In the lead up to Christmas, I was less busy than I’ve been in years. I found myself on social media more and more. It crept up on me. Five minutes turning into twenty minutes while waiting for the kettle to boil. A whole hour of Instagram posting over lunch. My phone, face up beside my plate at dinner. For a long time I had a rule with my husband T that we leave our phones downstairs at night but by mid December I was bringing mine to my bed to scroll myself to sleep. One night soon after this, T handed me a book while we lay in bed.
Read this he said. I looked at it. It was called
‘How To Break Up With Your Phone.’
I said. He told me that on finishing the book I should get the same app that he got, which blocks social media from your phone and laptop.
An app that is designed to stop you using other apps? That is bonkers and totally unnecessary, I said.
I read the first chapter of How To Break Up With Your Phone and then went back to the book I was reading before. When T asked why I had stopped reading it, I said,
It doesn’t concern me, I’m not addicted. I can stop whenever I want to.
T kept on at me. He wouldn’t let up. He used the language of addiction and recovery when he addressed me, as if I was addicted to cigarettes or heroin. Weaning myself off. Going cold turkey.
That’s a little over the top!, I balked.
Except it’s not. I have watched the documentaries. I know that getting likes and retweets on social media lights up the same part of the brain that also ignites when taking addictive substances. I know that it’s all about dopamine and the reward system. I just thought that in knowing this, I could bypass the addictive aspects. I could control it.
December rolled on and I became more aware of my phone use. I felt the ache in the joint of my little finger in how it propped up my phone when I was scrolling. I thought about how I felt after I’d been on Twitter, the whirling images and raging opinions in my head. Scroll scroll, Syrian children blown up in hospital, scroll scroll, woman murdered in London park, scroll scroll migrants found dead in the English Channel scroll scroll. It’s too much. It’s too little, too much. My head couldn’t take the unfairness and the trauma and the misery of it all. The helplessness. Surely we weren’t designed to bear the weight of the world’s sadness over the course of a day, let alone one hour, let alone one ten minute scroll of a Twitter timeline?
And then I thought about Instagram, and how it made me feel like I was always lagging behind. Like I wasn’t achieving enough, running enough, cooking enough, socialising enough, working enough, mothering well enough. And most of all how it made me feel weirdly lonely, which wasn’t good when I had left a social job to do more work writing at home on my own. I am a woman in my forties. How was I allowing myself to be so affected by social media? How was I such a sucker for it?
Social media addiction is not age specific. At Christmas time I asked my Dad what he wanted to do in the new year.
I want to get off Instagram, he said. I only follow a few people but it’s always showing me things I don’t want to see and next thing I know I’ve been on there for hours.
My Dad is seventy five. He’s into beekeeping. He asked me to show him how to unfollow people. I looked at his account and saw that his timeline is mostly full of suggested accounts.
I just want to see the people I follow and no one else, he said.
That’s not how it works Dad, I said, They make you want more.
They make you want more.
After Christmas I said to T I don’t even want a social media blocker, I want a detox. I want to remember how life feels without it. I felt confident I could cut it out. I had done two DJ sets on New Years Eve, one at Manchester Warehouse Project which was wild - during my last song my tour manager had filmed me dancing in front of the crowd, a huge long warehouse space filled with ten thousand people all with their phones in the air. It was amazing footage. I posted it and thought to myself, that’s a great way to go out, as the dopamine coursed through me. I can detox now.
On the first day of 2022, I left my phone at the house and went out to the field with my son where he wanted to dig a trench. He loves the army, he got an entrenching tool for Christmas and this is what he wanted so I would do it with him. It was tough work but I went at it ferociously, hunkering down, hacking through roots and pulling up stones. The noise in my head was loud. My thoughts were moving fast - I found myself looking at what I was doing through the imaginary lens of social media. If I was to take a photo of me in the trench could I write a pun about my post NYE hangover? Was there something symbolic about digging a trench on the first day of a new year? Preparing for the fight ahead? Hiding from omicron? There was so much potential for funny content in this trench digging exercise, maybe I could get T to come and take a photo…my thoughts were interrupted by my son.
Thanks for doing this with me mum
he said, and I was back in the trench, blinking at him. His face was specked with mud. He looked happy. I felt a swell of guilt. How did I lose my head to social media again?
That night I told T that I was worried my brain had been altered from using social media. I feel ashamed. I said it out loud. I feel ashamed. I’ll set you up on the Freedom App said T. It all felt overwhelming suddenly. This is the thing. I’m over forty. I got my first phone when I was nineteen. Apart from some old photos in a shoebox, my youth is untraceable. No one will ever know how bad I dressed and looked and behaved. I am part of the last generation who knows what it’s like to be young and live their life without seeing it through the lens of social media. So I have perspective. And I have knowledge. I know the power of the smartphone. I know that the technology is designed to keep us wanting more. But despite this knowledge, a part of me was panicking at the thought of not being on social media anymore.
I thought of my friend who has never had a smartphone. She uses a little Nokia 3310. She can send basic texts and make calls, that’s it. She has to call a taxi company to come and pick her up. She’s not on social media. There’s a whole language of acronyms that we use that she doesn’t. IRL. LMK. IMO. ICYMI. She listens to music on an iPod.
I can tell you that she’s great, but she’s worried about the world.
Next year it will be thirty years since smartphones were invented. What have they done to the way we think, communicate, behave, copulate, evolve as humans? I’m scared for my sons growing up in a world where they are omnipresent. People always ask me why I hide my son’s identities on social media. And here’s why. I truly believe that one day, there will be groundswell of anti - social media activism that is so strong it will mean that it is the fashionable thing to be off grid. I don’t want my sons having to deal with their digital footprint when they are twenty five and no longer want to be found online. I also feel like it should be their choice whether they want their faces to be recognisable to the entire world. ( but no judgement! Each parent to their own! ) Maybe there will be a reverse globalisation process where instead of a desire to see and reach every corner of the globe, people will want to localise everything. To minimise the noise and the voices available to them. To have one news source. One way to buy groceries. One social media app that only connects you with your local community. Maybe, definitely, I’m naive. But surely this can’t continue in the way that it is?
Ask everyone you meet and they will say the same. I’m on my phone too much. Social media makes me feel bad about myself if I’m on it too long. But we all still get swept along with the trends that become the norms that become replaced by new, even more intrusive trends. We don’t want to see it because we’re in it, and to come out of it and look in is frightening.
When I read Dave Eggers dystopian novel ‘The Circle’ it felt fantastical and exaggerated. Now it feels like a prophecy. His new book, the sequel to ‘The Circle’, which is called ‘The Every’ poses the question of human complicity. It’s all very well moaning about the power and insidious nature of tech companies but what if we want to be ruled by algorithms? What if humans are content to become like machines? We are teetering on the brink of a new era in our interactions with technology. VR headsets are on sale on the high street. NFTs are kicking off. John Lewis has a section on their website for making your Christmas tree work for Instagram. Why bother buying one at all? Just create a digital image through 3D technology! Gucci handbags are selling for more in the metaverse than in real life. The importance of our digital identity is surpassing our real life one. If I sound frightened it’s because I am. I have an urge to be away from tech. To hug a tree. To plant a flower. To jump in water.
So I sat with T as he downloaded the Freedom app. At first it didn’t work and the irony wasn’t lost on me as the two of us crouched over a small screen trying to download an app that was supposed to block other apps so that I could use my phone less. He fixed it.
It’s not realistic to cut social media out completely, he said. You need it for your job. Just minimise the usage. Take away the addictive aspect.
I set myself two hours a day to use social media. Between 2pm and 3pm and between 4.30 and 5.30 pm. That meant if I missed one then I had the other. This is my third day.
I can’t tell you how many times I have clicked on social media on my phone or my laptop without thinking. Every time I do, instead of loading a timeline, my screen becomes green, and a picture of a butterfly pops up with a different slogan.
YOU ARE FREE. GO DO GREAT THINGS.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH. YOU ARE FREE
I’ve blocked myself. Each time I forget, and each time I cringe at the slogan as I’m forced to remember that this is an addiction. I have to try and change the course of the neural pathway or should I say, highway, that is in my head. I’m in withdrawal.
On day one after the first few times trying and failing to get on Instagram, my brain needing some sort of hit, I went to my various news apps. I scrolled and read and scrolled and read and then came off.
On day two, less shocked by the green screen, I closed off my phone and surrendered myself to the moment. Let’s play a game, I said to the kids. I realised at 2.30pm that I was half way into my social media time. I went there briefly and then took a phone call and missed the rest.
For the second hour I was watching a film with my kids. I remembered it’s my time for social media and briefly flicked through stuff before going back to the film.
This felt like progress.
Today the kids are back at school and I’m home alone. As I type I am forty five minutes into my social media time. I anticipated it. I went on and scrolled. There was Fearne Cotton on Instagram taking a selfie in a pair of flares. British Vogue told me that Cher is fronting the new UGGS campaign. Over on Twitter Pete Paphides was slagging off Razorlight, Wolf Alice postponed their tour and I learnt that Jason Derulo got in a fight in Las Vegas because someone called him Usher. Back to insta to check my DMs and there were some crying laughing emojis reacting to a silly photo of me as an astronaut that T made up. And that is it. I’m ten mins into my hour and I’ve had my fix.
Here are my observations.
It’s been three days. It’s freezing January, I’ve got a nasty head cold and very little work on. I’m not exercising. I’m still eating the Christmas cheese. But compared to before Christmas, I feel lighter in my head.
I am spending more time with myself. On my errands and my breaks, I don’t scroll, so it’s just me and the sound of my breathing. This is a work in progress. I’m trying to enjoy the silence but I still look forward to my allotted times to know that I can connect with people if I want.
I have realised that I can PICK UP THE PHONE and call people. Remember that? Jesus. I vow to make more phone calls. Short ones, ten mins here and there.
It is absolutely indisputable that I am more at peace in myself when I’m not holding my life up to measure against other people’s lives every day.
My brain has been trained to always try to transmute my daily existence into social media posts. To always see things as presentable. Share share share. Receive receive receive.
I realise that I have justified this by seeing Instagram as a photo album, for me to look back on and use as a record of my work and my life. I have used it as a justification for my awful memory. But that’s pathetic. That’s like saying I need to smoke cigarettes because they calm my nerves. I can see all my photos on my laptop.
In writing this article I have observed that the feelings of isolation I was getting in December that I thought were because I wasn’t seeing people, were just as much to do with my being on social media. Do you know the feelings? Mild panic? Stabs of anxiety? The feeling of trying to stay afloat in stagnant water when the rest of the world swims with the current? Do you get them as well?
They make you want more.
I don’t want more.
Here’s a question. What do you need social media for? I tell myself I need it for a sense of community, to meet new people and to be able to connect with them directly. I tell myself I need it for news and for learning. I don’t know how long this Freedom app is going to work for but already, it has exposed how little I need social media.
I still love so many aspects of being a Twitter and an Instagram user but I just really don’t want them to consume me anymore. The function of social media apps is to entrap you, and bring you back, again and again, to mindlessly scroll, and reward yourself with that dopamine hit of the like button. I’m hoping if I minimise the time I can be on them, and focus on using it for what I need ( which when I think about it, is very little ) then I can still connect with people and learn new things. Things like Cher wears Uggs now. Crucial learning. Will it work? I’ll keep you updated.