What happens when you detox from social media, for a little while.
This week I decided to disconnect from the hive mind. No, not abandoning the cohort of union loyals who tank pints of fun at Hive every Thursday, but rather, I decided to disconnect from the constant stream of connection that lives in my pocket.
What prompted my digital departure was the question I’m sure most people ask themselves from time to time: who’s in control here? Me or the mastermind behind my iPhone? How much of our daily screen time comes down to utility and does it encroach on our autonomy? We’ve all been at a wedding, concert, or birthday party with someone who is unable to enjoy the meaningful moment without documenting the entire episode for an online audience. Or worse, with a person who can’t unglue their eyeballs from their screen in the middle of the restaurant. Was I becoming this person? Would Steve Jobs turn in his grave if I turned away from my phone?
The rules were simple: three days of eliminating anything that could be considered a form of social media, binge-watching, or contant instant messaging. This meant texts and calls were allowed, but almost everything else had to go. To enter into my social media free haven required a digital spring clean. So I did my best to embody an inner Marie Kondo and decluttered to my heart’s content. Did the Temple Run app I had carried over from phone to phone for close to a decade spark joy? Absolutely fucking not.
In most of my life, I’m a brutal anti-sentimentalist but for some reason, my phone is a cluttered wasteland full of notes, expired shopping lists, and useless apps (but don’t worry, I’m not one of those freaks with thousands of unopened emails). After curating the apps I actually used and having binned the ones that I didn’t, I was left with one final task: turning off my notifications. Now anyone considering the politics behind this, quite frankly far too complex process for a three-day social media detox, may ask why I didn’t just delete the apps and redownload them. Simply put, it all came down to passwords. I knew that if I deleted these apps it would take several hours of failed attempt after failed attempt, a copious amount of forgot my password (which would require flashbacks to my adolescence and the awfully named email accounts of said bygone age), before being able to access my accounts again. A task I know I would ultimately be too lazy to complete and would be the end of my social media ventures for good.
And so, I began my journey into the wilderness.
Whilst this was less choreographed than a Bear Grylls programme, some of my findings were a tad more genuine and perhaps a bit more primal. For the first day, the number of times I picked up my phone only to unlock it to an empty background was heinous. Although repeated pickups served as a constant reminder of how often I resort to checking one feed or the other - despite constantly having my phone on vibrate to alert me to the newest notification - eliminating any need for me to check myself when I know none are there. Even worse were the times where an idea popped into my head, and the urgency to share was met with no receiving party: who do I text to share my musings that lemurs are just skinny raccoons?
There is certainly a greater comfort in shouting weird thoughts into the stratosphere of Twitter than actually voicing that stupidity in public. Missing my friends was about more than just projecting my strange hypotheses or theories upon them; whoever said that absence makes the heart grow fonder clearly hadn’t experienced FOMO. My friends went on a night out that I couldn’t attend, and without the trusty group chat, how was I supposed to catch up on all the gossip?
What I found from the experience was that it forced more meaningful human connection. I was interacting at a more personable level with people and people were interacting with me. There was no longer the pressure of immediate response or constant availability. I could leave my phone in my room for half an hour without bursting at the seams to see what kind of notifications awaited. On a typical day, I found my time on social networking apps accounting for anywhere between two and four hours of my total screen time. At the beginning of the week of this experiment, my highest recorded amount of time on my phone was just over five hours, of which three hours and 24 minutes was spent on social “networks”. Following my three-day break, the maximum amount of time I spent on social networking apps dropped to 35 minutes. It allowed me to concentrate on the here and now, rather than the many microcosms that live inside the world of a single app. People depend on social media, but suddenly watching someone curate their perfect Instagram story became tedious, not compelling.
It dawned on me whether this was a cultural crisis we had been born into. Growing up in the barren lands of Aberdeenshire, a five-minute drive from the local village and 15 minutes to the nearest supermarket, meant often during my childhood my best option for a chat was the field of cows next door. But as I was catapulted into puberty, social media was going through growth spurts of its own. Whilst some of us were all fumbling through a new world of acne and periods, and the odd surprise erection, we also began to fumble through this new technological dimension of poking, Farmville, and visible Snapchat best friends lists. Often the youngest generation is critiqued for their enslavement to cellular devices (aka smartphones), but I would argue they are better equipped for it than we ever were. Certainly, my younger sister would never allow herself a Facebook wall cluttered with like for likes or an embarrassing Instagram handle. We were hooked to a technological IV with little or no guidance on how to use it: a guinea pig generation, teaching our parents how to use their phones whilst still learning ourselves. And how can you set limits for something you don’t know how to use properly?
Without social media, there is no doubt that my life would be more limited. For all the negativities that it brings, and as much as I hate to admit it, a lot of my life lives between those notifications. But shiny on the outside, deadly on the inside is seemingly the mantra of several tech giants. It is not a happy coincidence that these “tobacco farmers in t-shirts”, otherwise known as the Silicon Valley tycoons, have created a “techno-addiction” out of their apps. Bill Maher, a political talk show host says, “Philip Morris just wanted your lungs, the App Store wants your soul.”
So how do you fight the attention-seeking brat that is your social media apps? Reclaim control by setting limits. Since the experiment, I decided to mute notifications permanently. Removing myself from the exhausting tempo of the online world and realigning my smartphone to work for me has so far helped me be more present. Ask what technology can do for you, not what you can do for it.
My best move at the end of this? Leaving the man in Temple Run to the demon monkeys, before the demon monkeys caught me.