Every Ramadan we make goals oriented around improving ourselves and getting to the next level. There are two ways we go about this - either through increase or through decrease. We work to develop habits by increasing how much we pray, attend the masjid, read Qur’an, make dua, spend time with our families, and even working out. Similarly, we try to up our game through decrease as well. This means cutting down how much we watch TV, gossiping, playing video games, eating unhealthy, and essentially anything else that we feel guilty about and want to remedy.
The reason Ramadan becomes the focal point of all these habits is that it is a 30 day period where our normal routine is completely shot. The momentum of this month makes it easier to make other changes as well (and of course it helps that Shaytān is locked up).
Some people feel that social media is inherently evil and therefore must be cut out. For others its an acknowledgment that too much time is wasted on it, and they need to focus for these 30 days. The important thing is to not project some kind of a spiritual superiority one way or another. It’s easy to see people doing a social media fast for ‘religious’ reasons and then feel guilty for not taking part.
Do I Really Need to Fast from Social Media?
The short answer to this question is yes. How much and in what capacity will differ from person to person.
Some people are opposed to a social media fast because they feel like they’ll miss out on something important. In places where the local community might not be that strong, social media provides a way to enjoy the month with an online community. It’s not uncommon for people to form groups and go through a tafsīr series or something like that together. There’s also a constant stream of reminders, encouragement - and of course Facebook events announcing good programs.
Giving up social media for Ramadan isn’t something unique to our faith community. It is reported that an increasing number of Christians are opting to give up social media/technology in observation of Lent.
I'm a proponent of doing some form of fast from social media (not necessarily a full 30 days). This is not because I consider social media to be evil, but rather as a mental reboot. Ramadan provides an opportunity for a physical and spiritual reboot - social media for many people is the biggest barrier to a mental one.
A lot of people have a mindless routine that they don't even realize. A few months ago, while waiting in line at the grocery store, I took out my phone. I checked Twitter, Facebook, email, and texts. I looked up, realized the line was still long, and then did the same thing. Then I did it again, and again. The sad thing is I didn't even realize what I was doing. What was possibly going to there that wasn't there when I checked 45 seconds earlier?
Some people might call it addiction, but in a more general sense we fill our free time. It's part of our routine. A typical day in corporate America for many people starts out with some iteration of: Work email, personal email, Facebook, ESPN, CNN, Reddit, personal email, Facebook, get breakfast, start working, check Reddit again...
We underestimate the cognitive toll that this takes on us. It's difficult to make the dua for waking up and sleeping when we wake up and sleep with that same iteration: wake up half asleep, turn off the alarm, check email, Facebook, Twitter, get out of bed... Email, Facebook, Twitter, set the alarm, go to sleep while pulling to refresh our newsfeed until we pass out...
Doing a fast or detox of some sort is a good way to reconnect with the world around you. We don't allow ourselves time to think anymore (we're so afraid of being lonely that we put our lives at risk by texting and driving just to say hi to someone). Embrace the feeling of loneliness. In fact, it's a great way to reinforce your relationship with Allah by remembering Him in those times.
Our mental focus plays a direct role in our spiritual health as well. The empty time we have can be used to reflect, to ponder on our relationship with Allah, and to simply make dua.
There's a deeper aspect as it relates to our own nafs (soul). Taking a break from social media is an excellent way to bring your own ego down. It's a reminder that the world will continue to move on without you. It's a great way to have some introspection - why do I post what I post? Who is it targeted toward? What do I hope to achieve? Personal priorities in this context cannot be reassessed if you're constantly in the cycle of mindlessly cycling through your social media dozens of times a day.
The greatest fear that many people have is FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out. If I don't go on Facebook, suddenly I'm not going to know what's going on, what cool events there are, who got engaged, who had a kid, who ate dinner where, etc. You might feel like a fool when everyone at isha is talking about that cool photo your friend instagrammed of a paper cup with milk and Rooh Afza and you're the only one who didn't see it. That's ok. Miss out. Let it happen, and after a while you will realize you're probably not missing out on much.
This is not to say all of social media is drivel, but the goal is to bring balance in your life. If the vast majority of the year is spent overindulging, then it's healthy to take a break the other way for a little while
Try to replace that time with something fruitful. Some of my greatest memories of the masjid in Ramadan is making iftar with friends and hanging out and having fun. Even if you don't know anyone, try to strike up a conversation and create an experience for yourself at the masjid. Just don't be glued to your phone at iftar time while surrounded by other people.
- Try unplugging for a couple of days. Deactivate Facebook for 72 hours and see what happens. I sometimes try to force myself to not tweet for 24-48 hours (even if I'm checking it). If you follow me on Twitter you might find it hard to believe, but it's true.
- Delete the apps off your phone. If you can't commit to a full detox, try to detox your phone. Delete Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, or whatever it is you feel like you spend the most time on. Use them on your computer all you want, but just delete them off your phone. This alone could get you huge results.
- Turn off notifications. If you feel the other options are too adventurous, just turn off your notifications. Disable all the push notifications, vibrate alerts, turn off those red numbers on your icons - do whatever you can to not let your device dictate when you check it.
They key with the recommendations above is to focus on having a system in place. Don't rely on your willpower to "not check" it. Personally, I have almost no willpower whatsoever. If it's not systematic it won't happen.
If I try to force myself to not check Twitter, after a while, I will give in, and get back to the same old habits. The same laziness can be used in your favor as well. Once I deleted the Facebook app on my phone, when I felt like re-installing it, I would think about how annoying it would be to go download it again, and input my password that I just didn't feel like doing it anymore. Yes, this sounds trivial and kind of stupid, but it actually works. Understand how your mind works, and then create a system to use it to your advantage.
Try to replace the time you freed up with simply making dua.
Not everyone is in need of a digital detox. Some people are responsible with their usage. But if you feel like this area needs improvement, Ramadan is as good a time as any to give yourself a little push.
What You Can Gain
There are two buzz-words (or phrases) I feel are appropriate here (both are terms I got from Michael Hyatt)-
- Being intentional
- Creating margin
Being intentional means taking control of your time. The problem is not with the tool itself (whether it be your phone or the social networks themselves) - rather, the problem is when we let those tools unintentionally fill our time. If you've ever closed Facebook, then immediately opened it again out of habit without realizing you just closed it - then you know what I'm talking about. To break this habit, or cycle, your mind has to regain focus and become intentional about how and when social media is consumed.
Creating margin can be defined as "the space between our load and our limits... Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating."
In 2012, the average American consumed 13.6 hours of media each day. By 2015, that number is expected to rise to 15.5. These figures include media multitasking, e.g., listening to music while checking your email, so that it’s possible to consume more than one hour of media within a 60-minute period. Shockingly, those 13.6 hours don’t include any media consumed at work. Basically, most of us are daily consuming a torrent of media equivalent to the number of our waking hours. If we’re up, we’re plugged in (Art of Manliness).
We've lost the true value of things like silence. We need to rediscover the mental energy needed to simply reflect. Ramadan is a great time to reflect and give ourselves some margin in life. We all go through days where we feel busy, we come home exhausted, and we hit the bed mentally fatigued. But if we're honest with ourselves, we probably didn't actually do anything busy during the day. It's just the cumulation of constantly indulging our email, txt, and social networks.
Use the practical steps above to figure out how to detox. Set a small attainable goal. It might be 24 hours, it might be a week, and for some it might be 30 days. See what you can fill the extra time with. It might be silence. It can be spending time with the family. It can be reading Quran, making dhikr, or making dua. Whatever you choose, see how it affects you.
Long term - try to create regular social media breaks and reset. This is not a one time thing, but Ramadan is a good excuse to give it a shot.