartphone in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2013.
An iPhone setting called “screen time” will show you how long you're spending on apps, social media, emails and more. Nicolas Asfouri / AFP / Getty Images file

I believe in making big changes in my life only after I’ve made big mistakes. I know that’s not the most logical way of handling things that aren’t going so well, but as someone who is inherently stubborn, it’s nearly impossible for me to wake up and smell the roses, until, of course, the flowers are completely wilted.

And that’s how it happened with my social media addiction. I started to realize I had an extreme reliance on social media when my boyfriend asked me a question that made my insides tingle.

“How much time per day do you think you spend on social media?”

“Me?” I shot back, feeling defensive already about something I knew I was so guilty of. “Not much.”

He took my iPhone out of my hand, went to my settings, clicked on a button called “screen time” and handed my phone back. There it was: a beautiful and colorful bar graph showing lines practically crawling off the screen with a number in bold that showcased just how much my eyes, my mind, my heart, my free time were all attached to one thing: my social media accounts.

My average daily screen time was around the same time it would take a person to fly from New York City to Los Angeles, during the winter when the headwinds are extra aggressive — 6 hours and 26 minutes.

My average daily screen time was around the same time it would take a person to fly from New York City to Los Angeles, during the winter when the headwinds are extra aggressive — 6 hours and 26 minutes, with 95 percent of that time being used on social media accounts, and the other 5 percent equally distributed between messages, phone usage and email.

The moment my social media dependency was quantified, I was equal parts embarrassed and scared. How in the world did I devote so much time every single day to eyeballing photos, watching videos, and reading through comment thread discussions (and arguments) of people who were mostly strangers? I have things to do! I’m always so busy! This was the answer I had been in denial about whenever I tried to figure out why I didn’t have any free time. The truth was, I had over six hours a day of free time that I was spending scrolling.

Not only that, but I was realizing that my time spent on social media was affecting my mental health: making me feel sad, worthless and mostly jealous. It was making me an anxious person who never felt good enough with what I had right in front of me. That wasn’t who I was, but it was who I had become.

The challenge: 1 minute on social media = 1 minute meditating

I knew that in order to make a permanent change and actually decrease my social media time, I would need to increase my time doing something that would help me be mindful of my own personal affairs (that I’d have to learn to limit from sharing 24/7 online). I decide that, for one month, for every minute I spent on social media I would have to spend an equal amount of time meditating.

This sounded painful at first. The only time I had ever meditated in my life was on an awkward first date. (We sat in a park for 15 minutes: him silent and focused, me with my eyes open on Facebook.) Meditation wasn’t something I thought I could do because my mind is always spinning and sitting still isn’t on my daily to-do list. This self-induced punishment, I thought, would not only cure my social media addiction but also get me more into meditation, something I dreaded, but wondered if I could eventually love and practice regularly in my life.

The first week, I spent an average of only 15 minutes a day on social media. Limiting my time on social media was easier than I thought. Not going on for hours made my time on Facebook and Instagram something that was short, fast and useful. I saw the updates from friends I needed to see (birthdays and life announcements) and got off before I was sucked into watching a 10-minute video on a random topic.

The meditation part was dreadful. Fifteen minutes a day felt like fifty. I tried apps that led guided meditation and usually shut them off after minute two because the voice and the music made me grow impatient and annoyed. I tried days where I’d sit there silently and either find myself falling asleep or tapping my toes in boredom.

The next week was no different. I started to miss social media a little bit more and increased my average daily usage to about 25 minutes, which made meditation even more of an annoyance and something I wasn’t growing to love, but growing to despise.

This little experiment of mine was making me more anxious than my six-hour daily social media stints were. Frankly, it was making me more of an impatient monster.

The conclusion: Meditation isn’t for me … but mindfulness is

It turns out I’m not alone. Meditation — for all its merits — isn’t always for everyone.

“Many people have difficulty getting started with meditation. Sometimes it’s a struggle to sit still or they find themselves too distracted by their own thoughts,” says Jessica Singh, MSW, a mental health therapist and the founder of Transcendence Counseling Center LLC. “The goal of meditation is to bring awareness to your thoughts, breath and self.” And while it can be a great vehicle for people to achieve those things, it's not the only vehicle.

For those who can’t seem to get into meditating, Aimee Daramus, a licensed clinical psychologist, recommends hiking, dancing, other exercising, playing with pets, knitting crocheting or quilting as other possible activities that bring your attention to the present moment and help combat the stress that can come with too much time on social media.

The mind is like a old fashioned cassette tape: you can't erase it without overwriting it. The new habit overwrites the old addictive behavior.

Jaya Jaya Myra, a best-selling author and TEDx speaker considered an expert in meditation, agrees that to overcome any habit it’s important to rewire neural connections in the brain. “This can only be done by adapting a new behavior that you make into a habit. The mind is like a old fashioned cassette tape: you can't erase it without overwriting it. The new habit overwrites the old addictive behavior,” says Myra.

So my initial challenge was headed in the right direction. However, where I may have taken a wrong turn in this experiment was attempting to do some re-circuiting by picking something that I didn’t enjoy. What I hadn’t considered was that meditation was far from the only way that I could practice being more mindful.

“I recommend that people adapt a daily habit that is something they enjoy doing: some aspect of self-care or something just for you,” says Myra. “By adding more positivity into life each day, it becomes easier to let go of the habits that are not good for us.”

But in the world we live in, where digital influences and large screens are practically everywhere, it can be hard to do a full-on digital detox or replace our old ways fast.

Dorsey Standish, the Chief Mindfulness Officer of Mastermind Meditate in Dallas, says that technology, especially social media, is actually designed to be addictive, and many of us struggle to set boundaries around technology. Which is why Standish says that if replacing social media with meditation doesn’t work for you, it could be a good idea to try something else like creating tech-free zones (meaning keep phones and computers out of your bedroom) or downloading smart apps that track your app usage and even lock apps after you’ve used them longer than your time limit for the day.

When trying to resist social media urges, Myra suggests putting something else in its place. This “something” doesn’t have to be as extreme as what I tried. Myra says it can be as simple as taking a drink of water or taking a moment to stretch.

“This helps you become aware of every time you want to be on social, then change up that pattern with a new habit. You will gradually get over your addictive behavior this way,” says Myra.

So I moved onto something else to help me curb my social media usage, which turned out to be the opposite of sitting still with my thoughts: being active. I now do push ups, sit-ups or jumping jacks whenever I get an urge to open up Instagram and just scroll. So far, I’m using my social media apps less, seeing muscles I never thought I had begin to show, and feeling less like a monster and more like the strong and in-control human being I always knew I was.

All it took to tame my inner beast was expanding my definition of “mindfulness” to extend beyond simply sitting with my thoughts (which does work for many people, but just wasn’t clicking for me). Being active cut down my screen time while also bringing my awareness to my body, which I’ve learned does, in fact, count as “being mindful”.


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