A Beautiful World: The power of unplugging from social media

Donna Freitas
Donna Freitas
Courtesy of Donna Freitas

If you're looking for a powerful New Year’s resolution, Donna Freitas recommends turning your cellphone off. Freitas is a research associate at the University of Notre Dame and the author of “The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost.”

In her book she explains how the pressure to appear happy and successful online can actually make people less happy in the real world. The book is based on a project she did with college students, when she was researching how social media and technology affected their lives. Students said they were learning the appearance of happiness was more important than actual happiness.

“This is what I call the happiness effect,” Freitas said. “Everyone is working so hard to appear happy all of the time on social media, and they’re forced to witness everyone else’s faux happiness at the same time, and it actually made them feel really badly about themselves.”

The students Freitas worked with talked a lot about the pressure to be fake. They didn't like that they couldn't be authentic online, or that they could only be honest about certain positive aspects of their lives. They felt they couldn't tell the truth if they were feeling sad. Sadness wasn't acceptable.

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“This was something that they really struggled with,” she said. “They also felt frustrated when their friends appeared one way online, but another way in real life. They felt this dissonance with what they were witnessing all of the time. And they questioned, what was reality? Who am I really? I think these questions are really important, and I think sometimes because of our efforts to present ourselves as always happy online, we're losing sight of who we really are.”

Freitas said 72 percent of students felt pressure to appear happy all the time and also to be available all the time. Like emergency room doctors on call, they had to be ready to respond to anyone at any moment, 24/7, even when they were sleeping. They said a large part of that pressure was from their parents, who expected them to respond immediately no matter what.

Freitas’ study was the groundwork for a class she taught at Delphi University, called ”Life Unplugged,” during which students had to give up their smartphones for a week.

“It was a very bonding experience for all of us,” she confessed. “To give up our phones and to go through this ordeal together. But I think that one of the great skills of our time that we have to learn is becoming critical thinkers, becoming empowered in relation to our devices. I think right now we are all pretty disempowered. We know that these devices, our cellphones and social media, are designed to addict us.”

What Freitas wanted the class to give her students was control. “I want all of my students to be users of social media, and not themselves being used. What does it mean to have a healthy relationship with our devices? I think the answer might be different for all of us. I think there's a kind of journey we have to be willing to go on. But I do think it's one of the most important things that we can do right now for our kids, and for our students, but also for ourselves.”

A book cover of "The Happiness Effect"
The cover of "The Happiness Effect."
Courtesy of Oxford University Press

In order to handle social media and smartphones constructively, Freitas came up with eight virtues based on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. The first virtue is maintaining your vulnerability.

“Vulnerability is one of the most potent, important parts of who we are,” she said. “Students feel vulnerability is so hard right now, because of social media. It's so easy to be hurt. They're working very hard to develop these thick skins, but I wonder if sometimes our skins can get too thick. Vulnerability is one of the most important things that makes us human. I don't want young adults in the world to feel like they can't be vulnerable.”

Among the other virtues listed is the virtue of authenticity, of having your own opinion and choosing whom you share it with. The virtue of forgetting things that have happened. There's also the virtue of living in the present moment, of playing, and of purposefully unplugging. Freitas challenges us to set aside specific times, like dinnertime, to deliberately turn our cellphones off.

“I think my idea of a beautiful world is a place where we are all in touch with our most human selves,” she said. “Because when we’re human, we’re inspired to be our best selves. We see the beauty in humanity, and we see the vulnerability of it. I think that’s when we can respect not just the vulnerability in ourselves, but the vulnerability in others, and what they need from us and the world.”