Leslie Branham was growing tired of Facebook.
She’d log on in the evenings to promote her St. Paul personal training business. But then she’d browse, and scroll, and browse some more.
“As I got more tired, I’d find I couldn’t get off of it,” she said. “I’d be in a trance, and too tired to stop and get up to go to bed.”
So, like many people who say they are reaching Facebook overload, Branham took a temporary break.
Overwhelmed by the infinite scroll of social media — the barrage of news at their fingertips, the time-consuming lure of browsing other people’s lives — many Minnesotans are drawing the line on their app use. In the process, they are discovering just how much time they spent on a platform they realized later was causing them more harm than good.
“The first couple of days, I’d crave it like a drug or sugar,” Branham said about her first split with Facebook. “But then, after several days, I found a sense of peace.”
Waiting in line, walking around — all the usual times she’d check her phone when she wasn’t being stimulated in another way — suddenly became free time to use however she pleased. It was just for a week, but the “fast” was so refreshing that she’s taken annual breaks ever since.
“It’s the same pattern every time,” she said. “It’s this massive sense of relief.”
Soon after Facebook’s advent, researchers began exploring the mental health effects of this constantly updating feed of everything from selfies to political organizing. They’ve determined that scrolling past the carefully curated highlights of others’ lives just makes people feel crummy. Just last spring, a team at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found a correlation between time spent on the network and depression. Doctors who deal with addiction, meanwhile, say Facebook users are being conditioned to use it like a drug.
Beneath it all is an underlying problem that without social media, we are left alone with our thoughts — a scary predicament for people who are used to connecting at all times.
“We have become terrified of moments of inactivity,” said Eva Hoffman, author of the book “How to Be Bored.”
“We are literally forgetting how to step away from constant activity and external stimulation, because we are massively addicted to digital technology,” Hoffman said. “One needs to give oneself permission to take a timeout.”
Discipline, not detox
And yet, with 22 percent of the world’s population on Facebook, signing off completely isn’t an option for people who want to stay connected.
“I hear the words ‘digital detox.’ You cannot do that,” said Dr. Amit Sood, a physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and the author of a book on happiness. “We live in a world where immediate access to information is the rule of the game, and you cannot be a dinosaur.”
Instead of a total withdrawal from social media, what Sood suggests is “digital discipline.”
“It’s a bit like spices in your food,” he said. “We need a little bit. But we have overdosed on it.”
Some users have found ways to limit their social media intake, without completely cutting it off.
Allen Hietala of Chisholm, Minn., deleted all social media apps from his phone, wiping away vibrating notifications and the ease of instant access. Instead, he has to log in via a web browser.
At home, he’s considering a “phone basket” where everyone places their devices. He got the idea one night when his family was sitting around the television. He looked around, and all four of them were staring at their phones.
In situations like those, people need to evaluate their priorities and decide whether the fear of missing out on Facebook is as important as what people are missing out on in their relationships, said Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director of Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s youth services.
“A lot of people who get caught up in it don’t realize how much they’re really sacrificing,” he said.
Though he stops short of calling it addiction, Lee said social media use can affect behavior in a way that parallels substance abuse. For some users, it actually impairs their everyday lives.
“You start to feel that pull” from social media, Lee said, “like a riptide when you step into the ocean.”
That pull increases when there’s big news, like the 2016 presidential election. But there’s a limit to how much news most users want to see on their handheld devices.
Julian Kittelson-Aldred of St. Paul decided to take a two-month “sabbatical” from Facebook and Twitter after the barrage of election news in her feed “got to be too heavy.” But she found it nearly impossible to cut herself off completely from the networks when she needed to receive event updates and personal messages.
“It was really hard to fully escape the clutches of Facebook and Twitter,” the web developer said.
Plus, she noticed a spike in her use of platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. And yet, that first break gave her the tools to try another sabbatical a couple of months later.
“I feel like I have more control over my social media use now, and it’s become a tool for connection again, instead of an endless rabbit hole of time-wasters,” Kittelson-Aldred said.
Some users, however, are finding the will to disengage from social media entirely.
Hannah Woodbury said she was obsessed with social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram, all through high school and college. But a year ago, the 25-year-old from Minneapolis decided to permanently dump both apps from her phone.
Once she got over the loss, she redirected her digital energy into the physical realm. Instead of scrolling, she spends more time reading and she took up sports. And by communicating with her friends and family in more old-fashioned ways, her relationships have blossomed, she said.
Best of all, a dark cloud of competition that comes from comparing everyone else’s feed to her own has lifted.
“I am genuinely happier knowing I don’t need to update my Facebook with pictures constantly, and portray this ‘perfect’ life that I wanted everyone to know I have,” Woodbury said. “My life is amazing the way it is, and I no longer feel like I need to prove that to anyone.”