On an average day, Bryan Tan gets off work at 8pm and winds down by cooking dinner.
After the meal, he spends some time catching up with his dad and reads a little — his current book? A biography of James Dean. If he has the energy, he’ll tinker with his wristwatches before finally turning in for the night.
Notice anything different from his routine so far? The 35-year-old director at law firm PK Wong & Nair hasn’t unlocked his phone to check a Facebook or Instagram feed or scroll through some TikTok videos.
For the past six years, Bryan has lived a life free of social media — and he doesn’t miss it one bit.
Quitting social media
In 2020, Singaporeans aged 16-64 spent an average of 2 hours on social media a day.
That’s a similar amount of time that Bryan shares that he spent on Facebook when he signed up during the heydays of the app — in 2010, Facebook was barely four years old and still attracting people in droves.
Bryan says that he would spend time posting on his friends’ walls (or timelines, as it’s now called) and enjoyed it as a tool to keep in touch with people.
However, he began to realise it wasn’t worth the amount of time he was spending and that he was falling prey to the “endless scroll,” designed to keep users engaged, as Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker admitted in 2017 in an interview with the Guardian.
During the interview with the UK newspaper, Parker said: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”, adding that this led to the creation of features such as the ‘Like’ button that gives users a “little dopamine hit”.
The idea was to keep users on the platform by reinforcing the desire to post likeable content. This in turn draws positive responses, which lead to more “positive” posts to get as many “likes” as possible, resulting in a Facebook feed where users only show their best selves.
This was precisely Bryan’s experience. He tells The Pride: “I realised that Facebook is this space for all the happy things and tries to ignore all the other parts of the human experience.”
Such a sugar-coated depiction of reality can make users feel alone as they go through life’s ups and downs. It isn’t difficult to fall into a cycle of negative comparison and unhealthy validation; studies show an association between user depression and social media use.
In 2015, when Facebook was the top social media platform in Singapore reaching 70% of social media users, Bryan decided that he had enough — he quit Facebook to “form deeper relationships” with the people around him.
Bryan put the time he saved into various hobbies and discovering new interests.
He learned to kayak, cook, and modify wristwatches. Bryan also took part in a Spartan Race, a gruelling obstacle course inspired by the ancient Greek warrior society that tests competitors’ physical and mental resilience.
One of his concessions to his social media exile is watching YouTube videos, where he learns about different cultures and gets entertained by conspiracy theories “which don’t make any sense”, he says with a laugh.
He doesn’t consider YouTube as social media because he uses it purely as entertainment — like television or video-on-demand — not to connect with people.
Over time, his mental health improved. Says Bryan: “I just felt more satisfied with my life.”
Of course, there were withdrawal symptoms at the start. Just after leaving Facebook, Bryan remembers wondering, “What’s everyone doing tonight?”
But when he realised that his new plethora of meaningful activities was bringing him joy and fulfilment, the question quickly became, “What should I do tonight?”
He says: “I didn’t feel like I was missing out. In fact, I felt like I was doing more.”
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No social media despite Covid-19
Six years on, Bryan hasn’t looked back — even during Covid-19 where many turned to social media to stay connected.
Consulting firm Kantar’s global study on media habits conducted in March 2020 found that there was a 61 percent increase in social media engagement over normal usage thanks to Covid.
However, Bryan felt no impulse to re-join Facebook or other social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok. He is on LinkedIn, but it is purely for work.
So during last year’s circuit breaker and over the past months, Bryan turned to Zoom video calls for meaningful interactions with the people close to him.
He has had dinner over Zoom with his family, gone on virtual dates to online museum exhibitions with his girlfriend, and virtual drinks with friends and co-workers.
Bryan even organised online events for the University of Melbourne alumni of which he is president.
Bryan says: “It’s just so much more intimate when you’re having a conversation with someone one-to-one, as opposed to just posting to a social media feed.”
Still, he admits Facebook does have its merits. Having studied in Melbourne, Bryan shares that he does miss being able to check up on friends overseas with the click of a button.
It’s still a lot more convenient to see how a friend is doing by checking their Facebook page and scrolling through their photos. But Bryan believes that this passive way of finding out more about our friends is the downfall of deeper relationships.
Part of building intimacy is taking an active step to reach out to someone, and letting that person know that you care about them, he says.
“Sometimes that alone is crucial to a friendship — knowing that someone’s thinking of you.”
Choosing deep relationships
The greatest thing Bryan got out of leaving social media is the deeper relationships he has cultivated with the people around him.
He says: “It focuses your life on the relationships that matter to you. You’re not so spread thin with acquaintances or people you bumped into once.”
Bryan says that users should take ownership of their own time and be mindful of how they interact with their social media.
Social media platforms are designed to prolong the time spent on them, so perhaps more deliberate effort to ensure one’s well-being by reducing the time spent on social media could be helpful, he adds.
This doesn’t mean leaving social media platforms entirely. For instance, individuals have taken digital detoxes, and, in a dig against those who post unrealistic and unattainable images of themselves that can breed feelings of inferiority, a new law in Norway requires influencers and advertisers to label photos that have been retouched for beauty.
At the end of the day, it’s about the people in your life that matter, says Bryan.
“Leaving Facebook freed me to spend more time with my good friends who have been there, my significant other, my parents, and my family.”