Regulars and Shorts

Outside the Box: Facebook-Free February

By Alice Toler

Taking the idea of Lent to a new level.
—by Alice Toler


Facebook. We love to hate it, and often hate to admit we love it. It’s our virtual water-cooler. On a neuronal level, every time we receive a notification or scroll through our news feeds, the dopaminergic “reward neurons” in our brains fire, causing a feeling of pleasure.

However, not everyone is content to let this neurotransmitter-jolting juggernaut roll right over them. A few stalwart souls on my own Facebook feed decided to go without for a month, to find out exactly where they stood regarding social media addiction:

Hayley Baker, 31, is a native of Salt Lake City and works at a local nonprofit. The concept of the “Facebook-free” month began with her (at least on my newsfeed), in November 2012.

“I always do month-long ‘Hayley lents’ where I pick something that’s really an integral part of my life, and give it up for a month to see how I react,” she says. “I’ve done no alcohol, no eating out at restaurants and so forth. Last month I gave up cheese—that was really hard! It’s a lesson in self-control, and it gives you an idea of how dependent you are on something, and it resets you. Facebook was something that I felt a desire to check at work, and I think that’s definitely a bit of a problem. Giving it up for a month was eye-opening.”

Liberty from the tyranny of social media got a boost in mid-January, when organic landscape nutritionist and local DJ Eben Lundberg started promoting Facebook-Free February …which was, of course, a Facebook-based event.

“I got the concept from Hayley,” he says, “and I thought February would be a nice short month to try it out. I was looking to see what I would do if I took that habit out of the loop, and if anything beneficial would come from it.”

Eben’s Facebook-Free February event garnered 69 “attendees,” 40 “maybes” and 10 “declines.” “A lot of people tried and only made it a few days,” he says. “I know only a handful who made it the entire month.”

One of those who made it the entire month is Salt Lake-based web programmer Mike Farr. Mike gave up more than just Facebook for February, deciding to add that deprivation to a month he’d already set aside to try out a carb-restricted diet and also to give up alcohol.

“For a few months before that, I was starting to get worried about my attention span,” he says. “I’m self-employed and I work from home, so Facebook can be a distraction from my focus. I was already doing the diet, and Facebook seemed like a good thing to pile on.”

So what is it like to go without Facebook for a month?

Hayley didn’t miss it as much as she feared. “I live alone, and Facebook is a way for me to feel connected,” she says. “The first week was pretty lonely, but it became much easier after that. The only things I really missed during the month were the events—I’d hear about things only after they’d already happened, and I found I was missing my friends’ birthdays and so forth because I wasn’t getting notifications. I carried a book around, and I got a lot more reading done. If I was early to work I’d go and sit in the park, and I’d read or journal or something like that. Certain people jumped out and made sure to keep in touch with me in other ways. I didn’t expect that, and it was really nice.”

Eben found that, in ditching Facebook, he connected with his family more strongly. “I was a lot more focused on my kids when they were at home, especially in the morning. I used to get on Facebook when they were eating breakfast, and so instead I would sit down with them and eat.”

That’s a change that has persisted since Eben got back on Facebook in March. “There were a lot of things I started to get done as well—I started crafting, and once the weather got nice I started getting out in the dirt and doing my gardening thing.”

There were some drawbacks, though: “As a DJ I actually got turned down for a gig because I wasn’t on Facebook, and the organizer didn’t know how I was going to promote myself. I did get a gig I didn’t think I was going to get, but I don’t know that the promoter really knew I was off Facebook, because he kept asking me to share the event with my friends. So I just texted them!”

Mike got in touch with the inner workings of his mind and got a lot more productive at his job. “I had a habit of compulsively checking something, so I replaced the focus of that with work, and got a lot more done. The no-carb diet I was on made it a little hard to separate out which effects were from being off Facebook and which were from cutting out gluten, but I had more mental clarity and more energy. Luckily I had a good project I was interested in at the time, and the new challenges of it were fun to think about. That was good timing that turned out really nicely.”

But, like Eben and Hayley, Mike did notice that his social life took a hit. “I was very disconnected from everyone, and I never knew what was going on. I ended up missing a concert or two that I wanted to go to, and it turned out that Facebook was where I was getting most of my bite-sized news, so I had to find alternate ways of doing that. I never really did figure that out.”

All three feel that the Facebook-free month benefited them long-term.

Hayley has a good handle on her relationship to Facebook now. “When my month was over I didn’t jump right back on, and when I did go on the next day, I found it was all the same stuff.” She also appreciates Facebook for keeping her connected, now that she knows what it’s like to go without. “I have friends in California and on the East Coast, and it’s great to keep up with them. For Christmas I went to Oakland and met people there that I never would have made friends with if it hadn’t been for social networking.”

Eben originally thought he would miss his newsfeed so much that he’d wind up scrolling back to see all the things he’d missed during his month off, but like Hayley found that returning was an anticlimax.

“Facebook Free February was great. I’ll probably do it every year now. People missed me, though. They tell me I make Facebook a better place to be!”

Mike also got new insight about the wider implications of Facebook, especially as a phone app: “I will notice now when I’m out at restaurants, people will be scrolling through Facebook on their phones instead of talking to each other. Going without Facebook made me value when I’m physically in the room with someone, to give them my attention. But if you take it away, you do realize that all these little micro-interactions you have with people online actually do add up to a relationship. It does that really well, and I think that’s a nice way to stay connected, as long as it’s not overwhelming or replacing something that’s healthier.”

Facebook is a double-edged sword. Wield it one way, and it connects us with our loved ones more strongly and with greater ease than we have been able to achieve since the advent of the office cubicle. Wield it another way, and it isolates us and severs us from those we are with physically. The key, like most things in life, is to engage it with awareness.

When I updated my status, telling people I was writing this article, I got 24 comments in the course of a few hours. People described Face­book variously as “connectivity in a wasteland,” “a fabulous connection with my different communities,” “mostly just an outlet for being a smartass,” and “an extended village.”

I myself declined to join Facebook-Free February this year. I have many beloved friends and relatives all over the world, and Facebook is an amazing communications nexus that allows me to keep up with them in real time. I’m sorry that we’re all so scattered that I can’t live in an awesome village made up of everyone I love, but being able to see into little pieces of their lives on Facebook every day, and to sharing a little of my life with them too, reminds me how great it is to be human. If you don’t let that social networking dopamine rush control you, Facebook is far more a gift than a menace. Happy posting, everyone!

This article was originally published on March 29, 2013.