Last Friday, I deactivated Facebook. Seventy-two hours on, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for my emotional health. At the risk of sounding younger than I really am, let me share that this is probably the longest time I’ve gone without Facebook in a very long time. I joined Facebook in 2004 at college, using it intermittently to keep in touch with my friends in America, frequently as more friends came on board from 2008, and almost daily for the past two or three years. Even while in China, which I visited often for work, I was always on VPN, using Facebook to keep abreast of news of the outside world and remain “plugged in”.
I didn’t start this as some sort of social experiment. I wasn’t in a good place last week. Some unpleasant things happened, sending me into a spiral of sadness. At first, I went online, scrolled through my newsfeed, responded to the few posts I found interesting. I baked a loaf of bread, took some photos and posted them. But the comments and likes I got on my almond milk loaf gave me no comfort. Instead, they left me feeling more hollow. Meanwhile, no one seemed to have taken a genuine interest in what I said on other threads. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling what I was feeling, but the more time I spent on Facebook, the more unhappy it made me feel. So for the first time in my life, I deactivated my account.
Why do we seek out social networks online? They give us a sense of community, connecting us with like-minded people regardless of physical distance or proximity. Typing from behind a computer screen does things to people. They become more uninhibited, daring to voice out things they would never say out loud. They share things with strangers online that they would never say to those around them. But the affirmation that comes from online interactions is fleeting and skin-deep.
I was hurting inside, and connecting with a few random friends who didn’t truly know me or care about me only made me feel more isolated. What I really needed was real human interaction. Once I went offline, I was able to open my heart and mind to receive the words and comfort from people around me.
What did I do without my virtual community of seven hundred friends? I reached out to two close friends and told them I was feeling troubled. One of them called me back immediately, helping me think through what had happened. She continued to check up on me over the weekend. My husband held me in his arms as I wept that night over an inexplicable sadness, and the next day, brought me to a quiet corner of Pasir Ris beach. We rented kayaks and paddled as far as we could into the middle of the straits between Pulau Ubin and the main island. It wasn’t quite the middle of nowhere, but out in the sea with the waves rocking us gently, with no one in sight, I began to heal.
It wasn’t easy going cold turkey. In the first few hours after deactivating my account, my fingers kept flicking to my phone and pressing the Facebook icon (having to enter my password deterred me). I deleted the application, but kept battling an unconscious urge to press the spot on my phone where the icon had been. Until that moment, I hadn’t realised that I was such a compulsive Facebook checker! But gradually, the time in between those urges increased and expanded. Before I knew it, I had gone the entire weekend without Facebook, with my energies wholly focused on the people around me. I felt less empty, more fulfilled, and happier.
But Facebook missed me. Sunday evening, they sent me an e-mail telling me how many notifications I had (eighteen) and that a lot was going on in the world that I had missed. I laughed. And I didn’t press the log-in button.
I don’t know when I’ll be activating my account again. I can’t stay offline forever, mostly because I run or actively participate in several groups, including a support group I founded that has over a hundred members and—I would like to think—needs me around. But my time away has made me realise how much richer life can and should be, if you focus on giving and receiving love to the ones truly beside you.