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December 8, 2018

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Going cold turkey on networking? Hard!

FOR the past two years, college student Peggy Liu made a bold detour from the lifestyle of her classmates. She uninstalled nearly all the social networking service apps on her phone, including the popular Chinese formats WeChat, Weibo and QQ.

Returning to the pre-social media era was entirely on her own initiative.

Liu now contacts friends through phone calls and text messages and reads news on official websites of traditional media. Her main entertainment is reading and travel.

“The biggest change I feel is that my world has suddenly quieted down,” she said. “I’m no longer involved in unnecessary relationships.”

Modern-day China conjures up visions of young people obsessively glued to social media on their phones or tablets. While that image is not incorrect, there are people who choose not to follow the conforming lifestyle of the crowd.

Since ditching most social media, Liu said her life has become doubly efficient. She passed her judicial experiments, planned a half-a-month trip to Turkey and is now preparing for postgraduate entrance exams.

Liu may be in the minority, but more people are waking up to the fact that their lives are dictated by social media interaction. They grab their smartphones upon waking and put down their phones as the last act of the day before going to sleep.

But is this the life they want? Or do they even think about that question?

“I don’t think social networking gave me closer friendships or even that I got to know people better,” Liu said. “What people post about themselves creates an image that they want others to see, but it may not be their true selves. I was no exception.”

Liu’s view is shared by Gan Ting, the Shanghai father of a 7-year-old boy. Although he admits that it is almost impossible for grown-ups to give up social networking apps completely — a lot of work-related matters are discussed on WeChat nowadays — he said he wants to cut out “redundancy” from his online activities.

But it is easier said than done. Just one year earlier, Gan said he was obsessed with Moments, a mini-blog-style module attached to WeChat. He spent a lot of time scrolling through people’s posts and posted his own from time to time. Most of the people around his age post photos of babies, pets and travel photos on Moments.

But one day it suddenly dawned on Gan that Moments was doing him more harm than good. As a man who works from home, he didn’t need social networking services to expand his social circle.

“WeChat Moments, in my opinion, is very toxic,” he said. “I haven’t opened it for quite a while now, and I don’t feel any loss.”

He explained: “Everyone in Moments seems to be rich, happy and carefree. When you can’t help but compare yourself with them, it just makes you more anxious. Think about it and you realize that life isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. What people post on Moments is not real life or is just one side of it.”

Gan said his friends consider him “eccentric” and often complain that he doesn’t answer their WeChat messages. It doesn’t bother him.

“Staying away from social networking doesn’t make me feel isolated,” he said. “And actually, I now have more time to spend with my son.”

According to a recent report by We Are Social, a global agency that provides social media marketing and communications services, and social media management platform Hootsuite, Chinese mainland residents spent an average two hours a day on social networking sites, ranking the 25th in the world. For young people, that average may be higher.

According to Statista, a data-gathering forum, active social networking penetration in China’s mainland, as of January 2018, was 65 percent, compared with 84 percent in South Korea, 83 percent in Singapore, 78 percent in Hong Kong and 71 percent in the US. The United Arab Emirates ranked top in the world with 99 percent penetration.

Wechat, developed by Tencent, is the most popular SNS platform in China, attracting more than 1 billion users around the country. Meanwhile the other two tycoons, Sina Weibo and Tencent QQ both have around 200 to 300 million active users.

What do users themselves think?

A report issued last year by Kantar, an international data investment management company, found 89 percent of 18,500 interviewees in China said they believed that social networking sites reduce time for reading and sleeping, invade privacy and make people “feel empty.”

The report highlighted that people born after 1990 were more aware of the negative effects. Some 39 percent of respondents under the age of 28 said that they have turned off the “push notifications” of social networking apps to pay more attention to their own lives.

Breaking with habit-forming social media isn’t easy. A college student whose screen name is “Xiaoye” said she tried to quit by changing to an old-style cell phone.

“I lost my smartphone in a taxi one day, and I thought it would be a good chance to start an experiment to see if I could drop social networking services altogether,” she said.

After three months, she said she had “cured” herself of the obsession but she felt she was isolated from all her classmates except for her dormmate.

“I don’t know what my classmates are doing, nor do I know if there is a party going on weekends,” she said. “I feel lost every time I miss something fun, and I wonder how other people who don’t do social networking keep up with their friends in this era.”

Psychologists note that social media is just a tool, and it’s up to users to decide it if is a good thing or a bad habit.

Dr Chen Haixian, a psychologist and writer, said the ultimate motivation of people using social media is to stave off loneliness and that’s why there will always new social channels with improvements in technology.

“Before social networking, or even the Internet, people used to have pen pals,” he said. “I assume that people who are so keen about social media would have had pen pals if they lived in older times. Social media allows us to break free from location and get to know more people.”

Chen said people can choose to have quality communications with people or let themselves be sucked into meaningless screen-scrolling that eats away at their real lives.

“It is about people, not social networking,” he said.


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