Escaping the Sinking Social Ship: On (mostly) subbing out of social media

This article was first published elsewhere in September 2023. At the time I was using a user-pays subscription newsletter service, which quickly morphed into just another social media platform with many of the same pitfalls as advertiser-pays social media models. I have now left this platform too and started a low cost membership hosted here on my own website and app, which includes online community forum where you can ask me and the collective brains' trust your questions, regular social, co-working and circle-style zoom calls, private blogs and an archive of some of my previous courses and resources. Feel free to check it out here.

NB: This post comes with a language warning! Pleas choose another blog if F-words are a problem for you.

As I sat in circle, I knew I couldn’t run from the words any longer. What had begun as a whispered “get off your phone”, had become louder and louder over the previous six months. I looked down at my page of journaling, a scrawl of “GET OFF YOUR FUCKING PHONE” in black biro. Right, I thought, I’m going to do this.

I went home and did the things. I made a list of the people I followed for “educational purposes” who had books, research papers, articles or podcast interviews I could dig into instead. I asked a couple of people if I could move our chats to another platform (OMG did you know pretty much every phone has its own number that you can send text and even voice messages to?!). In act of precommitment, I announced my departure, not because I expected anyone to mourn or even care, but to keep me accountable. Then, I uninstalled the Instagram app from my phone. Nothing else happened. I exhaled.

Simple right? Not exactly.

Some backstory here. When I retrained as postpartum doula1, I started a Facebook business page. As that form of social media descended into a cesspool of pandemic disinformation, I turned to Instagram as my primary public/business communication and social hangout online space. While other industries may use a more corporate platform like LinkedIn for networking, in doula-land all that was happening on IG too.

Once I got the hang of what I was doing, I liked it there. Where people would leave hateful comments on Facebook, on Instagram it seemed like they were more likely to scroll on, or just not see it in the first place. Sure, it changed all the time, but the algorithm did a good job of showing me stuff I was interested in and helping people who’d like my stuff to find me. Making videos was fun too. It was all happy days, until I realised it wasn’t.

During lockdowns, images like this one were circulating:

I got the premise, but also it irritated me - why aren’t we as mothers and Default Parents allowed to connect to people far away? Why is the fulfilment of our need for social stimulation as adult humans always framed as a negative for our children? The fault here lies with the isolation of modern parents (mostly mothers) under late stage capitalism, not with mothers themselves. Stir this with what Dr. Sophie Brock calls the “good mother myth” and its expectation that we must be wholly engrossed in our children’s every blink lest we be deemed neglectful mothers, and it’s easy to see why we cop so much flack for a quick scroll. I brushed these images off: I was using social media for good, adding value to my life without detracting from anyone else’s. 

Then in January of this year, “An Interview with Dr. Gabor Maté” was released on The Aware Parenting Podcast. The episode was recorded in the wake of the publication of his latest book The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture.

As with everything Dr. Maté touches, it was gold (like so, so good), but there was one part that took the shine off the rest. Near the end of the episode, Dr. Maté spoke of

“…one of the saddest things you’ll see, and maybe you see it in your neighbourhoods… is a parent pushing a kid in a tram [pram], and the tram is facing away from the parent, and the parent is pushing the tram and doing this at the same time.”

In the video of this snippet shared publicly at the time of release, you could see Dr. Maté acting as if he’s typing on a phone with one hand while pretending to push a pram with another. The hosts can be seen nodding along in agreement.

I was angry. They’d spent an hour discussing how individual parents were not to blame for the toxic culture our kids were growing up in, but how could this be the “saddest thing”, the ultimate demonstration of parent-child disconnection? How could he assume this imaginary parent/mother was neglecting their child in that moment, simply because they were on their phone? I work on my phone, I grocery shop on my phone, I pay our bills on my phone, I talk with my friends near and far through our collective crises and support my clients preparing for their prenatal appointments on my phone. These things need to get done for my children’s material needs to be met, for my friends and I to be okay, and for other mothers and parents to be okay too.

Also, I raged, just think of how resilient this imagined parent (likely a mother) is to be up and out of the house that morning after weeks, months and perhaps years of broken sleep! What assumptions would you make about her if she never exercised or contacted her friends? What if that forward-facing kid loves to be in the pram listening to the birds, is happiest when watching vehicles or was due to drop off for a nap? Screw you, I thought, how dare you guilt me for that too.

Clearly, I was pissed off. The harsh truth though is that I would’ve been more measured in my reaction if I was totally comfortable with my own phone use. It’s the same reason I get ticked off when my husband is on his phone around our kids: on one hand I’m annoyed because I see how they’re looking to him for attention that’s going to a screen instead, but on the other I’m ropable because it’s showing me what happens when I’m on my screen around them. Maté, it turns out, was presenting me with a mirror, and I didn’t like my reflection.

In February, my baby rolled for the first time. I was there! I saw her go from back to front! Why she picked the hard way first, I will never know, but how hashtag blessed was I to see it with my own eyes?!

A couple of weeks later I popped her down on the mat for some tummy time. Instagram beckoned, my hand did the automatic things it does to open it up and I stood alongside her, reading a post about an athlete who had revolutionised their sport. See, learning stuff, because social media is educational. I looked down to see my baby on her back. She had rolled the other way for the first time, front to back. I had missed it because I was on my phone. Not doing jobs, not connecting, just being there not here.

Oh, the self-loathing. How could I be so careless as to miss my own baby’s milestones? How could I justify this “education”, when I was missing out on the highlights of my own life?

Clearly, I couldn’t. I vowed to have greater self-control and reduce my usage. First, I rearranged my icons so my brain had to focus on finding the right thing. This did nothing, so I deleted the icon altogether. Now I would have to use the search bar to access it, enough pause that I hopefully wouldn’t open it on autopilot. Turns out predictive text meant I only needed to type the letter “I” to find what I wanted, so this change also did exactly nothing towards kicking my habit.

In April, after far too long resisting, I started publishing this newsletter. My list of reasons for starting this here Default Parent Project included wanting to be able to:

  1. Express my ideas fully, which usually takes far more than the 2200 Instagram character limit allows;

  2. Be able to hyperlink to my sources, so you can read them yourself if you want;

  3. Write actual words like sexnipple and abortion instead of s3><n1ppl3 and ab0rt10n in an effort to avoid censorship;

  4. Not contort myself or my content to fit “the algorithm” of the day to get “reach”.

I also wanted readers to be able to find me on the web, and the option to share my more private writings with an engaged paid subscriber group. My children’s privacy is important to me, and there are just some topics I want to discuss that I really don’t need sunglassed, bearded, Trump-hatted men from Tennessee reading and casting their oh-so-thoughtful, nuanced and balanced critique on, you know?

Added benefits included a space for a community of Default Parents to build outside the surveillance of Meta comments sections and a home for the regular online events I host, because constantly “launching” to sell tickets for the next thing all the time stinks.

Being paid for the efforts I put in isn’t bad either - cheers to those who support my work in any kind of paid or unpaid format.

You’d think all these reasons would be enough to get my eyes off the ‘Gram right? For a little bit, yes, but it didn’t last. I was coming to realise I was more hooked than I thought.

In June, I read Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention by psychologist Johann Hari. (If you’re unfamiliar with Hari’s work, his TED talk “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong” is an excellent place to start.) This book came highly recommended from multiple friends and is much hyped by famous folks too, with Stephen Fry, Naomi Klein and even Hilary Clinton singing its praises on the back cover.

[A warning for neurodivergent readers - I’m not super well versed in neuroaffirming practices but felt the chapter discussing ADHD was written through a rather medicalised, pathologising lens rather than a neuroaffirming one. There are also some anecdotes and examples that are pretty diet culture-y for those wanting to steer clear of that.]

Stolen Focus speaks to the reasons behind our collective inability to concentrate, forgetfulness and worsening mental health. There are many concurrent factors contributing to what he calls our “attention crisis”, and (most obvious spoiler ever alert) technology is a big one. Much of what Hari speaks to wasn’t new to me, but reaffirmed why I knew social media was not helping my health.

My take home points from the social media and phone sections are:

  • Your phone and almost every default setting and app on it is intentionally designed to interrupt you from other things, suck you in and keep you on your device. It is not your fault for having “weak willpower” if you find yourself looking at your phone a lot, the coding is done in a way that promotes overuse and addiction.

  • Research shows people stay on their social media apps (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube) longer when presented with content that makes them angry or shocked, so this is what’s prioritised in your feed, even if the information in it is inaccurate or straight-up offensive.

  • Meta and co. want you to stay on their app because the longer you’re on, the more ads they can show you, and the more they get paid by advertisers.

Hari explains that social media operates on an “attention economy” - your attention is literally for sale because the tech companies are making money by putting ads in your feed, between stories or between and during videos. This means content creators like me are essentially doing the dirty work for them - making the content that keeps you online for longer, so you then see more ads that make you feel shitty about your parenting/body/home in the hopes you will buy the advertiser’s “solution”.

This model is not new - free to air TV has been operating like this (albeit with non-individually targeted ads based on personal data collection) for decades. But content creators like me are not paid in dollars like the people behind the TV programs on those stations, we are being paid in the promise of “exposure”, the instant gratification of likes and follows, and actual or potential notoriety. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but having X number of followers doesn’t mean they will become paying customers or clients2, and having a reel shared 1,000 times will do nothing towards paying your electricity bill.

TV has all but moved on, from an advertiser-pays model to streaming (a user-pays model). Commercial radio is dying in favour of music streaming too, and ad-funded standard newspapers are faltering while ad-free, online, subscriber supported writing platforms are gaining traction. [This has pros and cons too, as it both opens up potential for a wider range of writers to contribute, but also means everyone is operating without editorial/fact-checking oversight.] 

Yet social media platforms (including video-based ones like YouTube) seem stuck in a time warp of an advertiser-pays model that sells itself to us on the promise of social connectedness. Instead, it is literally selling our attention to other entities for profit by presenting inflammatory and often inaccurate content, devastating news and “controversial” (read: offensive, hateful, vitriolic) comment wars to sell the maximum ad time possible. It’s no wonder, with a model like this that people fall into a radicalising wormhole starting with COVID-related posts and ending up believing in lizard people or accusing Hari’s mate Hilary of child trafficking and abuse.3

In his book, Hari talks with insiders and experts who have gotten out of “big tech”. A move to a subscription model, they say, is not the only thing that could be done to improve our relationship with our devices and each other. They agree the companies who own and develop these apps could put multiple things in place within hours which would make social media a more harmonious, health-promoting place to be if they chose to value people’s wellbeing, but they don’t, because they’re more interested in making a quick buck.

Having it spelled out like this meant I couldn’t pretend any longer. I guess until this point I’d been telling myself the pitfalls of social media were a reflection of the pitfalls of our society. Hari made it clear the dark sides of society are being actively worsened so app companies and their advertisers can make money. The paltry efforts to stop hate speech, disinformation, threats and divisions are purposeful. No amount of high quality content I created on that app for the supposed good of others was going to change the fact that my writing, reels or memes were keeping them on a platform that was intentionally choosing to make individuals and therefore our society on the whole more racist, more transphobic, more violent and divided and hateful.

As I slid Stolen Focus into the library returns chute I vowed to jump ship on social media for real. This decision was complicated by the NSW Select Committee parliamentary inquiry into birth trauma, which had been announced the previous week. After the I inquiry, I told myself. Wait until after the inquiry.

During the submission period (which also coincided with Birth Trauma Awareness Week) a small bastion of volunteer advocacy organisations, researchers and doulas worked our social media magic to ensure as many mothers and parents as possible would have their experiences of birth trauma and disrespectful care heard by the committee. We gave information about the process, prompts and templates for submissions and assisted people writing their stories directly. Over the course of 3 weeks I personally transcribed some 40-50 stories for those who felt too traumatised by what happened and was done to them to write it up for themselves. The things I was told would make your blood run cold.

A meme I posted during Birth Trauma Awareness Week. A lot of people agreed with this sentiment.

It worked. By the closing date in mid-August, there were over 4000 submissions received by the inquiry. Social media did the thing it says it does on the cereal box and got the word out there for something that has the potential to (hopefully) effect positive, real world change.

It also did exactly what it was meant to do: get to know my interests, show me terrible stuff, and make it hard to look away. The app’s calculations had figured out that I was super interested in birth trauma. The top posts every time I opened it were stories of terrible violence inflicted on women, parents and babies during childbirth. I had gotten so used to checking multiple times a day (read: hour) in case someone had messaged me about their submission that I was unconsciously on the hunt for frequent dopamine hits and therefore opening the app often. Like, really often. An additional 300 people had also started following along with my account over the submission period, which made it feel like an unwise time to get out. These people obviously needed support with birth trauma, which is something I could help with in the form of birth debriefs. Maybe I should stick around so they could get familiar with me and my services?

Meanwhile, my nervous system was, like the meme I made above, on fire, and every time I opened the app it was like a was pouring petrol onto the flames. I was tired and wired. I was physically run down and my fuse was shorter than usual with the kids.

On the day I sat in circle journaling, the inquiry submission period and fundraising4 that went after it was done. Yes, I could’ve tried setting app time limits or done a big cull on who I followed or downloaded other self-checking tools like One Sec, but I didn’t. “GET OFF YOUR FUCKING PHONE”, it said. I read again. I knew I had no more excuses left. It was time.

When I hit “uninstall” that evening night, I felt no relief. To be honest, I was scared. My inner critic told me how pathetic I was for feeling fearful. I knew my fear was irrational, that I was under no real threat, but I am a humam not a robot and that was the feeling in my body. I had to give it time.

By Day 3 AD (after deleting), I was noticeably less anxious. I messaged a doula friend to say maybe if I wasn’t moderating public comments sections or fielding DMs that I might have the emotional bandwidth and time to handle a membership after all - something I'd previously resisted.

A week after deleting the app, I reinstalled it for one hour. [My plan is to do that every so often when I have set aside childcare time to work, so I can share what session times I have available that month, remind people about membership events, circles and playgroups, post previews of my blogs, etc.] The first post I saw, as expected, made me angry. I decided not to comment, not to fuel the beast. I looked at a few stories, and was presented with three ads: one selling me the baby sleep training programs I detest, one of some dude telling me I need AI or my business will never make it, and one of a white woman wellfluencer spruiking her money mindset manifestation pseudo-coaching BS. It was all I could do not to vomit in my mouth. After my work was done, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I deleted the app again ASAP, and it took me half a day to feel back to my baseline level of calm.

So 3 weeks on, what has life been like without daily+++ hits of the ‘Gram?

Better, that’s for sure.

My day doesn’t start with reading someone else’s opinions, so I get to make my own. I’m less distractible in conversations and more able to cope with my children’s big feelings. I’ve had some personal conversations with people about things I probably otherwise would’ve posted to stories, and I’m enjoying the depth, privacy and laughter of those chats. My recent phone photos are of my kids and the places we go, rather than autosaved posts and stories or pre-made quote tiles ready to go. My screen time hasn’t changed that much overall, but (aside from things I use in the day like messages and maps) it’s more concentrated now in the times when they’re asleep. I’ve also used my exercise app more5, written more articles here and read more long-form articles and eBooks.

Sure, there are things that I miss. This product review, shared to a friend’s stories, has brought me more enjoyment than I can quantify. I can’t put my finger on why, but I’ve reread it many times and continue to love it, and hope you do too.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t missed the instant gratification of likes, shares, saves and comments or the validation of another follower joining the fold, especially in that first week. There have been moments where life (read: children) feels too much and I’ve wished I could withdraw into my phone to dissociate. Sometimes I find myself refreshing my email (even though it updates itself regularly anyway) because my brain still wants that dopamine hit. That said, the hand-reaching-for-phone twitch is lessening, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything by being (mostly) off socials.

In summary, I’m glad to be here, back in my little corner of the internet, and I’m super glad you’re here too. I love that I can write and you can read here without selling either of us off to advertisers. You’re worth it, I’m worth it, and my little munchkins are absolutely, without a doubt worth it.

Also, that was a looong article. If you’ve made it to this point you’re bucking the trend of what Hari calls “the collapse of sustained reading”. Well done to you!

And finally, screw Meta.

The best ever mug, a birthday present from my family made by small batch, feminist potter Under The Lotus.

Have a glorious week.

Anna x

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