A couple of months ago, I decided to try a little experiment: what would happen if I undertook a self-imposed, one-week social media ban? I have a complicated relationship with social networking – I’d much rather live without it, but at the same time, I feel like if I went offline I’d be short-changing myself (although this probably wouldn’t happen, according to this guy’s really interesting TED Talk).
To be fair, social media does have its advantages: I’ve forged friendships, come across interesting events, and even expanded my worldview, all thanks to Facebook and Instagram (Twitter, not so much). My blog has definitely reached more people with the help of social media, too. Being an introvert, it’s helped me to share my thoughts and connect with people, without having to leave my home.
But despite these positive aspects, towards the end of 2017 I started to feel a bit overwhelmed by it all, which manifested in compulsive phone-checking. It was making me feel anxious, distracted, and not present. And I didn’t realise how bad my compulsion had become until I spent a week sans social media.
In order to better understand my relationship with social media, I decided to get off it. I took a hardcore approach by deleting all of my apps (Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and Twitter) from my phone, as well as removing the Google app. I also installed a free Google Chrome extension on both my work and home PCs, called Stay Focused, which let me add websites to a blocked list, so I would be unable to access them, or only access them for a predetermined, very limited block of time per day. Interestingly, I quickly realised that it was much easier to block websites on a desktop via a web-based service, while next to impossible to block apps on my phone (unless I paid for a subscription service, like Freedom). I suspect a conspiracy…
I kept notes throughout the week, so I’d be able to look back afterwards and hopefully gain some insight into my usage. This is what happened…
Sunday – the day before
I feel like a crack addict who has decided to go cold turkey; the whole weekend I’ve been getting my ‘fix’. I feel a bit panicked at the thought of having no access to social media for a week, starting tomorrow. Why? I’m worried that I’ll be out of touch and I don’t want to fall behind. Fall behind what exactly, I’m not sure. My partner, Linda, is very excited that I’ve decided to do this – she hates that I’m always on my phone. Linda is a bit older than me, and she possesses the ability to go on social media for a set, brief time per day, usually in the evenings after we’ve watched TV. I don’t understand this.
I’ve bought a cheap, plastic analogue clock so that I don’t use my phone to wake me up (which often means I check my phone first thing). I set the alarm for 6am; it ticks loudly.
Monday – day one
My eyes shoot open at 5am, but the analogue alarm doesn’t go off. I must’ve not set it properly. I make some tea in a pot, and go outside. Birds chirp and Egyptian geese honk. I feel strangely at peace. I have a slight urge to check my Gmail inbox on my phone (one of the few apps I chose to leave on), but it quickly passes.
I’m more focused than usual at work, although I keep expecting a Very Important Email or WhatsApp, but it doesn’t come.
In the evening I suspect I have a bladder infection. Being a hypochondriac, I’d ordinarily google my own symptoms, but because the app isn’t on my phone I get Linda to do it. I have a feverish, busy night and put the clock in a drawer, which slightly muffles its ticking. I think about the crocodile in Peter Pan. Did it eat a clock? I think about Michael Jackson. I set my phone alarm.
Tuesday – day two
I wake up to my phone alarm, and naturally check my Gmail. Why? I do not know. I’m a bit distracted at work due to lack of sleep. Stay Focused is a huge deterrent – if I try to access a website I’ve blocked during my lunch break (which includes news sites) a pop-up appears that says ‘Shouldn’t you be working?’. I feel a bit out of the loop, though – what am I missing?
Wednesday – day three
I have a doctor’s appointment before work – normally I’d scroll through social media in the waiting room but this time I look at the walls. He’s a man and I generally avoid man doctors, but my lady doctor has left for New Zealand. The walls are bare, and there are no magazines. I guess my doctor took the magazines with her. I think about New Zealand and how they say the word ‘six’ with a very flat vowel, before my name is called.
Later I’m on LinkedIn and I see that it’s a friend’s birthday – I missed it as I didn’t get the Facebook reminder. I WhatsApp her instead. I really should know when close friends’ birthdays are; is it now archaic to remember things like friends’ birthdays and phone numbers? I may as well start using the postal system and a cheque book. I’m starting to feel a lightness… I’ve also decided to listen to more podcasts on my daily commute; on the drive home I switch to the radio briefly and the JSE is in turmoil due to the Steinhoff debacle.
Instead of aimlessly scrolling and liking when I get home, Linda and I talk about the implications of Trump making Jerusalem the capital of Israel. You know, romance talk. I ask her if she’s noticed any difference these first few days. “I’m loving every second of it; it’s so nice to have you back!” she exclaims. “Every time I look at you you’re on your phone; you get easily distracted and irritable if I tell you to get off it. The worse you’re feeling, the more you’re on your phone – it’s your escape.”
It IS my escape – I need to find more constructive ways to tune out.
My mother, who isn’t on social media, uses SMSes to communicate with me. She seems to think that each word is charged for; in the name of expedience and thrift, she sends me the most brief, yet garbled, messages possible. Tonight I get one such SMS:
Mom: Hit by lightning area!!
Me: I don’t understand? The house was hit?
Mom: Said area
Me: Is electricity out?
Mom: Of course!
Me: Hope it comes on soon
Mom: We reported it said no others whole area now no reply rain stopped lucky cooked friend on oxygen.
Thursday – day four
At work I mention my social media detox, and relay what Linda said, which leads to a major discussion. Or, as the kids say, #realtalk. One of the younger team members – a millennial no less – says that she and her boyfriend tried to resist joining Facebook, but they were missing out on so many social invites. Another team member says that her man is glued to some sort of screen from 7pm until 11:30pm. “He’s either in front of the TV, looking at social media on his phone, or reading The Guardian online,” she says. “He loves news round-ups and political commentary on YouTube, like Philip DeFranco, who’s quite woke but not annoying. But at 6am I DO NOT want to hear Philip DeFranco’s voice!”
Someone else chimes in: “Scroll, scroll, scroll – it’s all he does! I only realised how bad it is recently – personally I can easily lose an hour when I’m on social media, without even realising it.”
“We’re overstimulated all the time,” adds the millennial. “We need to set boundaries for ourselves, and allow ourselves to be bored.”
Friday – day five
This time my phone alarm doesn’t go off, I don’t know why. But instead of pointlessly checking my Gmail I talk to Linda in bed over coffee. I listen to a podcast on the way to work about Navy Seals’ fitness regimes and Jamie Foxx’s morning routine.
There’s a big event at work today and I’m forced to talk to people from other floors – the horror. I get home a little earlier than usual and take the dogs for a walk; I have a short nap with them on the couch.
Later that evening I get an SMS from my mother:
Mom (1/2): Harry finally engaged hope goes well! Hear social media joking about Charles not dad re affair James Hewitt. What have you seen so destructive!
Mom (2/2): Diana had big affair with James Hewitt wrote a disgusting bk Harry looks exactly like him. How can put on social media?? So sad sick.
Saturday – day six
I’m actually on time for a social engagement. I last an entire Saturday without having any desire to ‘check in’; instead I take in my surroundings. I visit a bonsai nursery, which is somewhere between Westonaria and Krugersdorp. There are the most beautiful bonsais: carved, nano, large. On the way back we drive past a sign on a wall: ‘ice cubes sold here (ring bell)’. I see garden gnomes, goats, and two donkeys under a tree; a mine dump’s faded gold-dust layers remind me of my East Rand childhood.
Sunday – day seven
The last day of my experiment and I’m not phased. In fact, I’m feeling anxious about logging in again – I really don’t want to and this surprises me. I feel antsy about being reattached to a digital leash. My week without social media has made me realise that not only is it a huge time suck, using it mindlessly adds to a general sense of unease: of not being ok with being bored, of never having to be alone. Yet I know that it’s only through solitude that we’re able to be most self-reflective, and present.
As author of Alone Together and MIT professor Sherry Turkle says, we now connect in ‘sips’ – we communicate in WhatsApp messages and emojis, in fragments of digital conversations. But this doesn’t allow us to really get to know each other, or ourselves. We have a constant audience of people who will listen, albeit only on a screen. As Turkle states: ‘We expect more from technology and less from each other; tech gives us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship – we never have to be alone, we just need to reach for a device. Constant connection is a symptom of the problem; I share therefore I am.’
(For a brilliant 2012 TED talk of hers go here).
My experiment has shown me that in 2018 I need to scroll less – my sense of well-being depends on it. I want to phone close friends on their birthdays instead of liking the fact on Facebook; I want to spend more time pottering around in the garden (like the 35 going on 80-year-old that I am); I want to visit Joburg’s pools and places of worship; I want to walk around my neighbourhood in the early mornings, just before sunrise; I want to study and read books and write blog posts; I want to be busy, but make time for boredom, too.
I want to take gulps, instead of sips.