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I recently sat down to read a fabulous article in The Atlantic profiling a guy named Tristan Harris who is making it his life’s work to design and encourage other companies to design more ethical software that will help break the increasingly vicious cycle of technology addiction in our lives. The article caught my eye because I’ve been feeling increasingly bothered by the amount of time I spend reaching for my phone, getting lost in the abyss, wasting hours of time perusing through social media, usually mindlessly. I’ve come close to installing phone use apps like BreakFree or Moment to see just how bad I’ve gotten, but I have yet to bring myself to do it because I know it will not be good news and I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to another major life overhaul. That’s ridiculous fear-talk right there, folks.
Can you imagine for a moment? I know I have a problem, that I am on my phone way too much and it eats away at my energy for other, clearly more productive tasks. I catch myself grabbing the phone for no reason other than pure instinct and habit. I’ve read books and articles from very intelligent people waving red flags in my face imploring me to wake up and get a grip on my screen time. It’s become such an epidemic that they are creating apps for our phones now to save us from ourselves (and our phones). Yet, I don’t take that next big step to use an app that will lock my social media apps if I spend too much time on them because I’m not 100% ready to face down this demon. Sound familiar?
It’s become such an epidemic that they are creating apps for our phones now to save us from ourselves (and our phones).
Much attention is paid to the impact of social media on teens and younger people that I don’t necessarily relate to, but that frightens me nonetheless. Actually, let me revise that. I do see people my own age falling victim to the same trappings, but I’m not in the same boat as them. I do not take selfies except on the rarest of occasions (read: new hair cut or actually wearing makeup without looking clownish). I have gone out to dinner and watched my fellow diners stop mid conversation to take a duck faced selfie (or two or three or four) and then carryon as if this is normal behavior (because I guess it is now). I do not generally farm for likes on my personal page posts, though there was a time when this mattered way too much to me. I don’t snap pics of everything I eat or order for the Gram, but I do love a good food porn pic occasionally if it’s something I’ve created in my own kitchen. Basically, I dabble in some of these bad habits, but not often.
There are signs everywhere, though, that our technology consumption is getting out of hand. I read about teenagers who are so obsessed with their Snapstreaks on Snapchat that if they go away on vacation with their families, they give their friends their log in info to snap on their behalf. Think about just how much of our real lives have transferred online, how much of our own self-worth is linked to our networks, likes, shares, and number of direct messages. It’s so commonplace that we hardly recognize how plugged in and trapped we’ve become. We feel compelled to create the perfect life online, to appear fulfilled, carefree, and living some “authentic” experience. It’s all smoke and mirrors (the data reveals as much), but we still participate. We expel our energy every day trying to function simultaneously in reality and online without one crashing into the other, and we are failing.
Whereas I don’t generally participate in the popularity politics of social media, I do have a very niche vice that consumes way too many hours and minutes of my day: news and current events. Nerd alert, I know, but it’s no less nefarious in its impact on my life and well-being. When I wake up, the first thing I do is check the ole Twitter and Facebook for the latest hot takes from the smarty pants talking heads I follow. Because I live in a time zone eight hours ahead of the East Coast in the United States, usually things happen while I’m asleep and my first instinct is to catch up. This process takes upwards to 25 minutes that I could be spending writing or meditating to start my day more productively, but the pull to see what’s going on in the world almost always wins out. It’s political FOMO.
When I’m at work and have a break, I’m back on my phone. If I’m bored for more than a minute, I’m back on my phone. Once I get home, I turn on the news and, you guessed it, am back on my phone, sometimes engaging in real time with whatever breaking report is flashing across my television screen. Despite the fact that the news recycles itself every thirty minutes and it is essentially a very longwinded 24-hour discussion of the exact same three topics, I stay plugged in. I do not want to miss another insane revelation in US politics. I want to read the thought pieces and comment on friends’ Facebook posts who are engaging in the same topics.
What’s so bad about that? It is my duty, after all, to be an informed citizen. That’s true, but it doesn’t feel productive or healthy. I’m not a political pundit nor do I aspire to be. I don’t work in politics at all. I don’t write about politics (generally) and I’m not a thought leader in any online space for these topics. What am I doing with this information besides driving myself crazy? (If you follow American politics for even a day, you can see how it would trigger anxiety). It feels more like a compulsion or obsession, the way people follow a soap opera, except this soap never goes off the air. I’m like the loony wife in Farenheit 457 who spends all her time consumed in the never-ending saga of The Family, except in my case The Family is an oversaturation of Twitter threads and podcasts.
We expel our energy every day trying to function simultaneously in reality and online without one crashing into the other, and we are failing.
Much like the teenagers who can’t stay off Snap literally outsourcing their social media upkeep while away on vacation or the ever scrolling thirty somethings checking to see who went on a fabulous vacation or is getting married or whose life looks totally perfect on Instagram, I feel trapped inside this very enticing, 24/7 bubble. Subjecting oneself to a constant news cycle, the cesspool that is any major news source’s comment threads, and the alarming hot takes from the Twittersphere is anxiety inducing. Yet, like a bad car wreck, I can’t seem to look away.
When I used to drink, I managed to escape my life by posting up on my balcony and sipping away with some cigarettes and spend hours reading mindless Buzzfeed articles or watching silly YouTube clips. Being a news hawk seems like a significant upgrade by comparison, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it is just another form of escapism. Yes, I should know what’s happening in the world, but I am not Jake Tapper and do not need to be on top of every breaking headline that emerges from the ether. Every minute I spend engaging with this topic is a minute I’ve taken away from reading a book that could actually impact my life positively. It’s a minute not spent writing or working on my own personal marketing or blog. If I could exercise right now, it would be stealing time away from that. I don’t even want think about what it would look like once my daughter is here in September. Would I really take myself away from her just to check social media?
Sometimes I wrestle with the idea that perhaps politics is a passion project of mine, but there is a fine line between passion and unhealthy obsession. I didn’t care that much about politics until it became a circus. If things were to magically go back to normal tomorrow, would I still be engrossed by the wonky side of policies or would I find another shiny object to be distracted by? When I’m not spending thirty or forty minute chunks of time scrolling through Twitter or Facebook and I’m actually sitting down to read something insightful and useful for my personal development, it is a much different kind of excitement that I feel. I feel purpose-driven, clear-headed. That isn’t the feeling that compels me to check Twitter each morning. It’s important to note the difference.
My next step, inevitably, will have to be installing one of these apps to get a grip on my technology and social media consumption. Despite thinking I’m self-aware on this point, I’m almost certain that it’s worse than I think. This will be my next major life overhaul, though one I take on begrudgingly. There are so many avenues available to us now to check out and avoid personal growth and development, ways to remain stagnant and preoccupied, that it’s hard to get it all right. It didn’t end for me when I decided to stop drinking. I’ve found other ways to waste my hours: Netflix, social media, marathon watching CNN for no reason. But I’m at a crossroads where I no longer want to fill my time so mindlessly which, to me, signals that it’s time for another big change. I could continue to fall down social media rabbit holes and carry on with my life as it is, but that “empty” feeling is only going to continue no matter how mindlessly I try to fill it.
That’s the big takeaway. If how you fill your hours ultimately is not filling you, it’s time to for a change. It’s time to unplug.