In my last piece, “Breaking Up With My Phone,” I detailed the extent to which Americans are becoming unhealthily reliant on their phones. As more data becomes available, we are beginning to observe in writing what we have seen in real life: droves of human beings, walking the streets with their heads tilted slightly downward towards their phones. Commuters sitting elbow to elbow as they scroll aimlessly through social media. The fact that it’s becoming rare to see somebody walking in a city without earphones. But listen, I’m no angel. I shared in my writing that I spend nearly two and half hours on my phone each day, most of that time is spent enacting the same aforementioned behaviors.
But I’ve been feeling inspired lately. Inspired by research into these trends, a video by Cal Newport that urges us to “quit social media,” and a book by the same person called Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. I feel like there’s hope in this struggle with technology. An alternate vision is being crafted that suggests we can live a life in healthy partnership with technology, instead of a life that is dependent on technology.
This new vision reminds me of a Nayyirah Wehed poem:
“I want to live so densely. lush. and slow in the next few years, that a year becomes ten years, and my past becomes only a page in the book of my life.”Narriyah Waheed
When I read that, I imagine a vision for a life that is lived authentically in the present. Instead of being in the periphery of hundreds of people’s lives, taking the time to be intentional, committed, and concerned with your closest, most immediate friends and family members. A life where you don’t have to get updates from your friends on social media, because you are regularly checking in with them so much that it has become second nature. A life where you can walk the streets without headphones, or without your head buried in your phone, so that you can fully experience the sights, sounds, and humans that take up space around you.
Taking suggestions from Cal Newport and his new book, I decided it was time to do a 30-day “digital fast” where I will, in Newport’s words, “take a break from optional technologies in your life.” By optional technologies, he’s referring to technologies that don’t disrupt the daily operations of your life. For example, it would be counter productive for me to do a 30-day cleanse of Google Maps or my work email. These are programs that, if temporarily banished, would present major obstacles to carrying out basic, everyday tasks. I decided to put restrictions on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and Youtube. I removed the apps from my phone and used a website blocker to disable access to the web versions of those applications. Here are my biggest takeaways, two weeks into my Digital Fast:
Lessened Screen Time, More Me Time
According to my screen time app, I’ve reduced the amount of screen time on my phone by 34% to an average of 1:51 minutes per day. The extra time has been spent mostly on productive tasks, like writing, reading, or exercising. Put simply, I always feel better not interacting with my phone as much. Granted, it’s not a major improvement from my previous screen time numbers, but even the smallest improvement feels like I’m giving myself more time in the day.
Replacement of Bad Behaviors
While I had unrestricted access to all of my favorite social media applications, I used to be proud to share with my friends that I “didn’t watch Netflix that much.” Little did they know that I spent a lot of that time mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, binge-watching Youtube videos, and lurking on various subreddits about dogs that have professional jobs. (Shout out to r/dogswithjobs, an instant Classic). Not surprisingly, as my phone use has decreased, the time I’ve spent watching Netflix has increased (Thanks, Portlandia!). It has led me to seriously consider adding Netflix to the list of restricted applications, since the practice of watching Netflix is technically the consumption of media and needs to be handled with caution and intention just like the other apps. It’s so interesting how sometimes we swap an unhealthy behavior with another unhealthy behavior. I’m thinking of the millions of people who have quit smoking to then pick up the arguably unhealthy behavior of vaping.
Social Media Applications Are Tools
Admittedly, roughly 75% of my social media usage is purposeless. It’s spent scrolling through feeds, looking at pictures of dogs, or going on an emotional nostalgia tour of my college days. But the 25% of my social media usage that is productive is very rewarding. On Facebook, I can RSVP to parties and events my friends are hosting, chat about memories with old friends, or most importantly: remember people’s birthdays. I often go to Reddit to get the “inside scoop” on different stories, read honest reviews about products, and share “stoke” with other surfers on the subreddit r/surfing. On Instagram, it’s fun to send my friends a funny video now and again, learn about new ideas and social justice issues, and educate myself about the experiences of marginalized groups. A few times over the past two weeks, I found myself temporarily disabling Facebook to check an update on a group that I’m a part of, reading an article mentioned on Reddit that was relevant to my work, and Instagram, well, I’ve stayed away from Instagram.
Time to Notice and Observe
It has felt empowering to take more control over my digital life. It has given me the ability to more objectively observe my behaviors around my phone: how often am I still picking it up? What am I trying to get out of my phone? Am I seeking a reward, or validation? How does it feel to be disconnected from the social lives of dozens of my friends? Am I missing important events? These are all difficult questions that will require further introspection.
The final step of this fasting process is to “reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.”
A common theme to his approach is intentionality. At the end of the day, our relationship to technology is complicated. It’s helpful to take things slow, observing our behaviors and attachments, and moving forward deliberately.
In part 3 of this series, I will discuss reflections on these questions and will also take a look at what’s being written about this subject in the media. Not surprisingly, since a lot of people are realizing the negative qualities of excessive social media usage, stepping away from it all is becoming popular even among Silicon Valley executives. As Steve Jobs famously said when discussing his families relationship to technology, “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” Maybe he was on to something there.