We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. […] Among other things, repeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviour. […] Make no mistake: email-, Facebook- and Twitter-checking constitute a neural addiction.
— Daniel J Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, extract in the Guardian, 18 January 2015.
Social media provides a bite-size way of keeping our fingers on the pulse, with no serious time commitment required. This was why I let it creep into my days. Waiting somewhere? Scroll through Facebook. Have two minutes? Check Twitter.
I’ve had a long love/hate relationship with Facebook. I’ve twice deactivated my account, both times out of disgust for their intrusive privacy policies and manipulative practices (it collates our “like”s to create eerily accurate profiles, which they then sell to advertisers, etc). I hate that it edits my feed. Or that it insists on showing Top Stories instead of Most Recent. It’s not a neutral, passive platform – it curates what we view, sneaks in advertising, and taps our movements.
At the same time, I found my mother’s best friend through it after years of their both moving house, changing phone numbers and losing touch. With so many friends all over the globe, it is nice to see what they’re up to. I find great stories and insights I otherwise wouldn’t have because of links people post.
The main reason social media has come under my scrutiny now is because I’ve been feeling horrendously scattered. I’ve gone from finding it an amusing way to fill a free five-minute slot to now having to fill every five-minute slot by doing something. I’ve fallen out of the habit of relaxing, letting my mind wander or simply taking a deep breath.
Worse, I’ll be talking to someone (flesh and blood) and then hear a ping of an alert and get distracted.
I’ll sit down to watch a film, then pull up my iPad and scroll through Twitter. I love films. To be doing this means I’m kind of losing my mind.
If nothing else, I could always pride myself on being methodical. Unless it was diabolically awful, I would always finish a book or a film. Now, I start reading a book, and then start another one. And then another one. My nervy, jumpy, strewn energy is frightful.
I know last week I thought being online wasn’t the problem, only my (negative) news consumption, but now I’ve seen the light through a crack. A better life lies ahead if I can be strong. Here’s what I decide:
• No Facebook.
• No Twitter.
• No Pinterest (sob).
• I realise that emails and random surfing also dissipate my focus, so will limit my online time altogether. Gulp. Maybe to 1-2 hours a day? I’ll think of it as going to an internet café for specific tasks.
How it goes the first three days:
Decide to not check email first thing in the morning as per habit. Walk around feeling as if I’ve forgotten to do something critical, like brush my teeth.
Facebook goes nuts. After a day’s silence on my part, it bombards my email in-box with literally dozens of messages, most of the kind it’s never sent before. It’s like a hysterical jilted boyfriend. Go to their site to switch off all notifications, and steel myself against reading the newsfeed. It’s like creeping past a double fudge sundae on the first day of a sugar-free diet.
Don’t miss Twitter, but do miss reading the Hollywood Reporter articles tweeted by Kim Masters. My online activities are now restricted to news, emails and blogs. Am scanning less and absorbing more.
Opening all emails in one go feels unexpectedly manageable. Reply to all within 24 hours – something I used to always do before, but stopped in the past several months.
Feel slightly heroic. Say “You’re not the boss of me!” to my wifi router as I switch it off. May have stolen this line from a book or film but can’t remember which one. Alas, can’t google it for the moment.
Between being back-to-back sick for weeks and the political strikes going on daily, have missed most dinner parties since the new year. Cocktail bombs going off all the time, including two on the next street; such a frequent occurrence now, it doesn’t even make the news. Feel discombobulated. Know social media gives a false sense of community, but it wouldn’t be such a bad thing right now.
The next two days:
Mega guilt. Dozens of people have probably gotten married in this time, or had babies, or finished their dissertations, and am not congratulating them.
The three days after that:
Just because it’s there doesn’t mean I have to always be on it, does it? It’s all FOMO (fear of missing out) anyway.
Finish reading two of the three books I had started then stopped – for no reason other than restlessness. One of them is stupendously good (see Related Recommendations).
Feel a strange sensation. Could it be – serenity?
What I learn:
Keeping myself perpetually occupied and/or distracted is a neat trick to avoid what I am terrified of doing: face myself. Maybe people who meditate can handle social media better. Though perhaps people who meditate have risen above social media.
Being online is not an activity, it’s consumption. And the content is not nourishing, like reading a novel. It’s fleeting in its relevance, junky in its more-ish clickability, and designed to be discarded for the next hit. Of course there should be a limit to how much I can consume at a time before I become cranky, like my young niece watching movies on Netflix. I’d much rather focus on what actually feeds me: books, films and podcasts.
Only a few years ago, I spent two years living in Bombay without (purposely) having internet at home. I spent my off-duty hours with real people. That, I realise, is what I’m really missing here.
The big one
There’s a Sex and The City episode where Carrie adds up the cost of her designer shoe habit and learns that she could have used that money to put down a deposit to buy a New York City apartment. I have the same sickening realisation that all those snatches of time spent idling on social media or surfing the net could have gone towards writing my book, which I may well have finished by now.
Has living with less social media helped me?
In terms of inner peace, hell yes.
Is it maintainable?
Unlikely (at least where Pinterest is concerned). But will definitely restrict my time online.
The ultimate test: has it elevated or depressed me?
Stunned me is more like it.
Verdict: I’m going to get rid of my iPad and connect with the real world again: will learn to meditate, see new places, and walk the Camino de Santiago.
“Silence is so accurate.” — Mark Rothko
Heard Brain Pickings founder Maria Popova say she listens to meditation teacher Tara Brach. Brach’s weekly podcasts are available for free via iTunes or equivalent. Some are 20-minute guided meditations, while the longer ones involve her picking a theme and telling stories around that theme – like This American Life, only with a spiritual slant and including sessions of focused breathing.
Cannot believe I ever put this book down! Away from my mental clutter, I devoured it then sat in a daze over its magnificence. Read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, about her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in the US. (But please avoid the film – a perfect example of how compressing an internal story strips it of its visceral integrity.)
BootsnAll provides resources and inspiration for round-the-world/long-term/independent travel. Their articles are substantial and thoughtful. A recent favourite is a video of Rolf Potts speaking on how travel pays so many dividends in his Original Vagabonding Story.