What I Learned From Two Months in Social-Media Rehab

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Comedian Chris Gethard has been seeing his therapist, Barb, for many years. I learned that by listening to his podcast Beautiful/Anonymous, an hour-long conversation between Gethard and a random caller. During the commercial breaks, he talks up the show’s sponsors in a very personal way. Supposedly, his wife really uses Stamps.com instead of the postal service to send out band merch, and she thinks his Mack Weldon underwear are sexy. They sleep well on their Casper mattress.

Gethard seems genuinely enthusiastic about his sponsors, and it’s easy to believe that, like sorority recruitment, it’s a mutual-selection process. But maybe because he has Barb, Gethard doesn’t share firsthand intel on Talkspace, the direct-messaging therapy app that’s also a sponsor. I, too, have a Barb, but with so much ground to cover, she and I have never discussed my self-diagnosed social-media dependency, a problem for which Talkspace has created a 12-week program that costs about $33 per week.

Talkspace created their social-media program in 2015, after its therapists noticed technology popping up in a lot of the conversations they were having with their clients (and co-founder Roni Frank went through mild digital withdrawal on an RV trip). The only promise is that they’ll “teach you individualized strategies to deal with Social Media’s impact on your mental health” by way of unlimited messaging with a licensed therapist. There are a few pithy testimonials on their site, and links to studies suggesting that online therapy works. I dug up research showing that spending less time on social media can make you happier, less anxious, and more open-minded.

Getting offline is one of those goals, along with losing a few pounds and starting a meditation practice, I believe I should be able to tackle on my own. And yet, I can’t. I don’t know what constitutes an addict, but I look at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at stoplights, while I’m watching TV, as I’m waiting for onions to caramelize, and nearly every time I lose steam during the workday, which is often. I don’t have a boss looking over my shoulder, or even a job that prohibits checking social media. Here I am writing about it, after all.

Like an addict, I repeat this behavior even though it doesn’t usually end well. Sometimes I click on a link and the story is enlightening, or a friend posts a selfie, and it makes me happy to see her face. But mostly, I learn that beet lattes are a thing in a city where I no longer live, that the baby of a guy I barely spoke to in high school is one month older, and that Trump has done another heinous thing and I should be outraged, and I am, but I can’t always take action 16 times a day.

So I enroll in Talkspace’s social-media rehab and am assigned to Nicole, a licensed mental-health counselor (like Taylor on The Bachelor!) with a master’s degree. Unlike my real-life therapist, she has a Twitter account and wears lipstick. My simple goal is to log onto each platform no more than once a day. The more complex one is to feel less icky when I do.

When writer friends post stories I wish I’d written, I feel envious. Vacation photos make me worry that I don’t travel often enough, or to exotic enough places, and then when I do, I feel like an asshole for posting pictures. “Wish you were here!” feels more like “Don’t you wish you were here/me?” I’m grateful for all the angry tweets about Trump, but part of me wonders why I don’t have something original to contribute.

Over the next few weeks, I write about one message per day to Nicole, usually a few paragraphs long, via a private chat room that pops up when I log onto the site. She tends to responds with a message about as long, usually within 24 hours. It feels like Slack or GChat, but slowed way down.

I tell her that I feel insecure when my posts don’t get a lot of Likes, and wary of my ego’s fragility when they do. That user-generated content feels like a bottomless well, even though I keep unfollowing people. That it’s hard to know whom to unfollow, because what if I offend or miss out on an important announcement? Is it weird to keep following someone who was in a book club I attended once a decade ago because she posts about her kids in a way that gives me hope for laid-back motherhood? Is it cruel to unfollow someone I love dearly in real life but less so on the internet? Is the occasional gem from Lindy West worth wading through the 27 tweets she’s composed since yesterday? It’s only 10:14 in the morning, mind you.

Nicole repeats a lot of my thoughts back to me, but with slightly different wording. To be fair, my own therapist does this, too, but there’s not a daylong delay between my thoughts and her rephrasing. Just like in real-life therapy, there are a lot more questions than answers, and the slow pace of progress frustrates me. Nicole has the flashlight, but I have the map, and I want to get to the X pronto.

So after 45 messages sent and received, I make a list of all the things social media provides me that I’d rather provide myself: distraction (I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually suggest putting on hand cream and “organizing a file” instead), connectedness (here I propose calling a friend, which is not really something I could do on a Wednesday morning), and validation.

This is where I hit a hurdle, because what is the real-life equivalent of Likes, comments, and retweets? Sometimes I use social media to spread helpful information or give a shout-out to a friend. But mostly, though I don’t explicitly say, “Here’s something I’m proud of,” that’s the implied message: I wrote this story, I finished this hike, I baked these cookies, I made this donation — Don’t you think that’s worthwhile? And a chorus of 79 friends tells me what I can’t in good confidence tell myself: I’m talented, pretty, strong, and making a difference.

“If you loved yourself, and felt secure in that love, you would get so much of what you are longing for,” writes Nicole. “I know this is a very personal question, but I think necessary: What is keeping you from loving yourself? I do think if you discover this, then you will be so much more comfortable with anything you put out to the world, on social media or anywhere.”

Maybe she’s right, but then again, I know plenty of social-media addicts with solid egos who keep scrolling because they can’t stop thinking about how our world is in tatters, and they want to keep tabs on it. Or they’re on bed rest and need to feel connected in some way that doesn’t involve putting on a bra. Or their job requires cultural relevance, or is boring, or is so awesome they just can’t keep the highlights to themselves.

And I feel like the people who truly don’t give a shit often aren’t on social media, or at least not much: One of my most badass friends, who recently embarked on a solo weeklong “vision quest” into the desert, isn’t on Instagram, and another has been traveling the world for many months, yet has posted maybe a dozen blurry landscape photos in that time.

Also, can someone who doesn’t know my sisters’ names and can’t see my facial expressions really help me answer what’s keeping me from loving myself, and can she do it in 12 weeks? I’m reminded of when I switched health insurers, and the new one gave me three free therapy visits. Three! I could barely work out how to properly pronounce my Portuguese middle name in three visits, let alone shore up my self-esteem. Three months is longer than three visits, sure, but if you transcribed an hour-long therapy session, the word count would probably equal what Nicole and I type in a month.

But we keep typing, and Nicole attempts to convince me that I’m being too hard on myself. “Sometimes it is a good thing not to give a shit,” she agrees. “But sometimes it’s nice to feel someone does. I would not say that it is unhealthy for us to want other people to notice something about us that makes us who we are. I think it gets complicated only when we pretend to be something that we are not or pander to people.”

She reassures me that there’s a biological basis for getting hooked, explaining that the brain releases dopamine with every Like, creating a chemical feedback loop that keeps us coming back. I can attest: After I post a story I wrote for The New Yorker, I’m like a dog who can’t stop pressing the lever on my kibble dispenser. Nicole says that unpredictability is also compelling (or, when the arrival of a reward is varied, we treat the lever like the “Door Close” button on an elevator). For every ten boring requests for restaurant recommendations, there’s an insider-y thread about the folding of a women’s magazine I wrote for, or a post alerting me that a close friend is in the hospital. These random payoffs make me afraid to pull back, even if it means having to sift through a sponsored post for a Rebecca Minkoff sale, a picture of someone’s hot chocolate, and a Bon Jovi joke. (Have you ever read your Facebook feed out loud? You should.)

As much as I fantasize about social media being wiped out Tyler Durden–debt-style so we’re all living everything offline, Milton taught me that the mind can make a hell of any space, digital or otherwise. I’m watching My So-Called Life on Hulu, and I’m struck by how the characters are always moping in bed and sulking in the bathroom but never, ever scrolling. I wasn’t on social media in high school either, but I worried about being liked and doing well. Which is to say that a lot of my online problems are similar to my IRL ones — feeling unloved, overwhelmed, busy-bored, and anxious — and they probably aren’t going away anytime soon.

That doesn’t mean I can’t tilt the scales toward more analog interaction, though. With Nicole, I’m able to work through stuff I’d feel silly paying a co-pay for, and maybe even verbalizing, which is probably why I never utilize the audio-message feature (Nicole does leave me a few messages). I’d expected her to help me set goals, or send me guidelines for using social media, or have some sort of social-media-specific rubric, but it really felt more like standard, albeit somewhat generic, talk therapy: I would tell her what’s bothering me, she would reaffirm that it sounded bothersome, then ask me to elaborate.

Like my actual therapist — and the real-estate agent who sold us our house, and the stylist who cuts my hair, and most professionals I’ve worked with excluding a dog trainer — Nicole never tells me what to do. She gives me suggestions: logging onto each platform just twice a day and seeing what that feels like; envisioning “not looking towards anyone for approval, feeling very secure with minimal insecurities and not perseverating on things”; changing my settings on Facebook to get alerts when only my close friends post, so I don’t worry about missing out on something important.

Nicole likens her methods to weight loss, pointing out that anyone can follow a 1,200-calorie diet for a while and drop pounds, but to keep it off in the long term, you have to understand the emotional reasons you might be overeating. And with each interaction, I do become a little more self-aware. When you tell someone repeatedly that scrolling through Facebook feels pointless, eventually you feel pretty dumb doing it for the umpteenth time.

Working with her increases my awareness to the point that it’s hard to operate on autopilot. Eventually, I’m able to catch myself just before I tap an icon, and ask why I’m doing it (“I don’t feel like revising this story”) and how I can change course (sometimes I set a timer for an hour and commit to just that much work, or I tell myself I can go water the plants before buckling down). When I catch myself rolling my eyes at another picture of someone’s Blue Apron ramen, or their abs peeking out from under a knotted tank, I hit unfollow. It’s not that Nicole instructed me to do any of that, she just helped me see how important it was that I do something to stop making myself so miserable.

But by strengthening my resolve to spend less time online and make better use of it, Nicole has rendered her own app-based service increasingly unattractive, and I quit at the two-month mark. It’s hard to imagine continuing the program for another month, and it’s even harder to think about someone else spending years messaging with someone about grief or abuse or crippling anxiety. While Talkspace’s motto is “therapy for how we live today” — unlimited, always on, and in sentences reworked on a keyboard — I prefer the antidotal confines of my therapist’s office. I go there every Wednesday afternoon, and sometimes I even swing by the post office on my way home.

Lessons From Two Months in Social-Media Rehab