Demi, a 28-year-old comedian in L.A., has made several attempts to detox from social media, but most of them have been unsuccessful. “I try self-imposed breaks all the time, but I’m always at the mercy of my own free will,” he explains. “I just tell myself, ‘Oh, it’s only for a few minutes,’ or ‘Well, it’s not good for me to not know what my friends are up to’ or whatever.” Soon enough, he’s scrolling through his feeds just as compulsively as he was before.
The one trick that does seem to work, though? Asking a friend to change his password, effectively locking him out of his own accounts. “I can’t act on the impulse of, ‘Yeah, I’ll get on just for a little bit while I’m bored’ and then end up there for hours if I’m not in control of it,” he says. “It outsources the compulsive nature of wanting to log on, and my own impulses can’t be activated as easily.”
At this point, most of us are aware of the harms associated with compulsive social media use, and the benefits of detoxing. “Social media is a very common issue that comes up in sessions,” says Elise Franklin, a psychotherapist in L.A. “People I work with have tried deleting apps, using timers, making their phones greyscale so it’s less appealing, and many other strategies to overcome social media addiction — and yes, several of them do refer to it as an addiction.”
But knowing you should be spending less time online isn’t the same thing as actually doing it, and that’s where the friend lockout can be an ingenious tool. As Franklin suggests, there are plenty of apps and plug-ins available for people wanting to go on a social media detox, but they often prove minimally useful in comparison. Demi says Screen Time is useless because it allows you the option of 15 more minutes, and Beth, a 30-year-old editor from New Zealand, had limited success with Focus. “I quickly worked out that it doesn’t work in incognito mode, and I just circumvent the plug-in whenever I want to waste lots of time online,” she says, adding that she sometimes deletes all the social media apps on her phone, only to find herself checking the same sites on her web browser. “The only thing that actually works is being locked out.”
The way a lockout works is simple: You entrust a loved one with the password to whichever social media platform is causing you the most angst; they log in and change your password, ideally without doing any DM snooping along the way; and then they log you out, rendering you unable to access your own account — until you come crawling back, that is. Demi says that the indignity of having to plead to be logged back in is part of what makes this method work. “There’s an element of shame or like, abasing myself,” he says. “If I have to ask someone for the password, I immediately think, ‘I better have a good reason for it or else this will be stupid.’”
The lockout method can be used on most social media platforms, but Twitter and Instagram seem to be the most popular candidates, perhaps because they’re especially anxiety-inducing and associated with depression, poor sleep quality, bullying, negative body image and FOMO. Demi says that Twitter feels “toxic and inescapable,” and Beth says that Instagram is full of pictures that make her feel bad about her life, which becomes “legitimately depressing after a while.”
The trouble with these sites is that there’s just enough value to keep users coming back, which is why self-regulation feels like such a dead end. “Twitter has good memes and jokes, and there are sometimes really funny or illuminating discussions that make me think about things in a new way, which I find really valuable,” Beth explains. “It’s like a poker machine, in that there’s just enough chance you might score something good that you keep scrolling or going back to check.”
Franklin says that not everyone struggles with compulsive social media use, and that those who do tend to be dealing with three main issues: 1) Being overly concerned with what people think of them; 2) feeling that they often get the short end of the stick, i.e., having comparison issues; and 3) being a person who tends to procrastinate.
After successfully trying the lockout method, Beth realized she was in the third camp. “For me, social media and procrastination go hand-in-hand, and the lockout experiment has made that clearer,” she says. “When I don’t want to do work, I’ll become very interested in finding out the origins of some obscure Twitter drama between two people I don’t know, and when I’m not avoiding work, it’s much clearer to me that all that is pointless, boring and stupid, and makes me cranky.”
The lockout method can also be a form of camaraderie among the terminally online: Beth says she chooses loved ones who “struggle in the same way” she does to lock her out, and Demi agrees that he always selects partners or close friends “who would totally get it.” There can be some shame around admitting to social media compulsivity, which is why not just anyone can be chosen. But because the lockout method requires someone with problematic social media use to open up to at least one person in their life about it, it can forge connection, understanding and accountability.
A lockout is a starting point rather than an end in itself, though, and Franklin says that it’s important to consider the deeper reasons for overusing social media. She says that often the difference between a moderate and compulsive user comes down to “how rich and diverse their life is outside of social media.” “I go through some elements of wellbeing and see if there are deficits,” she explains. “Do you have a lack of meaning in your life? Do you miss connecting to others? Are you feeling like you’re doing things you enjoy on a regular basis? What are you avoiding and why?”
But short of the therapeutic intervention Franklin recommends, the lockdown method can, at the very least, put some much needed space between the trigger to check social media and the actual process of logging on, meaning that people can gain greater insight into their behavior and start to forge new habits. “The more I stay offline,” Demi says, “the less it starts to feel like a muscle reflex that I exercise just as part of a passive routine.”
Beth concurs. “Twitter is a horrible place that makes me anxious, cranky and cynical, and it’s very addictive,” she says. “It’s great to have as many barriers between me and that website as possible.”