I realized recently that I had become way too attached to looking at social media on my phone and on my computer — basically all the time.

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This is a phenomenon that we talk about a lot at the Reese News Lab. We know that there are spikes in activity on social media from desktops during lunch hours and after work. But people access social media constantly via mobile devices.

I wanted to see if I would be able to take out this constant distraction from my life, just for a few days, and learn about the situations when I feel drawn to use social media. So I decided that I wanted to do a three-day social media blackout: no Twitter, no Instagram, and definitely no Facebook.

I know what you must be thinking: “Only three days? Who can’t go without social media for three days?”

Well … it turns out, I can’t.

But that’s getting ahead of myself.

blackout challenges

The first challenge in dropping social media for a few days was finding a good time to do it. When I thought of the idea of doing a blackout, it was the week of my birthday, and you know, you need Facebook on your birthday to receive all of your birthday wishes and to plan your celebration events. Before the days of social media, you sent invitations and received cards, but I couldn’t do that. I scheduled my break from social media for the following week.

On Sunday, February 24, it was time.

At 10:10 p.m., I deleted the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone and vowed not to look at them.

Soon after, I realized what a good move it had been to delete the apps from my phone. Constantly, while I was waiting to cross the street, waiting for webpages to load and even during boring or awkward conversations, I tried to look at Facebook without even realizing what I was doing.

Reflexively, my fingers swiped across my iPhone searching for that button, for a distraction from everyday life.

It became nice not to have that. I didn’t need to check anything. I didn’t need to respond to anyone. I had time to think.

But soon, this “break” became inconvenient. People kept asking me if I had seen this post on Facebook or urging me to look at that picture on Instagram. During my blackout, a scandal erupted on Facebook after Landen Gambill, a UNC-Chapel Hill student who has been involved in a sexual assault complaint against the University, was charged by the university Honor Court for “intimidating her rapist.”

The scandal caused a huge response from the UNC-Chapel Hill community, which erupted mostly on social media. This type of social media-centered scandal was something I missed in just the few short days I was not on Facebook.

Then on Monday, exactly 24 hours into my blackout, I realized that I needed Twitter.

A journalism class project required me to look at Twitter to compare traditional and online media.

This was the beginning of the end for my blackout. That night, I was sad that I hadn’t made it further in my complete blackout, but I still hadn’t been on Facebook — which was my biggest goal. As I was looking at different media sites, though, it was hard for me not to have access to social media to share all of the interesting articles I was reading. After each interesting article, I thought about which friend I would like to show it to in a Facebook message or which article I would definitely retweet.

The sharing feature is one of the things that I use most often on social media. It is really helpful for me to be able to retweet an article so that I can go back and find it again later or to send it to a friend I know would enjoy it. I only emailed one article to a co-worker during the two nights I spent reading articles for hours as research. I would have shared and sent at least 10 if I could have accessed my social media sites.

Then, on Tuesday, I was on Twitter doing more class research when I clicked on a link to an infographic shared by ProPublica. What I didn’t know was that graphic was on Facebook. My computer automatically logged me on and it showed me not just the graphic but how many notifications I had. Suddenly, I knew I had five messages, one friend request and 11 notifications waiting for me.

It was so hard for me to know that I had messages but not be able to read them. But I focused on my school work and waited for Wednesday night when I could check them.

Tuesday another major mishap occurred: My Twitter account got hacked. Because my Twitter account is linked to my email, I was still receiving notifications of messages to my phone. So when I woke up in a sleepy haze and checked my phone, I opened an email and clicked a link from one of my friends who had been hacked. My account began tweeting about weight-loss products.

Maybe this was my karmic punishment for not being able to finish the blackout.

On Wednesday, when the blackout officially ended, I was ashamed by how excited I got about checking my Facebook newsfeed. But looking at it soon became mundane again.

It was nice to take a break for a while. And I actually did learn a few important points.

lessons learned

  • Social media is all connected. Often, what is trending on Twitter is what is being shared most on Facebook.
  • Social media is now used as part of our education in journalism. You can learn a lot about the world of media today just by spending some time on Twitter.
  • Part of the draw of Facebook is being able to feel connected. This isn’t news, but to know that you could be talking to your friends via Facebook and to be unable to can make you feel isolated from that world.
  • Being able to share things on social media brings validation to what we discover on the Internet.
  • Social media is inescapable; multiple times each day, someone showed me or mentioned something that was on social media.
  • Social media is now the place where scandal begins and where it is discussed, sometimes even before it makes it to print.

Internet addiction poster photo by Michael Mandiberg on Flickr and used with Creative Commons license.

Lilly Knoepp is the Director of News at the Reese News Lab, where she writes and edits for WhichWayNC.com, a North Carolina politics website and STEMwire.com, a site dedicated to creating a conversation about STEM education. Lilly is a religious studies and political science double major who hopes to continue writing though a career as a journalist after graduation in 2014.

i-4662122f066fc3aac819ecc13ce01535-reeselablogo.jpgReese News Lab is an experimental news and research project based at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The lab was established in 2010 with a gift from the estate of journalism school alum Reese Felts. Our mission is to push past the boundaries of media today, refine best practices and embrace the risks of experimentation. We do this through: collaborating with researchers, students, the public and industry partners; producing tested, academically grounded insights for media professionals; and providing engaging content. We pursue projects that enable us to create engaging content and to answer research questions about the digital media environment. All of our projects are programmed, designed, reported, packaged and edited by a staff of undergraduate and graduate students.