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Several months ago, I suspended my social media accounts.

I was feeling sick, and wanted to focus on other priorities, such as my personal wellbeing in our pandemic environment.

It’s hard to describe the feeling. It felt a bit like having too much junk food, with the beginnings of an upset stomach. Or like having too many tabloid magazines in front of me, distracting me from the good books underneath them.

So I took a social media detox.

To be clear, there isn’t anything intrinsically toxic about social media. There are plenty of stories where we see social media being used for good, or where people come together to support each other.

But I felt that I needed to take a break from the algorithm that allegedly promotes hate speech. And after that detox, I now look at social media spats with a fresh pair of eyes, not ignoring what’s happening but not engaging it in an overly emotional way either.

The best way to describe it is to imagine being able to scratch that FOMO itch without being triggered by what I read online.

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It might seem obvious when I say it, but I realised that the way to do that is to change my state of mind.

Simply put, social media can be a force for positivity or negativity, depending on who is engaging in it; and their state of mind when they do.

Why it matters

Social Media Detox
Image source: Shutterstock / MaryLong

All of us interact with others — online or offline — on a daily basis. These experiences can sometimes have a profound effect on how our day turns out.

Conversations that focus on positive outcomes or win-win situations create conditions for personal victories. They help us walk away feeling inspired, supported, positive and bright.

I remember a simple interaction over text with a friend. It started with a casual ‘Hey, how are things?’ and ended up with a mutually emotional release — she was having a particularly difficult day that I didn’t know about at the beginning of the conversation.

Positive online interactions have an additional benefit: It is entirely possible to have lively and polite discussions that lead to personal growth and inspiration with people that you don’t know or even met in person!

Power of anonymity

Social Media Detox
Image source: Shutterstock / Naumova Marina

Our thoughts and intentions, verbalised or written down, have the ability to cause ripples (or even waves!) for ourselves and others — family or stranger, friend or foe.

Too often, we abuse the anonymity of the Internet.

In an ideal world, being anonymous allows us to share our thoughts and feelings without fear or favour, and that can create a caring community that spreads goodness simply because it is the right thing to do.

On Reddit, there are sub-reddits like r/TrueOffMyChest or r/askSingapore where people can vent their feelings, share their stories or ask questions in a safe online space — and contrary to what most of us may think, the responses tend to be more wholesome than not.

Yet too often, believing we are anonymous online makes us think that we can get away with negativity and vitriol and anger and hate. We should be better than that. We can be better than that.

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It’s not enough to do nothing harmful. We should not just refrain from being negative, but actively push for positive or mindful speech, through good-will, awareness, effort and practice.

Yet, that is easier said than done.

Context is key

Social Media Detox
Image source: Shutterstock / ellegant

How do you create opportunities for positivity?

No one gets a strawberry by planting an apple tree. When the right conditions are met, or created, breakthroughs can happen. Conversely, when the ground is unsuitable, it is an uphill battle to start a conversation, which could very well go sideways even then.

In other words, when we speak is just as important as what we say.

Different religions have different ways of sharing advice on how and when to speak up.

Buddhists talk about finding the Right Speech; both the Quran and the Bible have many passages that teach how to tame the tongue.

Personally, I prefer the Taoist proverb: “Perfect speech is like a jade worker whose tool leaves no mark.” — It is as poetic as it is wise!

To use an example from popular culture, take South African host of the Daily Show Trevor Noah. He has come a long way from his comedian roots to being a political commentator. If you’ve watched any of his clips on YouTube, you would have seen how he shows eloquence and grace in difficult conversations.

His trick? Connect before speaking.

And to do so requires taking a personal interest in the person you are engaging with.

Children and adults alike, in this age of Tik Tok and Twitter, have such shortened attention spans that effective engagement sometimes requires a call for attention. For example, got an important announcement at the dinner table? Make sure all mobile phones are put away.

It takes practice

Social Media Detox
Image source: Shutterstock / BROvector

Just like any muscle, practising positivity and knowing when to speak up requires exercise.

Internalising certain actions and mindsets requires repeated effort to become a habit. Take the recent tray-return regulations for example. People complained when the idea was first brought up, but now, we do it, with minimal grumbling.

To put it in more scientific terms, it takes effort to tune our rational brain (aka the prefrontal cortex) to being kind. Empathy does not always come naturally to everyone.

Finally, just because you try to be positive doesn’t always mean that it will work. We are not rational all the time.

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I quote from US psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s book on dealing with trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: “I know that isn’t rational… When you try to talk me into being more reasonable, I only feel even more lonely and isolated – and it confirms the feeling that nobody in the whole world will ever understand what it feels like to be me.”

Don’t be discouraged if you try to be positive but fail, or get rejected by others.

It’s okay not to have everything together. The growth comes from trying.

And when you put less pressure on yourself on always getting positive outcomes, it paradoxically becomes easier to get into the right mindset for greater positivity — without it turning into toxicity!

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