Why Ben Sasse Quit Twitter for Half a Year—And What He Now Teaches His Family about Social Media

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Senator Ben Sasse, author of the insightful new book Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal, writes about the six-month “sabbath” he took from social media and how he used it differently when he returned:

We thought long and hard at my house before I went back—and when I did, I returned with rules.

I use it only

at certain times,

for certain purposes, and—critically important—

with specific audiences primarily in mind.

If I were forced to choose between having too much and too little digital input in my life and in my kids’ lives, there is no doubt about my answer: Unplug. Life worked just fine before social media, and lots of neurobiological research makes clear that lives saturated by distracting technology are less happy. Digital addictions harm your mind, your body, and your soul.

But you don’t have to choose all-or-nothing. There is a middle way.

But only if we build guardrails against technology’s tendency to swallow everything.

Some of the rules or guardrails are relatively obvious:

Turn off most notifications and alerts.

Stop checking in on retweet counts and likes.

Read the comments on your posts only at a predetermined time (or just don’t read them).

Unfollow the politics addicts.

Have places your phone is never allowed—such as at the dinner table.

Take regular social media fasts—times of the day and days of the week where you don’t open the apps.

Constantly ask yourself: Two weeks from now, will I wish I had spent the ten minutes I’m about to spend on Twitter reading five pages of the book I’m carrying around instead (and oh, this plan requires constantly carrying a book around)?

One of my most important rules is that

I never allow any long chunk of work time to be interrupted by social media. Instead, I look at it primarily only in small, hard-to-use, backend-constrained chunks of time—boarding a flight or at the end of a workout.

These kinds of rules help restore sanity. But they’re not the whole picture. The big leap forward for our family was recognizing that living well requires the right audience. . . .

In everyday life, thinking about audience means asking:

Who’s on my mind as I go about my day?

Who am I putting in front of me?

When we’re constantly online, it means that the people who are literally, physically, in front of us—our spouse, our kids, our coworkers—are being sidelined in favor of people who are far away (some of whom we’ve probably never even met).

One of my wife’s friends looked at our life and commented:

“Someone somewhere is always dying. Does that mean you should never actually fish with your kids? Should you never throw a ball with your son, because there is a crisis somewhere that could demand a political comment?”

Her honesty hit me hard. When we prioritize “news” from afar, we’re saying that our distant-but-shallow communities are more important than our small-but-deep flesh-and-blood ones. That shouldn’t be the case. The other people in the comments section don’t love you and never will; your spouse and kids do and always will.

But often we let technology convince us that the people we should put in front of us are the people retweeting us and liking our statuses. We live richer, more fulfilled lives when we’re directing ourselves to the right people. . . .

After a season of “healthy wrestling” about the dangerous ways that social media tries to pull us from the communities they care most about, the Sasses put a list of 16 truths on their refrigerator. “It’s neither complete nor fancy, but our growing list is a way for our family, together, to make progress thinking about the duties we do and don’t have to digital communities versus real ones.

Here it is:

Digital Time, Real Friends, & What We Care About . . .

1. Your thousandth social media friend won’t make you any happier. Your fourth real friend will.

2. Uninterrupted time is life’s most valuable limited resource.

3. Most news isn’t news.

4. Envy isn’t good therapy. Rage isn’t good therapy. Working out is good therapy.

5. Do something now you’ll want to talk about at the dinner table tonight.

6. Political addicts are weird. (And there aren’t that many of them. They’re just loud.)

7A. I’d rather be with the people I’m with right now than with the people I’m not with.

7B. If #7A isn’t true, then spend more time with the right people.

8. Develop the right addictions. (Another word for addictions is habits. Habits determine character.)

9. Not every bad thing in the world requires a response from you.

10. Not every mean thing said to you requires you to acknowledge it.

11. You’re not omniscient. Don’t assume your bubble of information is the whole story.

12. You’re not omnipotent. Taking in bad news you can’t do anything about doesn’t help anyone.

13. Sports Twitter is infinitely better than political Twitter.

14. Lots more social media is fake bots than social media companies admit.

15. The little old lady on your block probably has an important unmet need today.

16. Social media isn’t great for deep stuff. It’s great for humor. Let’s be known as a family that laughs hard.

Related: See also this post on Alan Jacob’s 8 Rules of Social Media Wisdom.

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