Here’s what I learned from a recent ten-day digital detox (no Instagram, Facebook, Google, or online news).
Social media can be a powerful place of connection. I could not successfully attract new students to the studio without it. It’s a great way to share my writing and feel like I am putting something of value into a digital world that can often feel divisive or destructive. I’ll admit that unplugging felt momentarily like severing my professional lifeline.
Yet, in a recent move to monetize, Facebook changed the algorithm so that small business posts are rarely seen, unless businesses pay to have their posts “boosted”. Basically, posts are seen as a form of advertising and you have to pay to be seen. My studio posts, which six months ago regularly got over 100 interactions, now get around 20. I spend a lot of time writing content, taking and editing photos, and making and uploading videos. If few people will even see it, is it worth my time and energy? I’m still wresting with it.
Social can be profoundly beneficial. I have a friend who’s lost dog post was shared so many times that a stranger recognized her dog – 8 miles away from home – and took the scared pup in until the owner could swing by for their tearful reunion. Another friend, stricken with cancer, was gifted over $5,000 for medical expenses through a GoFundMe her sister organized. Social can be a place to watch your far-away friend’s children grow up, feel a part of engagements, pregnancies, weddings, and promotions, or simply get a shot of dopamine by watching that hilarious viral video.
But it can also be a vehicle of distraction, a place to numb out and waste time. By just deleting my social apps, my weekly time online went down 32%. Currently, we average almost two hours a day on social sites. This is by design; social sites were engineered to play off the human fear of feeling left out. In fact, these apps have been shown to be as addictive as crack cocaine. Track your use and you’ll probably be surprised too (on the iPhone, go to “settings” and then “screen time” to check. You can also check your kid’s screen time and set time limits for apps).
While research documenting the long-term effects of the digital leash is in its infancy, the studies we do have are troubling. Social media appears to promote depression, anxiety, insomnia, neck pain, and low self esteem from comparison (especially in girls). The newest research suggests that simply having our phone within reach impairs our cognitive functioning, even when we think we’re focusing on the task at hand.
It seems more screen time is making us stressed, sad, and stupid.
Social can’t take all the blame, when the problem is really our out-of-control habits. I am responsible for my skewed priorities. We tell ourselves that it’s our responsibility to stay connected, but that’s mostly a lie. I did not miss anything of value by logging off.
I had more free time and physical energy during the detox, was productive and prolific. Ideas, information, and inspiration surged out of me like a torrent. Remember the reticular activating system (RAS) in the brain? It is part of our subconscious processing, filtering information in the background and deciding what’s important enough to get through. That background thinking is constantly on alert for a lit phone screen or an incoming notification, wearing our nervous system down. These relentless low-level distractions make it impossible for us to focus.
I definitely felt a deeper connection to those around me. My friends and family made the detox easy. My three college besties have inactive social accounts. When we are together, it is truly a vacation; if any of us are ever on our phones, it’s only to queue some music as we cook or play cards. When we’re apart, we text on the daily, choosing to share our celebrations and concerns with each other in a more personal way, as opposed to sharing them with the world. Likewise, David has no social account either and uses his phone only for work texts and to listen to music. My daughter has a rarely used Instagram account, preferring to chat or text directly with her friends. Her screen time analysis revealed that Izzie is on her phone far less than me. While I’m proud of her, I’m ashamed of myself.
So when I suggested that the three of us not use Google for 10 days, my people were game. We enjoyed talking things through and coming to our own conclusions instead of opening Google to answer any query we had. So while we still don’t know if The Nightmare Before Christmas was made by stop-motion or animation, we had fun deciding if it was a Halloween or Christmas movie (our vote: Halloween). We rewound the disc a few times to learn the lyrics rather than looking them up. And we created a new game where we tried to guess how each character in Halloween Town died (we all agreed that Jack Skellington died tragically in a house fire while attempting to save his beloved dog Zero).
I had time to get bored in the school pick-up line or waiting between yoga classes. Where I had been spending these occasions checking my phone, I instead … looked around and paid attention. If I noticed I felt bored, then I just sat with the feeling of boredom. I remembered that I in fact love boredom and the resulting daydreams, ideas, and inspirations that arise from monotonous downtime.
On Day 9, I felt so good that I lengthened by detox to two full weeks. I am now back online, feeding the content beast, but with new parameters. I set 15-minute daily time limits on all my social accounts. So to all my Facebook friends, you’re going to have to text me that video of your cat wearing a cowboy hat. I’m choosing boredom over scroll hole.
Ready to try your own digital detox? Click here to download my free Digital Detox for Beginners Guide: Party Like it’s 1999. It covers the functionality of your devices as well as your relationship to tech in general.